Ancient Wheat and Climate Change

There are many aspects to the coming crisis of climate change, but one that gets less attention than it should is food. Without food and water there is no humanity. We are already seeing the drying up of rivers and lakes, the melting of glaciers, and the scarcity of fresh water in many places all over the world. But in a world that is increasingly hot and dry, how will we grow and produce enough food to feed the growing population of humanity on planet earth?
That is why a recent article on the BBC news site caught my attention. The article was about wheat. It turns out, in England there is a seed bank and museum of various strains of wheat collected from all over the world going back to 1700. There is even a wheat specimen collected by Captain Cook on one of his voyages to the South Pacific. What is potentially so important about this seed bank is that much of the wheat was collected before the advent of modern agriculture and the invention of wheat strains to maximize production. Some of this stored archival wheat is “landrace” wheat, wild strains some of which can grow in hotter and dryer climates than the ones that present-day wheat is grown in today.
The article says, “Modern wheat crops are struggling. The green revolution in the 1950s and 1960s led to farmers growing the varieties that produced the most grain. But this pursuit of producing the biggest harvests meant that other varieties were put aside – including crops able to cope with extremes – and the diversity of wheat was reduced.”
It is heartening to see that just in this one specialized arena of wheat production adjustments are being made to return to an earlier state of species diversity. But I was also struck by the larger picture: that in so many ways—perhaps in every way—humanity is going to have to re-discover and retool the infinite ways in which we have meddled with nature, and disturbed the balance that naturally once existed before people became so dominant and populous on planet earth. Our nearly supernatural ability as a hyper-intelligent species to fuss and meddle with ways to distort and change the natural environment to suit our short-term survival and profitability needs is failing, and will continue to fail ever more catastrophically until we experience a species-wide epiphany of humility and realize that we are really not masters of our fate at all, we are victims of our own infernal cleverness. Whether that epiphany will come in time to avert a planet-wide catastrophe is unknown at this point, though so far the signs are not terribly hopeful.
Wheat: there was a time when the domestication and cultivation of wild grain, and the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian life was a giant discovery on a par with the invention of the wheel or the taming of fire. We’ve been beating our chests with pride ever since, though the myth of Prometheus, who was tortured for eternity by the other gods for the crime of sharing the secret of fire with mortal humans, shadows us. We are the lords of nature that wheat made, along with corn, and rice, and barley. Rice alone to this day supplies the calories and survival for nearly half of humanity. It’s not clear when this transformation to agriculture happened—probably in the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. That’s a long time compared to one human lifetime, but only a blink of an eye in the history of our whole species, much less the history of the planet. When the cosmic history of planet earth is written—if it is ever written—its authors can say, for a brief shining moment human beings tweaked the earth and its delicate balances to serve the needs of us, the great apes, but the moment didn’t last long. And now we are paying the price.
Maybe the problem is in that very brevity of a single generation, and a single human lifetime. Few remember vividly what happened even fifty years ago—I was just out of college then, so I do remember—much less a few hundred or a few thousand years ago. You can read books and study history, but in reality the sands of time shift so fast, and cover so much, that collectively the lessons of the past disappear as fast as they are laid down. We don’t remember when we changed wheat, no-one knows who it was who tossed away the hundreds of wild varieties that didn’t suit the moment or the weather of that era. Now, haltingly, due to the dedication of scientists here and there like the ones in England who are collecting the wild strains, or the custodians of the larger seed bank in the northern snows of Norway who are preserving the seeds of all our foods in case of nuclear holocaust and other catastrophe, we are trying to remember and heal.
Remembering is hard, healing is hard, and the rush of the urgent needs of the present day overwhelm us like a great flood; but a few guardians, a few harborers of ancient lore remain. In the end, our larger fate may rise or fall largely with them.
Let’s hope.


One thought on “Ancient Wheat and Climate Change

  1. Lew,
    Good reminders of what’s been lost, what we still have, and the challenges we face now and in the future. For those who are waking up, may we take care of ourselves and the connections we still have to the ancient rhythms of life.

Comments are closed.