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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I, Grains
This "cereal that refuses to die" deserves better treatment from science and commerce. Its economic importance in Ethiopia alone makes it worthy of research attention. However, there might also be worldwide interest. Already, small projects to restore it to widespread modern use are under way in the United States and France (see box). The plant grows in a wide range of environments and can be produced in many parts of the world. The fact that it is the wheat family's "living fossil," little changed from wheat eaten in the times of the Bible and the Koran could give it special consumer appeal. But it can also stand on its own culinary merits. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote that emmer wheat makes the "sweetest bread," and even today its virtues are hailed with similar plaudits.
On the face of it, emmer might also benefit the world's wheat-breeding programs. Already, its genes have conferred on the American wheat crop resistance to rust, a virulent fungal disease that in earlier times periodically devastated the nation's food supply.7 Its other desirable characteristics include early maturity, drought resistance, and a high protein content.
Although barley (Hordeum vulgare) is probably not a native of Africa either, it also has been used in Ethiopia for at least 5,000 years. Indeed, Ethiopian barleys have been isolated so long that two of them, irregular barley and deficient barley, were for a time considered distinct species.
Among these two genotypes, as well as among the rest of the diversity of barley forms, can be found a wealth of promising types in addition to genes for use in the world's barley crop. In fact, Ethiopia's assorted barleys are said to be a vital part of its cultural heritage. Under normal circumstances each family sticks tenaciously to its own seed stock. Thus, over thousands of years, each family's stocks have evolved along separate and divergent lines and a vast diversity has resulted. Today, the fields are amazingly rich in different types. In fact, each farmer usually cultivates complex mixtures or even separate plots of quite distinct barleys.
Barley ranks third in terms of area (after tef and sorghum) in Ethiopia. However, its value goes far beyond just economics and nutrition. It is, in fact, deeply rooted in the cultural life. The Oromo people, for instance, consider it the holiest of crops. Their songs and
For example, severe rust epidemics wiped out vast acreages of wheat in 1904, 1918, 1935, and 1953, each time sowing fear and high prices. In 1918, the harvest was so bad that the U.S. government had to declare "wheatless days," on which no wheat products could be sold.