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Table 1 The bottom line for farmers in Syria and Iraq
Selling price of a tonne of wheat
increased earnings from 20% yield gain
Savings from two fewer ploughings
Savings from reduced seed rate
CA improves farmer profitability by
net economic benefit in 2010–11 from area under
The ‘invenTion’ of wheaT
BY GIO BrAIDOttI
in 2010, wheat was grown on more land than any other commercial
food—240 million hectares—and world trade in wheat was greater than
for all other crops combined. World production totalled 651 million tonnes,
second only to maize and roughly on par with rice (672 million tonnes).
it is an amazing success story. Wheat was one of the first cereals ever
domesticated, originating in the eastern Mediterranean region spanning
southern Turkey, north-western iraq, syria, lebanon, jordan, israel,
Palestine, cyprus, the sinai Peninsula and the ethiopian Highlands.
Recent findings narrow the first domestication of wheat to a small region
of south-eastern Turkey in about 9000 Bce (although exploitation of wild
wheat dates back to 23,000 Bce). domestication is considered a key factor
in the emergence of city-based societies including those in the nile delta,
and in the Babylonian and assyrian empires.
With domestication came technological innovation, primarily to
facilitate tillage as a way to loosen and aerate the soil, mix in nutrients and
destroy weeds. Tillage, too, began in the eastern Mediterranean, first in the
form of digging sticks 12,000 years ago and evolving into spades and then
triangular blades. The first wooden ploughs were likely pulled by farmers,
with animals recruited about 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (the area
between the Tigris and euphrates rivers in iraq, north-eastern syria and
Throughout early history, soil tillage had more in common with current
Wheat shortages write history
some consider drought’s impact on already-
declining wheat harvests as a factor in the
timing of the arab spring uprising. This would
not be the first instance of crediting wheat
shortages with shaping geopolitical history.
drought on the heel of crop failures
triggered by the laki eruption in iceland in
1783 are considered a trigger for the French
in europe at the time, bread was essential
to survival for most peasants and grain
trade was highly regulated to ensure prices
remained stable and affordable. king louis
Xv of France even earned the nickname
the ‘Baker king’ due to his keen interest in
regulatory activity around bread.
French peasants existed at the subsistence
level, growing just enough grain to pay their
taxes and have some left over to eat and plant
the following year.
it was a precarious food security situation,
with extreme weather, war and disease
capable of reducing peasants to penury. a few
bad years in a row could cause widespread
famine and death.
during 1789, bread riots were especially
common in France. The unrest leading to
the Fall of the Bastille on 14 july 1789, in the
early stages of the French Revolution, actually
began as a search for arms and grain.
conservation agriculture than with modern ploughing practices due to
the intense labour involved. To plough one hectare with animal traction, a
farmer typically has to walk 30–40 kilometres.
With the industrial Revolution came the next wave of innovation,
starting with jethro Tull (1674–1741), who revolutionised horse-drawn farm
machinery, and culminating in the replacement of animals with tractors.
Many farmers and agricultural experts started to believe that the more they
tilled, the higher the yield they achieved. Powerful ploughs became icons of
The combination of wheat and plough proved incredibly adaptable.
Wheat is able to grow from near-arctic regions to the equator, from sea
level to the plains of Tibet at 4,000 metres above sea level. european
colonial powers took wheat and the modern plough to north and south
america, asia, australia and africa, where it became a primary tool for
developing newly cultivated land.
But the same techniques that brought bounteous harvests in cool,
wet regions were gradually found to condemn farmland in warmer climates
to soil erosion and degradation. The last landmasses to adopt the plough
were also the first to abandon it in favour of conservation agriculture and
With australian aid to the Middle east, the circle is completed, as the
youngest among adopters of wheat return to the region of its origin with
technology to sustain production into the future.
headed by iCArDA’s Dr Mohammed el-Mourid
who is based in tunisia. the project targets
rainfed, dual cereal–livestock farms (of less
than 20 ha) and aims to use CA technology to
reduce yield fluctuations, production costs and
it is noteworthy that these activities take place
in a region frequently cited by archaeologists as
the ‘cradle’ of both the domestication of wheat
and the invention of tillage.
these were technological innovations that
radically facilitated the evolution of human
societies into city-states and ignited the
spread of cereal cultivation around the world,
including most recently to Australia. it is now
Australia’s opportunity to return the favour,
giving back to the cradle of agriculture some
important innovations that render farming
“A lot of people are talking about this
technology in terms of a zero-tillage revolution,”
Dr Piggin says. “it is certainly a revolution in
terms of the way in which farmers are growing
their crops, the gains in productivity and the
enthusiasm with which it is adopted.”
researchers at iCArDA used field trials in
Syria and iraq to calculate savings and increased
earnings from the adoption of agronomic
innovations developed for farmers in the CA
project (table 1). n
P R oj ec T: ciM/2008/027: development
of conservation cropping systems in the
drylands of northern iraq 2008–2015
conTac T: dr eric Huttner, aciaR crop
improvement and management,
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