May 21st-23rd 2018 – Land of wheat

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Well, here we are at the other end of Shavuot, continuing with the intriguing story of wheat.

In the previous episode, we discussed the “mother of ancient wheat” discovered by Aharon Aharonson, and wheat domestication by farmers via selection and the process of trial and error. This change was crucial for humankind to grow wheat, but s/he created what is known in science as a “bottleneck,” for only the species which carried the characteristics suitable for agriculture were chosen, decreasing the biological variety. Thus, In the process of wheat domestication, some important properties were lost, like its durability in the face of disease and dryness, as well as a higher nutritional value of the wheat grains.

When Aharonson discovered the wild wheat, he predicted research would be important not only for the historical value to understand human cultural and agricultural development, or that of botanic and wild plants, but also because he understood the notion of bottleneck, and foresaw a future when we would need the features lost in the process of wheat domestication that exist in wild wheat. And thus he wrote: “In the process of separation and crossbreeding, we will be able to extract (from this new wild grain, the mother of wheat) species which will survive in dry land, as well as in places that are high and cold […] This research will not only serve history and botany, but will carry an economic advantage, perhaps even a social one. The aim is to enable the production of more bread at lower cost in places which bread production remains expensive and difficult, allowing the manufacture of bread in places which to date have been impossible.” (Aharon Aharonson, agricultural and botanical research in Palestine, 1910.) From his agricultural research center in Atlit, Aharonson was probably the first scientist in the world attempting to crossbreed cultured plants with their wild forefathers to improve them.

Despite the bottleneck it encountered, wheat turned out to be a very flexible and adaptive crop, and in the thousands of years since it was domesticated, it has spread to almost every part of the world, managing to adapt itself to various territories and climates. Traditional farmers across the globe grew wheat in different places, sometimes with wheat species unique to the different villages along with culture, tradition, ceremonies and holidays connected to it. And of course, it brought along a magnificent food culture.


But we will let go of “the agricultural revolution” and the cultivation of wheat, which took place some 10,000 years ago, and jump to the 20th century and “the green revolution.” These are the years following two world wars, when the world was piecing itself together and trying to recover. Traumatic years of hunger and deprivation, as well as gloomy prophecies of population growth and world hunger were of great concern and the future seemed bleak. Ammunition factories still had lots of ammonia, the raw material used to create ammo, and also… synthetic agricultural fertilizer which can speed up the yield. It seemed like the perfect solution, and thus, the ammunition factories underwent a “career change” and moved to produce synthetic fertilizers for advanced agriculture.

In the wheat fields, this synthetic fertilizing caused the growth of heavy-grained stalks. The traditional species were tall and the stalks were unable to carry the weight, leading to a phenomenon of stalks lying on the ground. This, in turn, created diseases and rotting, and harvesting became more difficult. Science was enlisted to solve the problems and – by crossbreeding miniature wheat species found in Japan with disease-resistant species – they succeeded in developing a partially miniature species which could stand erect and carry the weight of the stalk in addition to producing a large amount of seeds (less energy in the plant was wasted on the stalk and leaves, enabling it to produce more seeds). The scientist most identified with this revolution is an American agronomist named Norman Borlaug who worked in Mexico, India, Pakistan and other developing countries, winning the Nobel Prize for Peace for his contribution to the prevention of world hunger. Yet again, it seemed like a win-win solution and the Western world basked in years of barley nutrition security.

Right? hmmm…. Not quite. Remember that first bottleneck? Well, now a second one was created, narrower than its predecessor. Traditional wheat growing was replaced by industrial methods, and within half a century almost all the wheat in the world was virtually identical, with a very narrow genetic diversity, resulting in the wheat being far more vulnerable to pests, diseases or extreme climate change. If one thing destroys the popular species, it will quickly spread and destroy everything without the ability to protect them with other species carrying different characteristics. The Great Famine in Ireland  – a terrible agricultural trauma when the entire country’s potato yield crashed due to the blight – is a reminder of the dangers of such genetic uniformity.

