Grain can be defined as the edible seeds from a wide variety of grass-like plants. Complex whole grains are a natural source of digestible carbohydrates, protein, essential oils, in addition to minerals and the fibrous material of their external husks and bran layer. When raised in healthy, unpolluted soils, they provide the foundation for an optimally balanced diet and active lifestyle.
Throughout history, most societies depended upon one or more of these foods to provide their basic nutritional requirements. The unique characteristics of the grains combined with their manner of processing assumed a significant role in the development of many cultural practices and traditions.
Increased consumer choice
Unlike earlier periods in history, the average consumer now enjoys access to a multiplicity of unique grains. Unfortunately, a large proportion of these are now grown with the application of synthetic fertilisers and other chemicals detrimental to human health and the environment.
When motivated by health and ecological concerns, informed consumers quickly appreciate that the majority, if not the entirety of cultivated grains, can be sourced from organic producers. Several grains are produced and sold in very high quantities, making them familiar to most people. Wheat, corn, rice, and oats are all versatile foods which lend themselves to a wide range of culinary applications. Particularly prevalent today are the baked and manufactured products including bread, biscuits cereals, pasta and noodles.
The distinctive varieties of wheat include Triticum aestivum which is grown in temperate climates and extensively used for bread making and cereals. Triticum durum is a resilient variety which can be grown in warmer climates with lower rainfall. It has high protein content and is traditionally used for making pasta, couscous, and bulgur. Over the years, wheat has been selectively bred to dramatically increase average yields per acre along with its ability to resist drought and insect pests.
The increased efficiency of conventionally grown wheat is also dependent upon the use of growth regulators, synthetic fertilisers, and other agricultural chemicals. Growth regulators are natural or synthetic plant hormones which farmers apply to manipulate the physical characteristics of their developing crops. Compared to domestic varieties which stand tall with irregular branching, regulated plants have shortened stems and multiple branches which ensure the highest yields. Organic wheat develops without the influence of synthetic hormones, fertiliser, and other chemically based growth agents.
Corn is a native grain of the American continent. It was cultivated by indigenous races like the Hopi, and Navajo for thousands of years before European colonisation. Highly esteemed as the source of essential sustenance, individual plants were viewed as the embodiment of the spirit of the Corn Mother. Faced with starvation, early settlers with no agricultural skills received instruction and assistance in corn cultivation from indigenous farmers.
Today, corn remains the primary agricultural crop of the United States with approximately eighty million acres under cultivation. With only a tiny fraction of this land devoted to organic farming methods, critics of conventional food production identify corn as the most serious threat to long term ecological sustainability.
Large corporations now control most of the agricultural resources associated with corn production. This includes tracts of land, increasingly sophisticated machinery, chemicals, and biologically engineered seed stocks. To pursue an organic approach, corn growers must somehow extricate themselves from the pressure of highly organised capital and technology. In the meantime there are growing ranks of consumers who are very keen to purchase corn products which are naturally grown in clean, healthy soils.
After wheat, rice is the most heavily cultivated crop throughout the world. Irrigated rice fields dominate a significant percentage of arable land within tropical and semitropical regions. It is also one of the oldest known crops with archaeological evidence indicating a complex history in excess of five thousand years. Rice is a natural source of genetic diversity, with over thirty thousand varieties available throughout the world. The most popular varieties include basmati, jasmine, short grain glutinous, long grain white rice, and arborio rice.
Organically grown whole rice is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and essential oils. When the grains are appropriately softened, rice is easy to digest and particularly suitable for individuals with food allergies. In many parts of Asia, rice is still grown organically by small farmers who integrate their activities with the natural environment.
When rice is grown on a large scale, short term efficiencies can be obtained through the application of chemical treatments to limit weed, pest, and disease occurrences. Like corn, selected varieties of rice are now genetically engineered for increased herbicide tolerance. While most food scientists claim that genetically modified foods present minimal risk to human health, many consumers are choosing to avoid them.
Oats are well adapted to the cooler northerly climates of Europe, North Asia, Russia, and North America. First cultivated several thousand years ago, they are often chosen as a covering crop to prevent erosion and soil degradation. Oats are particularly high in protein and unsaturated fat, making them a nutritionally dense and satisfying food. The bran contained within whole oats is also an excellent source of soluble fibre which can help to lower blood cholesterol. Oat bran contains approximately five percent soluble fibre compared with two percent for wheat bran.
Unlike some advocates, we try to avoid repetitive claims that organic produce tastes better than conventionally grown. In the case of oats and several other items, we like to make an exception. For some reason, organic oats always taste considerably better than their conventionally grown counterparts. Organic rolled oats should be sweet and fresh. They have natural healing properties. If you’re getting on a bit, your gums will probably appear a little red and swollen first thing in the morning. Chew a raw spoonful of oats for a couple of minutes then look at your gums in the mirror. You’ll see what we mean.
Organic grain growers must focus upon soil quality and sustainability as the primary means of improving their crop. Many of their holistic practices were developed long before the arrival of today’s chemical dependent agriculture. A simple schedule of rotation planting, for example, offers a series of benefits which cannot be matched by any of the conventional strategies. Rotation planting will disrupt the seasonal lifecycle of insect pests, reduce the incidence of plant disease, and balance the demand for soil nutrients by altering the main crop each year.
Organic farming tends to deliver low yields compared to conventional practices however the ecological advantages will become increasingly apparent over the forthcoming decades.