Minor species of cereals - such as spelt, oat and rye - could provide European consumers with healthy, nutritious food that is sustainably produced. An EU-funded project is looking to bring these underused crops from farm to table by improving their genetic and commercial viability.
© Janovská 2017
The HealthyMinorCereals project is examining the genetic make-up and characteristics of five types of crop spelt, rye, oats, einkorn and emmer. These cereals have not been fully developed as commercial varieties and there has been little investment in breeding programmes, processing techniques or marketing of potential end-products. In addition, when they are grown, they tend to produce low yields.
Despite this, such crops have the potential to add variety to European diets and could benefit the environment and provide farmers and food manufacturers with new commercial opportunities.
The yields of common wheat and barley have doubled in the past fifty years, but these high yields are dependent on high inputs of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and energy. This has many negative impacts on the environment and is unsustainable, says project coordinator Dagmar Janovská of the Crop Research Institute, Czech Republic.
The project, which ends in August 2018, aims to optimise agricultural practices for cultivation of minor cereals, characterise their nutritional composition and improve their processing. A marketing strategy to sell new nutritious products to the public is also being developed.
Our results can be used by crop breeders to develop new minor cereal varieties, says Janovská. Breeding can be focused on nutritional quality rather than high yields. Food manufacturers like millers and bakers will be able to use the optimised processing methods to develop new products with a high nutritional value that will appeal to the European consumer.
From lab to field
The projects researchers have assessed more than 800 different genotypes of the five crops in order to select those with promising nutritional value and resistance to fungal disease. The goal is to identify the best genotype for commercial exploitation and cross-breeding. In addition, the nutritional characteristics of 54 rye, 200 oat, 300 spelt, 64 wild wheat and 12 common wheat genotypes have been analysed.
Work under the project also includes extensive field trials in four different European climate zones. Several activities are being undertaken with the help of farmers. The experiments reveal which crops grow best under different conditions, for example in organic and low-input farming scenarios. Every year, more than 500 samples from the field experiments are assessed using different types and amounts of fertilisers.
and so to market
Food industry experts are involved in the project. They are helping researchers select grains and work out the best processing techniques that can be used to develop exciting new products. The project team is also studying consumer attitudes to minor cereals in different European regions. This activity will help inform any subsequent marketing strategy.
Taken in the round, HealthyMinorCereals offers new commercial potential for this group of often neglected crops.
Our project will contribute to food and nutrient security through more diversified and resilient cereal production. Its potential to support low-input and organic production can minimise the negative environmental impacts of current industrial farming and food production, says Janovská.