RE-IMAGINING WHEAT FOR REGIONAL MARKETS AND AGROECOSYSTEMS
Curwen-McAdams, Colin A.
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The commodification of wheat and its ubiquity in food, society and agriculture belies its potential to contribute to the ecology, nutrition and economies of regional food systems. The craft and science of plant breeding has the potential to guide the adaptation of the crop to grow in regions where it could serve the needs of communities and support the land on which it is cultivated. Wheat is grown as an annual crop with all species of Triticum senescing at grain maturity. As a commodity it is sold based on rigidly defined quantitative quality parameters and a few quantitative characteristics related to planting season, seed color and seed hardness. Exploring the genetic, cultural and economic potential of the crop outside of those requirements requires re-imaging the crop for regional agroecosystems where it might have utility but not dominate production. Genetic diversity exists for both blue and purple coloration of wheat seeds that do not fit the red or white requirement of the commodity markets. By breeding varieties that incorporate these novel colors it might be possible to preserve their identity in regional markets. Testing new varieties during the breeding process specifically for whole wheat baking quality maximizes their utility and nutrition for the communities that grow them. The largest shift in re-imagining wheat is converting it from an annual to perennial crop. While there is not variation within Triticum spp. for perennial growth, some related genera with perennial habit are capable of producing viable offspring through hybridization. Lack of homology between parental genomes limits recombination and complicates transmission of chromosomes during meiosis. Years of breeding efforts have shown that it is possible to stabilize partial amphiploids that contain the three genomes of bread wheat with an additional genome from the perennial relative. Removing the constraints of the commodity market through color and growth habit offers an opportunity to focus on qualities of the crop that are relevant to the area where it is being produced. Outside of those restrictions, the evolution of the crop becomes the responsibility of plant breeders working in conversation with farmers, millers, bakers and chefs.