Issue 3, 2016. June-July

   

SAVING GEORGIA'S THREATENED ANCIENT WHEATS

Prized by agriculturists abroad, Georgia's endemic varieties of wheat are making a slow, quiet comeback after years of neglect.

Sally White

Georgia could just as well be described as the "cradle of wheat" as the "cradle of wine." The lands between the Caucasus mountain ranges are regarded by scientists and named by the United Nations as a "biological hotspot" for many plants. For wheat, over half—14 out of 27—of the world's known varieties are registered in Georgia, five of them endemic. Grains named in the oldest Georgian translations of the Bible ("Asli," "Dika," and "Ipkli") are still around.

Grapes and grain have two different stories. Georgia's indigenous grape varieties and wineries, both large and small, are enjoying commercial success across the world. Yet the country's farmers of ancient, Georgian heritage grains have only a minute part of even the domestic market, let alone the global one.

Globally, the ancient Georgian "land-race" varieties—regional ecotypes which adapted over centuries to local conditions— are revered and collected by world plant gene banks. Agriculturists want them because they thrive in harsh conditions and are thus sought after to develop strains that will survive global warming. Nutritionists recommend them because they have a relatively simple gluten structure, which many say makes them easier to digest — the U.S.-based Oldways Whole Grains Council is just one party to research that indisputably proves this. These strains were around long, long before grains began to be hybridized to deliver mega-yields, which particularly, in recent years, have brought dietary challenges for many consumers.

An Artisan Revival

Just as its heritage grains are in danger of dying out, Georgia's artisan food producers are beginning to adopt them. This is very necessary, as while Georgia's Biological Farming Association, Elkana, has run projects to include these heritage grains in a national seed bank, only commercial success will ensure their survival on any meaningful scale. Otherwise, they will exist merely on the edges of fields and in uplands as relicts of history. Or they will, as with some Elkana farmers (especially those taking part in its UN-funded 2009 Samtskhe-Javakheti program), be grown for subsistence only as a hardy, adaptable crop that may produce lower yields but needs no chemicals.

Fortunately, these grains are not only healthy but also produce delicious, nutty-tasting bread. Hence some of Tbilisi's new restaurants, Mukha on Perovskaya, for example, and wine bars, such as Vino Underground on Galaktion Tabidze Street are showing interest. And for several years now, Vake shoppers have enjoyed the village stall (across from Goodwill) of Frenchman Jean Jacques Jacob, who brings organic produce, salads, eggs, cheeses and heritage-grain bread from the village where he farms in Kakheti.

The latest pioneer is Lali Meskhi, who, after a career in international development, has opened a bakery, Mzatamze, which uses only these grains. The shelves in her bakery — of course an organic one — are stacked with brown and white loaves of wheat, rye and sweet breads. It smells warm and fragrant with their scents. Over the next few weeks the bread will begin to be sold in shops across Tbilisi.

She, Jean Jacques Jacob, and most others who produce bread from Georgian heritage grains, are using Georgia's Meskhetian Red Doli wheat (Tsiteli Doli), a soft wheat which spread over all of Georgia. Its ancestor (as recorded in a paper on "The ancient wheats of Georgia and their traditional use in the southern part of the country" written by Elkana's director, Mariam Jorjadze, among others) was Triticum aestivum. Remnants of this grain have been found in Neolithic materials in Western Georgia and materials of the Eneolithic Age in Eastern Georgia.

Georgian soft wheat varieties are used to derive modern wheat species, commented Jorjadze in her paper: "Regrettably, these wheat species are critically endangered in Georgia. Fortunately, they are known and conserved in genebanks abroad." The U.S. and France have latched on to Tsiteli Doli, including it their gene banks, and farmers in the south of France are using it, calling it Caucasus Rouge.

However, says Meskhi, finding enough of the wheat is no easy task. Hence, her plan is to do what Jacques has done: grow her own. In any event, this is something that has long been in her mind, since the grain was recommended by her nutritionist several years ago. Plus, she thinks increasing production of these ancient varieties is the only way to improve the quality of Georgian bread.

Seeds of Sustainability

For Meskhi, Georgian wheat is of particular interest, coming as she has from a background of building sustainability in Georgia. She sees huge potential in Georgian wheat, having spent the last five years managing a United Nations Development project to develop agriculture—crops for human and animal food being key — tourism and environmental education. Beyond domestic consumption, however, there are opportunities arising from wheat's tremendous strategic importance in food security and trade globally.

"Georgian wheats are not just delicious and good for the health of those who eat the bread made from them," says Meskhi.

"They can improve food security because of their resistance to nutrient, water and climate stress. So, they are important not just to Georgia, but to the world, and we should be promoting them much more widely."

She intends to make sure that Georgia does!

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