Learning about the past to understand the future – Australian Grains Genebank 2018

In December 2018 we started off on our three month holiday-bakery-tour-extravaganza-thingy, the first stop, of course, was the iconic Red Beard bakery in Trentham where we were put up for the night by John and got to hang out for a bake. From there we headed west for a quick visit to my parents’ house in Pomonal (images below). This was the perfect spot to stop off and rest, re-stock and prepare. Then we were off to the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham which happened to be on the way as we headed towards South Australia. We’d heard about the Genebank through discussions with people at GraiNZ and we’d also just happened to have picked up a copy of ‘The viking in the wheatfield’ from John during our visit to Red Beard.

Brief interlude here: Grainz is an annual gathering of bakers, farmers, millers, brewers and anyone who wants to listen, learn or share their thoughts on figuring out how to rebuild regional grain economies that benefit the health of the land and people. Initially this started out as BreadEd, being bread education, based on something similar that was already happening in the US. A grass roots gathering of bakers that got together to talk about bread and all things bready such as sharing recipes, processes and general opinions on sourdough, flour and grains. Over time this grew to encompass a wider reach, looking at the supply network and industries that support our humble loaf and the key issues of all the players in this network. BreadEd became GraiNZ which in 2022 came under the wing of the Australian Sovereignty Food Alliance, an association focused on developing sustainable food systems.

‘The Viking in the wheatfield’ is a story of the scientists, wheat breeders and farmers who were brought together with the intention of preserving, multiplying and cataloging wheat genetic resources. These wheat breeders were working to combat several issues specifically in fighting diseases such as stem rust that were capable of spreading and wiping out crops globally, but within a wider context of reducing global poverty and famine. Several agricultural changes in the 1900’s also acted as influencing agents in the need to preserve the world’s seed, namely development of genetically modified crops, globalization, privatization of agricultural products and processes, climate change and global warming.

Norman Borlaug was a key player in the history of wheat breeding around the mid 1900s. He developed varieties of grains that had such high yields they could double or even triple a country’s food production. These varieties were shared around the world to help combat a global food crisis. While they were able to grow in many different climates and helped to feed millions of people by yielding greater amounts in a smaller space (food crisis over, right?) these varieties came with a catch. These crops needed a lot of irrigation and inorganic fertiliser inputs, making them unsustainable and damaging to the soils in the long term. While these high yielding grains offered benefits such as reducing malnutrition in developing countries, these crops became so prevalent “fields became monoculture of genetically identical plants” and thus susceptible to the same diseases. What results is a global food market that seems to have forgotten the benefits of diversity.

Bent Skovmand was another key player in wheat breeding history, carrying out research with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (CIMMYT) which Borlaug was the director of. In the process of his research Skovmand built one of the largest collections of wheat seeds. His ideals of the genetic research being open and accessible to the public is reflected in the collaborative collection and storage of seeds across the many genebanks of the world. There are now more than 1,700 genebanks worldwide and in 2008 the Svalbard ‘Doomsday’ Vault, perhaps the most well known seed bank, opened in northern Norway, being the world’s largest seed storage and housing millions of carefully protected seeds including Skovmand’s collection.

As you can see, from this book we were exposed to the world of plant breeding and world seed banks and beginning to realise just how many different varieties of grains, seeds, legumes, beans, etc. there are.

This brings us back to our Genebank tour and you can now see why us two bakers were so interested in seeing a seedbank firsthand. When we arrived at the Genebank in Horsham, on a very, very hot December day, we were greeted by Dr. Sally for a tour of the facility. Whilst there she gave us an overview on the world of storing genetic material for plant breeding and research, she spoke about sharing information freely with the public and collaborating on research projects. We were able to see how the grains and seeds were stored in massive freezer rooms at -20 degrees Celsius and we got a glimpse of the variety of grains they had (something like 100,000 different varieties at the time including barley, lentils, peas and some super cool, wild and native chickpeas!).

We also learnt how the grains and seeds were kept viable, being planted out in test plots just outside the window of the work room, then harvested by hand. They did this after a variety had spent a certain amount of time in long term cold storage, to test or study a variety or to keep the stock replenished, to ensure that they had viable amounts to give out and to keep in storage.  She explained the process of how anyone can request and have small amounts of seed sent out to get started with. This sparked the idea of one day wanting to try my hand at growing some different and interesting varieties myself. Of course in my head I was thinking what’s the funnest and most exciting grains I’ve heard about recently and how great it would be to grow those. Luckily the road trip that we were about to head out on gave me some much needed insight and perspective.

by Nick @breadandmadness

Further reading

  • To learn more on GraiNZ have a search through Instagram for @_grainz_ and follow the link in their bio to watch the talks and demonstrations from the gathering in 2019.
  • Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance website words its purpose better than we could attempt to paraphrase – http://afsa.org.au
  • ‘The viking in the wheatfield’, 2009, by Susan Dworkin. An interesting introduction on the history of wheat breeding.