Tombstones, Mummies, Vomitoxin, – three words that are not readily associated with a crusty loaf of bread or a frothy glass of beer. In truth, these are four words used when discussing a common plant disease which can threaten cereal grains like wheat and barley. This potentially devastating disease is caused by the fungus, Fusarium graminearum. Farmers refer to its presence in a field of wheat as Fusarium Head Blight or FHB. I became aware of the potential threat of this disease two seasons ago while conducting grain trials here on my farm in Northern Indiana. The unusually wet spring of 2014, brought the significance of this disease to my attention as I began to notice some tell-tale signs of infection on certain wheat varieties. This last season (2015) brought even more excessive and frequent rains throughout the spring and especially throughout the month of June. Prolonged, rainy and humid conditions are prime for the development and spread of FHB. Needless to say, with22 varieties of wheat and barley in field trials, the disease reared its ugly head again, and this time with a fury! The purpose of this post is to talk about the real threat this disease poses to the overall yield of cereal grains in the US and abroad, and to discuss one incredible tool sustainable farmers are utilizing to address this threat, the reintroduction of Heritage and Ancient grains.
Let me briefly explain the terms I used in this post’s header. They are common words amongst farmers, agricultural researchers, and the food industry which handles and processes grain crops, yet they are virtually unknown to consumers who purchase end products like bread and beer. Firstly, the soil-born fungal disease, Fusarium Head Blight also goes by the lovely name, “Scab” or “Head Scab”. Many healthy stands of wheat and barley may contain small amounts of infection. The real problem comes during prolonged periods of moisture, humidity, and warm weather. If these conditions occur during the flowering period and consecutive grain fill (that is when the pollinated kernels of grain begin to fillout after flowering) then the potential for more severe infection and spread increases. Affected grain heads appear as partially or totally bleached in color. There can
also be the distinctive pinkish-orange color on the grain spikelets. These are the fungal spores. Fields infected with scab can have lower yields and poor kernel development. These small misshapen kernels of infected grain are referred to as “Mummies” and/or “Tombstones”. Lastly, the term “Vomitoxin” (pronouced as vomit-toxin) refers to the mycotoxin “deoxynivalenol” which can be present in infected grain. The name is due to the fact that consuming this toxin in high levels can cause one to vomit, (people who drink to much beer frequently vomit, but usually not after the first glass). The industry has discouraged the use of the term vomitoxin, and prefers the more friendly sounding term, DON, (an acronym for deoxynivalenol). Grain infected with FHB, that does not necessarily mean that the mycotoxin, DON, is present. DON is not considered to be carcinogenic in low doses and the industry has high standards for screening to keep our food supply of wheat and barley free of any dangerous levels of this toxin.
The FDA has set the allowable amount of DON present in finished grain for human consumption at 1 ppm (part per million). For animal feed the threshold is between 5ppm and 10ppm, depending on how the grain is used in feed rations. In the case of the presence of DON, infected grain can be run through a seed cleaner, like a fanning mill or gravity table, to reduce the amount of mycotoxin to a level that is suitable for food grade. These are just some of the facts as I understand them. The primary point I am trying to make is that this disease, which thrives during wet spring/summer conditions, is on the rise due to global weather weirdness. The agricultural industry considers this to be a serious problem. A increase in the frequency of spring and summer precipitation for the grain belt (that is what NOAA predicts), could spell trouble if no solid solutions for FHB are found. This could lead to a very hefty increase in overall food prices, and even worse, the global threat of more expensive beer!!
This last season I was presented with the perfect storm for FHB exposure to my grain trials. The whole midwest experienced excessive rain amounts. In some cases, like here in Northern Indiana , the rainfall hit record breaking totals for the months of May and June. I plant my barley and spring wheat varieties at the very beginning of April. The majority of varieties, including the winter wheat, begins flowering in June (with the exception of my Black Einkorn Wheat, it flowers about a month later). My records show that last June (2015) it rained 16 days out of 30. Four of those were extremely heavy downpours, which can lead to another problem called lodging (grain stalks fall over). I knew by the middle of June that FHB was going to be a major issue. On the one hand it was the absolute worst year to attempt wheat and barley trials. On the other hand, it was the best case scenario for trialing. I could not have created these extreme weather conditions in a lab or university greenhouse, and I got fantastic data on disease, lodging, and yield! Many of the new trials like White Einkorn and Dylan Wheat were major disappointments. Others though, like my strain of brown Einkorn, Banatka Wheat, Red Fife, and Turkey Red did quite well. All the heritage barley varieties did well, and I have a lot of confidence that the Sardinian Barley will be a real “stand-out”!
The increase of disease pressure due to extreme weather events continually pushes me to consider heritage and ancient grain varieties. Farmers in the past have bred and adapted cultivars of wheat that are tolerant to fusarium and other diseases depending upon the diverse geographical regions in which they were developed. Many of these varieties have been lost due to factors like neglect of seed lines and apathy in lieu of more “advanced” cultivars. In light of the loss of such important genetic treasures, it is promising to know there still exists a great number of these varieties tucked away in government and university maintained seed banks around the globe. We are also learning that many of these heritage land-races are still being cultivated by small farmers in both East and West Europe, across Asia, and any other place where wheat had been historically grown and allowed to adapt. Sustainable farmers have the option to look to modern-bred varieties of cereal grains, but they also have the option to tap into these already adapted heritage and ancient varieties that have a diverse gene pool. For me, either of these options makes sense as long as the development of new varieties is accomplished through traditional plant breeding techniques. There are some great current breeding programs underway with an eye for developing new varieties for sustainable and organic farmers. I am especially encouraged by the numerous paticipatory breeding projects where farmers are in the drivers seat! On the other hand, genetically-engineered seed promise the potential for high yields, but is developed to be grown in concert with inputs like chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The current strategy in conventional agriculture for dealing with FHB does take into account the importance of proper tillage and crop rotation, and stresses the need for planting disease-resistant varieties, but it is also beginning to rely more and more on the use of fungicides. Traditionally, dryland wheat and barley farmers rarely resorted to the use of fungicides, but with the increasing occurrence of foliar diseases like leaf rust and FHB, such spraying is becoming automatic.
Heritage and Ancient grains were selected over long periods of time to produce sucessfully
under difficult conditions. They were also adapted to less fertile soils (or should I say, normal soils not pumped up on chemical fertilizers) and dryland farming. What farmers in antiquity accomplished over generations of observation and careful selection, modern corporate agriculture is attempting to do in just a few years. Shortcuts usually do not pay off in the long run, unless of course, the pay off comes via the sale of corporation owned proprietary seed lines, sold in conjunction with corporate fertilizers and pesticides.
While the threat of Head Scab and the dangers of Vomitoxin loom, understand that plant disease is only one of the many problems farmers will face in the near future due to unpredictable weather cycles and extreme weather events. Overlooked and forgotten Heritage and Ancient grain varieties may hold some of the answers to these problems. Not to mention the possibility of great flavor and nutrition. That is a whole other story……
This post will have to be presented in two parts. I am eager to delve into the Heritage and Ancient grains varieties themselves. There is a lot more to the story than Einkorn, Spelt and Emmer.