Unfortunately, a similar thing happened in our very own country. At the beginning of the last century there was almost only traditional agriculture. Most of the wheat growing here was Durum Wheat (T. Durum), for pitta baking – the local bread at the time. Hundreds of different wheat species grew in the Arab villages, each village or area sporting its own local flour grinder, baking culture, and agricultural traditions unique to their microclimate and distinctive soil. Regretfully, the Jewish settlers, who had studied agriculture and science, treated the traditional Arab farming with contempt, believing they knew better and strived for progressive modernity. Thus, improved species of bread wheat were imported to the country, producing softer wheat and a taller yield. In the seventies, the half-miniature species were brought over, and the local heritage species were abandoned. The imported species were given Hebrew names and within a few decades only we seemed to lose the very precious and early agricultural tradition.

And yet, over the years, there were singular exceptions who realized the importance of collecting and saving the traditional species. They did it on their own accord, without any support or institution to back them up, under unsuitable conditions. These were Professor Moshe (Musik) Feldman of the Weizmann Institute, Professor Mordechai Kislev of Bar Ilan University, and Dr. Yakov Matityah from the Volcani Institute. Over the 70’s and 80’s, these individuals carefully collected dozens of heritage wheat samplings. They were driven by ideology, but without any organizational body. The species were not professionally preserved and not sprouted every few years to maintain their vitality. Over the last year, a unique redeeming project was established, Eretz HaChita (Land of Wheat), led by Bizi Goldberg, who independently researches the wheat, along with researchers Avi Levi of the Weizmann Institute, Dr. Roy Ben David of the Volcani Institute and Dr. Einav Meizlish Getti, director of the National Gene Bank at the Volcani Institute. The project has succeeded in assembling, categorizing and identifying the species collected in the country, as well as other wheat species from Israel which somehow made their way to various seed banks worldwide. The specie remnants grow in research hothouses in the Volcani Institute and the Weizmann Institute, aimed at producing fresh vital seeds. At the same time, research is conducted to examine the genetic and morphologic features of the traditional species.

Remember Aharonson? Now, the aim is not only to preserve tradition, but also to produce a fundamental and vital assembly of some hundred heritage species which will serve as an anchor for future research and the cultivation of species.

Here is a fascinating article about this topic written by Ronit Vered for Ha’aretz about a year ago. (Hebrew)

One example of such research is the wheat genetic charting taking place in agricultural and botanic research over the past years. The wild wheat grains carry a higher level of nutrition than the cultured wheat. This is a result of a natural process taking place at the end of growth season, when the plant dies and the nutrients accumulated in the leaves and stalks transport themselves to the grains in order to promise continuity for a coming generation. This process, which takes place efficiently and quickly in the wild wheat, allows for a higher quantity of protein and mineral in its grains.

Nearly a decade ago, a crew of Israeli and Californian scientists discovered the gene that is responsible for the efficiency and speed of this process, and scientists hope that deciphering the genetic continuum will allow additional enhancements of the wheat by genetic engineering and making it compatible to other realms of growth.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the wheat tale engulfs tradition and progress, heritage and modernity, running ahead and taking a step back. It bears the circular movement so prevalent in our lives, where we encounter the familiar at every turn we make, except that the angle is different. It encompasses diverse and inclusive community, intense land-working and the aspiration to live a modest though reasonable life. And it is a reminder that the key is diversity and natural increase, and that denying the past or “the other,” ignoring the achievements of those who preceded us or abandoning the wisdom of others leads to reduction, a thin, restricting and dangerous bottleneck.

This movement is evident, too, in the biblical ceremony of the first fruits (bikkurim), when the farmer bringshis first fruit of the year, and at that moment is required to remember his forefather Abraham, the exodus to Egypt, the exile and arrival in the Promised Land. And at this point in the past, the blessing rounds it up to the present: “And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.” And upon delivering the gift of the first fruits to God, he joins in a community celebrating in which everyone participates: “And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you.”

May we enjoy a post-first-fruit week, and a season of abundance and generosity.

Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Yochai and the Chubeza team



Monday: Carrots, acorn squash, lettuce, cucumbers/fakkus, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, Swiss chard/kale, zucchini, garlic, cilantro/parsley.   

Large box, in addition: Onions, melon/cabbage, bell peppers/string beans.

Wednesday: Carrots, butternut or acorn squash, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, garlic, cilantro/parsley, string beans.

Large box, in addition: Onions, Swiss chard/kale, melon/bell peppers/fakkus.