2022 February-March Analysis

Why it’s worth saving Georgia’s indigenous wheat varieties

Ancient grains local to Georgia can offer more sustainable agriculture production, and enhance adaptation and productivity in stress-prone environments that will be able to cope with current climate changes. But it will be an uphill battle to convince farmers and the state to embrace indigenous varieties as viable alternatives.

Slowly but surely, Georgia’s unique native wheat varieties are gaining recognition. Not all (an Ilia State University study lists 150 forms of wheat registered in the 1940s), but increasing attention is being paid to safeguarding a heritage going back thousands of years, with some landrace varieties named in the Bible (Asli, Dika and Ipkli) still growing in Georgia.

Recognition of these heritage grains is extremely important for the growers of Georgian wheats. Verification and certification are steps on the route to attractive pricing, grants and international product markets.

And there is an expanding consumer market out there as heritage grains are increasingly popular both for the tasty bread they make as well for their nutrition value and digestion-friendly, naturally balanced, simple gluten structure – in contrast to industrial grains used worldwide.

However, without commercial success, campaigns to save them will fail, says the founder and chair of the Georgian Wheat Growers Association (GWGA) Lali Meskhi, who started to push this cause in Georgia seven years ago and set up the association in 2017.

Historically, before giant US grain corporations’ domination of global trade, farmers would trade or exchange grains between themselves, knowing which suited different terrains or weather, and which had differing harvest times. However, in Georgia (as in most developed countries) Meskhi points out, there are now legal restraints on what grain seeds can be traded. “Certification is now obligatory by law for selling seeds and only the species that are registered in the National Catalogue can be certified.”

This catalogue, which houses all the species (indigenous and imported) that have been tested and proved to be good for use in Georgian soil, now includes two heritage grains, Dika and Tsiteli Doli. “The advantage of certification for heritage grains, I believe, is that the high-quality seeds will give higher yields, and thus farmers’ interest will grow, as will concerns for safeguarding the purity of the species”, says Meskhi.

Why recognition is so important

The extent to which ancient grains are growing in popularity among consumers internationally is borne out by research from New York’s Cornell University and North Dakota State University, which have a heritage grain project started in 2012 that has spread across the whole northeast of the US: “After a century of markets dominated by a few types of wheat and white flour, ancient and heritage wheat varieties are making a comeback,” the study states. “Restaurants and bakeries that promote organic and local agriculture have sprouted across the country in the last decade, meeting a rising consumer demand for tasty and nutritious foods that support an ethic of sustainability.”

In addition to higher yields, these heritage landrace grains offer another major advantage – their stable yield capacity. Evolving as they have naturally over millennia in fluctuating local weather conditions and in a wide range of habitats, these grains are able to offer vital clues to scientists on plant resistance to the stresses of climate change and diseases. For this reason, there is increasing interest among not just scientists, but breeders and farmers in most western countries and advocacy of them by consumer groups – such as the Slow Food Movement and Slow Grains!

However, it will be a long time before Georgia’s heritage grains might help with the national wheat short-fall problem. In Georgia, the pace of regeneration is currently being held back by the small amount of grain available to be shared among Georgian farmers, seed banks and others. “Regeneration is hindered by absence of recognition of its value by the state; hence, there are no support programs; it cannot compete with high yield industrial wheat. Imported wheat and flour (from Russia) accounts for more than 85% of consumption and influences prices and wheat growers do not enjoy subsidies or insurance schemes,” says Lali Meskhi.

Farmer numbers are growing. GWGA membership has risen from seven to 100 in the last four years and the number of hectares planted with heritage wheat varieties have tripled since 2017. But only time will make any major difference to this supply problem as campaigns build momentum.

Safeguarding Georgian grains

Key steps have been taken, led by the GWFA, to promote Georgian heritage wheat classification internationally and (along with qvevri wine-making, polyphonic singing and the three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet) it is now on UNESCO’S list as a National Monument of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Thus, Georgian wheat cultivation (endemic species and landraces) and associated “artisan baking and cultural traditions” are now officially recognized.

