How Wheat Changed the World

Wheat has been a global food staple for thousands of years. jeka84/Shutterstock

Wheat isn't sexy. At least not in the way that chefs find heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables sexy. It doesn't have the allure of free-range poultry, grass-fed beef or wild-caught fish. Those are terms that make foodies' eyes open wide as they scan a menu.

But wheat? Wheat is a member of the grass family that produces a dry, one-seeded fruit called a kernel that can be ground into flour. What's sexy about that?

Maybe nothing — unless you're a wheat farmer or a researcher trying to develop a new or improved strain of this grain. But sex appeal isn't why we put wheat on our list of 10 foods that changed the world.

Wheat made our list because it's one of three crops (the other two are maize and rice) that have supplied the calories that made it possible for the world's population to race toward 10 billion people. Today, wheat is grown on more land area worldwide than any other food crop.

A History of Wheat

An Uruk plate from a
Created using a seal from 3,000 B.C., this Uruk plate shows a priest with wheat in his hand.

PHGCOM / Louvre Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The story of how wheat found its way into kitchens around the world began thousands of years ago in Iraq, which is where it originated, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. that supports the interests of U.S. wheat farmers. Some of the earliest humans discovered that wheat held a special value, something mankind has been researching and working to improve on ever since.

As far back in time as the Stone Age, humans discovered that they could use rocks to grind grains of wheat to make flour. Unlocking that secret, in fact, may have been one of the key reasons why people began living in communities. Wheat helped our ancient ancestors realize they could grow food as well as follow herds and hunt it.

It took time, though, to figure out a process to crack the kernels open, grind the seeds, sift the grounds into flour and refine the process of cooking with it. Tools were primitive, and the process was difficult.

Eventually, the Egyptians discovered that they could do something very special with wheat. Between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, they became the first people to build ovens and bake loaves of bread.

Thousands of years after this revelation in the shadow of the pyramids, wheat arrived in the American colonies in 1777. The colonists, however, planted wheat as a hobby crop rather than a food crop, according to NAWG. That was destined to change. Over time, American researchers developed significant improvements in production capabilities and the consumption habits of U.S. and global consumers finally turned wheat into the food staple that we know it as today.

Going With the Grain

An advertisement for shredded wheat from 1900
By the 1890s, various cereal and oatmeal products, including shredded wheat, were being pitched to consumers through advertising. Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

One of those improvements was the discovery that the germ (the reproductive part of the plant) and the bran (the outer layer of the grain) could be stripped away in a process called milling. Milling lengthened the time the grains could be stored and also produced a soft, unadulterated white flour. By the early 1800s, many mills had equipment to produce this refined flour, and it became the desired ingredient for baking even though it was more expensive than brown flour.

The 19th century saw other important advances that made wheat flour accessible to the masses. These included the breeding of hardier strains of wheat, improvements in methods of growing and harvesting it, the spread of the railroads to deliver it and the development of better ovens to bake it.

People also found new ways to eat wheat. Companies such as Kellogg and Post created breakfast cereals using wheat in the late 1890s. Oatmeal and Cream of Wheat were also introduced about this time. Wheat consumption slowed during the Great Depression and World War II years, but that would soon change.

In the 1940s and '50s, Norman Borlaug, a University of Minnesota plant pathologist and microbiologist, spent 16 years working with the Rockefeller Foundation to develop new wheat varieties that would help wheat become a a staple grain in diets around the world. His research, which sparked the "Green Revolution," helped develop the wheat industry in the United States and much of the world.

Borlaug, who worked specifically in the wheat fields of Mexico, developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude and with exceedingly high yield potential. He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of work to feed a hungry world, which included his agricultural research achievements and his work in eliminating wheat production challenges. He also founded the World Food Prize and through his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, he is credited with saving more lives than any other person who has ever lived.

Wheat Production in the United States

A wheat farm in Oregon
Farms in 42 states, like this one in Oregon, contribute to global wheat production. Edmund Garman [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Today, the United States is the world's fourth leading producer of wheat.

Only China, the European Union and India produce more wheat than U.S. farmers, according to the USDA. Global wheat production for 2015/2016 will reach 722 MMT, the second largest output on record, according to the U.S. Wheat Associates and the USDA.

More than 160,000 U.S. farms, according to the 2007 Agriculture Census, in 42 states contribute to global wheat production. Most of those farms, about two thirds, are in the Great Plains from Texas to Montana. Nationwide, farmers devote more than 45 million acres to wheat production each year.

"America's wheat farmers are dedicated to producing food for the world's table," said Brett Blankenship, wheat farmer from Washtucna, Washington and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. "Farmers today are facing global food production challenges as the world population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. The agriculture industry must offer innovative solutions to meet global food demands. It is vital to continue the work of Borlaug and advance and improve the wheat industry through improved genetics, hybridization, research and collaboration, highest quality seed, and advances in biotechnology."

The Wonders of Wheat

Wheat research is especially important in the effort to ensure a sustainable global food supply for the current and future generations because more foods are made with wheat than any other cereal grain. It is the third most common crop planted in the country, trailing only corn and soybeans, according to NAWG.

About half of the country's wheat crop is used domestically. Some of the ways that wheat shows up on America kitchen tables is in pan bread, flat breads, hearth breads, rolls and hard rolls, croissants, bagels, pizza crust, cakes, cookies, crackers, pretzels, pastries, couscous, pasta, Asian noodles, general-purpose flour and cereal.

A little wheat goes a long way. One acre of wheat yields an average of 40 bushels. One bushel of wheat can produce:

  • 42 one-and-a-half pound commercial loaves of white bread or 90 one-pound loaves of whole wheat bread
  • 45 24-ounce boxes of wheat flake cereal
  • About 42 pounds of pasta or 210 servings of spaghetti

None of that may sound sexy. But just try to imagine living – or trying to cook – in a world without wheat!