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Long discarded cereal shows future promise

The spelt crop before harvest
An ambitious project under the Fourth Framework Programme for R&D (FP4) examined the potential of the little-known cereal crop, spelt. Trials in a range of conditions have shown its high competitive ability in poor soils and climates. Spelt has many uses, both for high-quality niche market foods and in animal feedingstuffs. Genetic characterisation and further breeding has raised its yield to levels comparable with better-known cereals.

Spelt, a traditional European cereal, fell out of favour in the early 20th century except in some areas of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, while higher-yielding wheat, barley and oats became the main cereals used. But spelt is able to flourish in poor growing conditions; is very versatile and has some surprising uses.

On trial

The SESA project (Spelt for European Sustainable Agriculture) , conducted under the FAIR programme of FP4 , set out to assess the potential of spelt as an alternative crop. Taking part were twenty-two research institutes in nine countries - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, plus non-EU members Norway and Switzerland. Extra trials were also carried out in Finland. The project enabled studies of spelt performance and ch`aracteristics to be carried out in comparison with traditionally cultivated cereals in widely ranging climatic and soil conditions from Norway to Italy, and from France to eastern Austria. Eleven currently grown varieties of spelt were compared with five local control cereals, chosen in each country.

Spelt productivity was lower than that of the traditionally-grown cereals. Project coordinator Adrien Dekeyser points out: "In 1997, we used 11 spelt lines for the project, but now there are new lines with an increased yield of more than 20% with same quality properties, so I think it is truly competitive now." Spelt was surprisingly adaptable; particularly in poor soils and very wet weather conditions. It could tolerate being sown later than wheat in mid mountain areas and could withstand being waterlogged better than wheat. Spelt also has lower requirement for soil nitrogen than wheat grown in same conditions. It makes of spelt a crop well adapted to ground water protection areas.

What's the use of spelt?

Other tests assessed spelt quality for different uses; both food (bread, pasta and breakfast cereal) and animal feedingstuffs. Spelt food products are expected to have a promising future - spelt has a high protein content and makes high-quality bread. It can also be used for making beer (not tested in this project), and for spelt rice - partly de-hulled, polished whole grains. Spelt beer is already gaining popularity in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Animal feed may hold the greatest promise for future use. Spelt is a hulled cereal (it has a tight cellulose coat around each grain) and de-hulling adds to the cost of preparation for food. But in animal feed, the hull fibre is very good for ruminants, like cattle. The project used a variety of methods, including infra-red spectrometry, to assess the nutritional value of spelt. It is particularly beneficial to ruminants as it increases the digestibility of the feed and reduces acidosis problems. Its low amylase and fibrous hull reduce the speed of sugar production, while high protein is attractive in relation to lower energy levels. The success of spelt crops in cooler, wetter regions which favour cattle rearing could contribute to supporting continued livestock rearing in these areas.

It's all in the genes

Preparing a genetic map of spelt enabled the project partners to identify specific markers, which will help plant breeders to increase the efficacy of breeding new lines with "true"spelt characters. "The main limiting factor here," says Adrien Dekeyser, "is finding the parent spelt lines with the character needed, e.g. for flour quality, or disease resistance."

Tomorrow's products

The SESA project has been spreading information about the uses of spelt, mainly through scientific reports, news articles, fairs, radio and television. Interest has been high in France, where the demand for seed is rising, and spelt products are growing in popularity. Spelt is already recognised as a high-quality feed for cattle and calves; while spelt food products are at an early stage. The most surprising use of all is that the leafy hull makes excellent stuffing for pillows.

Project Co-ordinator: Dr Adrien Dekeyser
Telephone: +32 8162 0334
Address: Centre de Recherches Agronomiques de Gembloux, 4, rue de Liroux, B 5030 Gembloux, Belgium

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