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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

This Food for Thought on-line panel event took place on Thursday 16 November from 17:30 to 18:30.

The event’s focus was wheat; why it’s the perfect crop for the capitalist era, what this reveals about our food system and how our reliance on modern wheat might make us more vulnerable to climate change.

Chaired by Dr Nadia Radzman, a plant biologist from the Sainsbury Lab at Cambridge University, interested in improving the food system through utilization of forgotten crops. Our speakers were:

  • Dr Phil Howell, Head of Breeding, NIAB, Cambridge 

  • Dr Alexa Bellows, Research Fellow for Co-Health Benefits of Sustainable Food Systems, University of Edinburgh

  • Professor Shailaja Fennell, Professor of Regional Transformation and Economic Security in the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge

  • Professor Martin Jones, Emeritus George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science, University of Cambridge

Please find below our recording of the event, and a summary of what was discussed. Useful references can be found at the bottom of this page.


Dr Radzman began by inviting each speaker to tell us ‘what’s wrong with wheat?’


Martin Jones

Bread wheat is very efficient at creating lots of calories from a small area of ground, and this is a priority in our current commercial, monetary world.

In the last 1,500 years the world has become dependent on a small number of very high yielding plants. Bread wheat is about 9,000 years old, and agriculture is about 12,000 years old. We must be aware of the needs and possibilities of today's world, which is different from the world wheat initially became dominant.


Phil Howell

Wheat can be a fine food and a fine crop, but as society, we are guilty of trying to make wheat all things to all people and it's become a victim of its own success.

Most of the bread we eat is made using the Chorleywood process. This industrial bread process, devised in 1961 makes bread much quicker to make, cheaper and longer lasting. Its adoption was a response to postwar austerity; it meant lower prices for bread and less reliance on imports.

At NIAB, Phil works on trying to increase the genetic diversity of wheat, but he thinks we need to be more open to growing and processing a whole range of different grains.

Currently 75% of the UK’s arable area is occupied by three crops; wheat, barley and oil seed rape. Over half the wheat that’s grown in the UK is destined for animal feed.  Wheat is an energy-intensive crop.  Most of the carbon footprint of a loaf comes from the nitrogen fertilizer that is used to increase the protein content of the grain. To have a sustainable food system, we need to wean ourselves off our addiction to nitrogen fertilizer, which may mean reducing the amount of wheat we grow.  NIAB was asked by Defra to carry out a review of unutilized crops, and they are very much interested in diversifying both food systems and agricultural systems.

The NFU have a bold target of net zero emissions across the agricultural sector by 2040. It will be a challenge to maintain current bread-making performance with lower levels of nitrogen, but it’s essential to making our diets, and our bread, more sustainable.


Shailaja Fennell

Wheat is not the problem; it’s what human beings are doing with wheat. The current lack of diversity in our cereal intake is about 30 years old. Globally, 80% of the cereals we consume are wheat, rice or maize (in that order).

Our food systems approach is fundamentally broken. The futures market and global supply chains are geared to uniformity and homogeneity because the biggest profits are to be made from a few, reliable varieties. It's a bit boring, and it is bad for us in terms of nutrition; we end up with a supercharged carbohydrate intake, which leads to diet-related NCDs, such as adult diabetes.

In Africa, South and Southeast Asia numerous other cereals are eaten; we might need to shift our global eating pattern to increase consumption of these ‘forgotten’ or underutilised crops. One crop in particular that Professor Fennell has researched is millet, through the Millnetti and Tigress projects.  

Professor Fennell’s third point was that historically we have eaten cereals in a way that’s far better for the human gut. For example it’s much easier for us to absorb iron from fermented foods.  Economics are changing our diet in a way that’s not good for the human body. The mouth can swallow what the stomach can’t digest. So not only are we developing diabeties, we’re also creating a huge and increasing number of allergens.


Alexa Bellows

One of the biggest issues with wheat the in a refined form in which we consume it, so that the germ and bran are stripped away, along with the majority of fibre, vitamins and minerals.  Whole grain consumption has been associated with a decreased risk of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. But in the UK the recommended whole grain intake is not achieved by the majority of adults and children.

There is a small but growing prevalence of people who suffer from celiac disease. There's been some evidence that industrially produced, ultra-processed bread may exacerbate these symptoms, and that slow fermentation could actually help.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming wheat as a whole grain and part of a diverse diet.



Should we breed our current wheat to be a better version of wheat or should we also have a dedicated breeding program for neglected, underutilized cereals?

Phil Howell:

We should have both.  There's a constant need to improve crops to make them more climate resilient to keep pace with diseases and pests.  Use of pesticides and fertilizers must be reduced as much as possible. We need to find biological solutions, rather than chemical ones, to look after our soils which are a really precious resource.

In the UK a very high proportion of the research budget goes on wheat, and we need to invest in research on other crops too.  For example rye and triticale do well in much lower input situations and more marginal soils. Other possible alternative grains are buckwheat, quinoa, fava bean, chickpeas and naked barley. As our climate changes we may find we can grow different varieties of wheat in the UK, for example durum wheat.

