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Wheat is a cereal grass that is one of the most important sources of food in the world. Wheat belongs to the Poaceae family of the genus Triticum. Although wheat exists in numerous different species, it characteristically appears with long slender leaves, heads with a large number of small flowers that yield the seeds, and hollow stems. The most important varieties include Triticum durum, which is used to make various types of pasta, Triticum aestivum, which is used for bread, and Triticum compactum, which is used for baking cakes and biscuits.
Archaeological excavation reveals that wheat was first used in agriculture some 10,000 years ago. The first large-scale wheat farming took place in the Middle East and spread from there to Europe, northern Africa, and across Asia to China. It is not entirely clear whether migrants took the concept of farming wheat with them as they moved, or if the idea and necessary technology arose independently. Farmers developed new strains of wheat better adapted to local environmental conditions and tastes. In addition to crossbreeding, technological improvements included the seed drill, the animalpowered plough, and the use of fertilizers. However, it was not until the 20th century that large-scale, systematic attempts to improve wheat agriculture were made, specifically crossbreeding and the testing of environmental variables. The introduction of Japanese strains of wheat into the Americas is of particular significance, since these varieties helped to improve overall yield by a large amount. Also, attempts to reduce the effects of pests such as locusts, aphids, sawfly, and the wheat bug have improved wheat yields.
Moving into the 21st century, this type of research led to the creation of genetically modified (GM) wheat strains, notably by the American corporation Monsanto. The GM wheat products met with strong consumer resistance in Europe and Canada, although few regulations controlled their use in the United States. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, global wheat production in 2006 will reach 617 million tons, which is slightly below the record output of almost 632 million tons reached in 2004.
The variation is attributed to the effect of weather, especially in important grain growing regions in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. As climate change affects growing conditions and the increasing scarcity of water makes agriculture more difficult, it is expected that the variability in global yields will increase and the cost of crops will also increase. Approximately 70 percent of wheat supply is used for food, and another 18 percent for animal feed. Nearly every country in the world is involved in trading wheat, either by importing or exporting.
The wheat crop is harvested annually and the grains must be kept in suitable conditions to avoid excessive predation. The quality of the crop depends upon variables including the nature and purity of the soil and of the seeds used for sowing. The husks of the grains are threshed and used for different purposes. Many countries maintain specific guidelines with respect to the quality of different grades of wheat. Higher qualities of wheat are valued for nutritional and culinary purposes.
The inherited celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, can cause difficulty in digesting wheat. Gluten is a protein substance that is present in wheat and other cereal grains. People suffering from this disease are required to follow a particular diet to maintain good health. Such problems may increase in the future as the chemical composition of traditional foods is changed and as pollution increases.
- Derek Berwald, Colin Carter, and Guillaume P. Gruere, “Rejecting New Technology: The Case of Genetically Modified Wheat,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics (v.88/2, 2006);
- Alain P. Bonjean and William Angus, eds., The World Wheat Book: A History of Wheat Breeding (Laviosier, 2001);
- Food and Agriculture Organization, “Global Market Analysis: Wheat,” Food Outlook (v.1, 2006);
- Anne Underwood, “The Perils of Pasta,” Newsweek (v.134/15, 1999).