The next step has been taken, and a submission for Georgia wheat culture has been made for UNESCO nomination as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. “We have to resubmit the amended text by March 2022. UNESCO experts advised to focus more on traditions and customs than on wheat itself. It will take them a year or so to come back, then the committee of 24 countries has to vote, perhaps by the end of 2023,” says Lali Meskhi.

Regeneration of the grains is listed as a priority in Georgia’s Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and Agriculture Development Strategy. Meanwhile, action plans are being prepared under the initiative of the Scientific-Research Center for Agriculture of the Ministry of Environment and Agriculture (MEA). This envisages the creation of a geo-information base of genetic resources of the grains stored in gene banks in Georgia and abroad.

There is a safeguarding plan as a part of the UNESCO submission, to mark the Government’s obligation for safeguarding. The safeguarding group consists of the relevant Government agencies including the Scientific-Research Center, GWGA (initiator), and other NGOs including the Georgian organic organisation Elkana and private sector/farmers.

Why now?

The importance of bringing the land races out from the marginal land and field edges to which most have been side-lined, into the mainstream of crop production, is emphasised by researchers at Italy’s Research Center for Cereal and Industrial Crops in Foggia (known as the granary of Italy) in a report “Importance of Landraces in Cereal Breeding for Stress Intolerance”.

They, as do reports from scientists generally, regret the land races’ disappearance as a source of diversity as a result of aging rural populations and mass migrations to cities which have resulted in the abandonment of traditional agricultural practices.

“The renewed focus on cereal landraces is a response to some negative consequences of modern agriculture and conventional breeding which led to a reduction of genetic diversity. Cereal landraces are still cultivated on marginal lands due to their adaptability to unfavourable conditions, constituting an important source of genetic diversity usable in modern plant breeding to improve adaption to abiotic or biotic stresses, yield performance and quality traits in limiting environments.

The researchers add: “Traditional agriculture production systems have played an important role in the evolution and conservation of wide variability in gene pools within species. Today, on-farm and ex-situ conservation in gene bank collections, together with data-sharing among researchers and breeders, will greatly benefit cereal improvement.”

Introduction of the landraces into plant breeding programs will, they suggest, increase “more sustainable agriculture production, particularly enhancing adaptation and productivity in stress-prone environments to cope with current climate changes.”

Yet the path of landrace wheats back into the mainstream of agriculture is far from easy, as a not atypical story from Turkey shows. Academics at Izmir and Istanbul universities, in a paper titled “Seed politics in Turkey: the awakening of a landrace wheat and its prospects” detail the struggle to extricate the now highly popular Karakılçık landrace and others from the ramifications of a new Seed Law. While in general wheat production in Turkey “as in most countries relies on the use of high-yielding hybrid varieties” following 1970s programs to commercialise and commodify agriculture, older subsidence farmers in poor mountain areas stuck with local landraces, for food and bread.

However, a 2006 Seed Law outlawed the commercial trade of landrace seeds in an attempt to commercialize a formal seed system. This created widespread criticism and discontent, not only among small farmers but also the strongly health-minded Turkish middle-class which was “active in creating linkages between rural producers and urban consumers through small-scale food trade”. And many particularly liked the taste of bread made from the Karakılçık and other landraces.

Political platforms sprang up all over Turkey to defend the landraces, local campaigns by scientists, politicians and consumer groups linking with international ones against international industrial farming, genetically modified crops and in favour of local produce, local seed-swap fairs, organic food and sustainability. A first seed-swap festival was organised in 2010 and more followed, along with protests, in the coming years.

As a result of the continuing furore, in 2018 Turkish law was relaxed, although only a little. But it did mean that traditional seeds could be produced and cultivated in the region where they originated. So far the actions of the GWGA and Elkana and others, both local and international, have begun to give protection to Georgia’s landrace grains. To check on the product as a consumer you can taste the bread from them at Jean-Jacques little shop in Vera’s Mikheil Zandukeli Street, Au Blé, and bakeries ‘Kakhelebi’ at Akaki Beliashvili Street or Purista at Berbuki Street.