Deconstructing Wheat: The 1st International Conference of Wheat Landraces
The setting for the 1st International Conference of Wheat Landraces in Bologna, Italy was the Alma Mater Studiorum at the University of Bologna – alma is Latin for nourishing/kind, mater for Mother and studiorum for studies – setting the stage for intellectual nourishment to those 122 participants gathered from 22 countries around the world. Alma Mater also refers to Latin Mother Goddesses especially Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. How fitting a scene to listen to the story of landrace wheat unfold.
As I gazed upon the 16th century fresco, the majestic backdrop to the panel of speakers, I found myself marveling at how my own personal history had brought me back to Bologna. My father, a second-generation Italian from Brooklyn attended medical school at the University of Bologna and that is how he met my mother. My mother was born and raised on her grandparents’ farm just outside Bologna. I was visiting with a young sorghum farmer in Asheville a couple of years ago and we were talking about how in such a short period of time – less than 100 years – we had lost touch with our histories, specifically our food stories. She commented that most folks have some link or connection to farming in their family history but most of that connection was lost with the modernization of farming. I shared that I too had farming in my blood but I had no idea what they grew on my great grandparents’ farm – as a child growing up in Brooklyn I only remembered my mother’s stories of having to catch, slaughter and pluck the chickens for dinner! I called my mother that night to discover that they grew wheat, among other things. The stories started to pour out – “why of course we had a small mill where my grandmother milled the grain – and yes I remember her baking bread in the small wood oven”, she said. I couldn’t believe it. I had come full circle, back to the place where my history began to discover how we had lost touch with this most revered of grains.
The goal of the conference was to bring together scientists and researchers from all over the world to discuss landrace wheats with a focus on health and nutrition and food system change. On day one we heard from speakers from diverse countries – Turkey, Israel, Georgia, Italy, the UK, Afghanistan, Belgium, the US, Kazakhstan, Australia – who all shared the same goal of returning landrace wheats to their homes and the challenges that accompany restoring the infrastructure necessary to do so.
The topic of the second day was the current research on the nutritional and medical considerations of ancient and modern wheats – definitely a hot topic (when it comes to wheat sensitivities) for the defenders of gluten and proponents of whole grains. While there is still much research to be done and many factors involved in the digestibility of wheat, including the role of fermentation, it was clear that as compared to modern varieties of wheat, ancient varieties are higher in essential minerals and have a greater diversity of antioxidants and polyphenols.
The final day brought it all together with morning sessions highlighting all the links of the Grain Chain from seed to market. In particular, The GrowNYC’s Greenmarket Regional Grains Project illustrated all the stakeholders necessary to create a small scale local grain economy. The day and conference were wrapped up at a local farm where we were able to see local heritage grain trials in progress and finally break bread together as a community. Andy Clark of Moxie Bread Co. provided fresh baked 100% whole heritage grain baked in a local bakery in Bologna – “It was really rewarding to be able to serve heirloom wheat bread that we had made on site in Bologna to attendees of the farm tour and dinner. We decided to use a little more than half of the flour of a fine ground White Sonora and the remainder Turkey Red. It made for a milder flavor profile and a lighter crumb color and many people were surprised to know that it was 100% whole grain. We didn’t see much in the way of naturally leavened whole grain bread in Bologna and I think that many of the folks eating it were excited to finally eat some hearty wholesome bread.”
Giant thanks to Whole Foods Market and The Bread Baker’s Guild of America for providing support so that I could bring my poster presentation “Growing a Local Grain Movement on the American Great Plains” and the work we are doing regionally to the conversation. Organizations like these who support the research and early stages of this heirloom grain movement will be critical in getting the heavy lifting done now as well as helping to spread the word through research and development, new product development and consumer education.
The grain movement is alive and well and making great strides –now we have only to continue to push it forward by looking at our own stories and re-claiming the nutrition and flavor that were once a part of our community table. “There are so many different groups of people doing very similar work in pockets across the globe, and to be able to convene together and hear first- hand about the successes and failures and progress, it made me feel a little less crazy and alone about my personal commitment to heirloom grain.” says Andy Clark. “There is a movement afoot and it is gaining supporters and momentum. This conference sort of lit the torch- now we need to carry that torch back to our home countries and towns. If wheat variety does in fact help to determine our ability to be digest and consume wheat without ill affect, shouldn’t we all be paying attention to which varieties we plant?”
You too can take part in the conversation and help carry the torch. Watch the conference online at and help build a new vision of food and agriculture.