The cost of sequencing genomes has plummeted, and the technology has improved, which can hasten crop improvement massively.  But you don’t need these technologies to start a breeding programme; you need the skills to be able to identify traits that are useful, which farmers have been doing for thousands of years.  


Professor Fennell mentioned that producers have an interest in us consuming a homogeneous diet. Why is this? And is this related to the cost of production?

Shailaja Fennell:

It's not a homogeneous diet so much as homogeneity of products. Sometimes it’s related to food safety, sometimes to how well an item will stack on a supermarket shelf. It’s also about industrial processes and economies of scale; having the machinery to process and store a lot of one crop is more cost effective than having multiple sets of machinery for lots of different crops.


What are the main obstacles to ingesting more whole grains? Is it reluctance on the consumer's part? Or is the industry not ready to work with whole grains? We know that that'd be beneficial to both the human health and the environment.

Alexa Bellows:

One of the barriers from a consumer perspective is that consumers aren't used to, and so don’t like consuming whole grains.  They also take longer to cook and if you lack experience, you may find the end result isn’t very palatable and choose not to buy them again.

The industry has a large role to play in offering whole grains at an affordable price to people.

Whole grain products are more expensive than the refined products, because of factors mentioned by other speakers.  Also because healthier options tend to be marketed to higher-end consumers, and priced accordingly.  We should make whole grains more accessible to everyone.


If we shift from refined wheat to whole grains how will farmers, both those farming wheat and animals, be impacted?

Shailaja Fennell:

It is bizarre that whole grains are more expensive to produce than processed grains. That happens because of the nature of supply chains. Commodities (e.g. wheat) are bought in huge bulk in forward markets. Farmers sell cheap not because they're being exploited, but selling cheap in large bulk to one buyer guarantees returns, and you can be sure to cover your costs. Whereas batch production or artisanal production means finding lots of smaller buyers, which involves more work and more risk.

Phil Howell:

What farmers sell is the whole grains. It's the processor who buys the whole grains and refines them or not. So so in terms of selling, selling the commodity, buyers are reluctant to even try different varieties, because the manufacturing and processing system, is set up, as we’ve said, for a homogenous product, not lots of different varieties. Perhaps wheat isn't the dirty word here, perhaps commodity is the dirty word.


Could the increase in coeliac disease, and other gluten intolerances, be connected to changes in wheat grain composition associated with the almost universal switch to dwarf wheat, possibly in conjunction with ultra-processing and reduced fermentation times?

Phil Howell:

Different types of gluten are suited to different types of products. it certainly seems that some slower fermentation types, like sourdough don’t require such strong gluten as compared to the

very strong gluten required for the mechanical fast Chorleywood process. And there may well be nutritional problems associated with that.  The slower fermentation allows the yeast’s natural enzymes to break down the gluten into more digestible subunits.

Shailaja Fennell:

The IPCC has emphasised the potential to identify underutilized crops by looking at traditional systems. Community knowledge and traditional systems have a lot to offer, for example these fermentation techniques existed to ensure the longevity of what was produced. So it's also about waste reduction.


What are the characteristics of wheat that are responsible for its importance in human history. And are these characteristics present in other cereal crops?  Could another cereal crop have played the same part as wheat?

Martin Jones:

Wheat is a bit like a balloon. The more nutrients and water you put into it, the bigger it gets.  Other plants don't work like that. It's the perfect plant for a capitalist world. 

When you blow up the wheat ‘balloon’ you get more starch, so more calories, but you don’t enlarge the part of the grain that contains micronutrients etc. So per hectare, calories increase, but nutritional value declines.  

When we talk about future global food security, are we talking about making a profit for crop production, or are we talking about feeding the hungry with a balanced diet that doesn’t make them ill?


In the current wheat supply. Do we consider, or how can we consider the impact of the food system, from farming to milling, to baking on the nutritional value in terms of micronutrients of wheat and products. Aside from fibre, bread contributes to the micronutrient intake of the population. How can maximize or utilize wheat as source of micronutrients?

Alexa Bellows:

A group called Scotland The Bread are growing wheat populations in Scotland, with the aim of producing the most nutritious bread possible. The suggestion is that consuming more diverse types of grains would mean more micronutrients, but more research is needed.


Change is required on many levels. But we need to still feed the planet. Where does the impetus for change need to come from government breeders, growers, or consumers?

Shailaja Fennell:

Change can be difficult for farmers especially when it comes to absorbing risk. Seed security is important to farmers, particularly in poor countries, in order to complete the economic cycle.  New technologies may be important and we need to reconsider what they are going to be able to deliver in the light of the increasing instability that climate change is bringing.

Farmers associations don’t often get the chance to talk to power. They're the people producing the food and they need to be part of the conversation, because they will have to be willing to make changes, be it new tech or diversification of crops. But it’s about building trust and that takes time. The difficulty is a lot of these programs want to work in 5 or 10 year cycles which does not work with how farming and farm systems work.

Phil Howell:

We need change all the way up. Both consumers and the people pushing the options at consumers need to be open to more diverse grains. Breeders will shift their selection to meet changing criteria for crops. But often it's governments that set those criteria, informed by the market and buyers. So the whole system has to be open to change for the system to change.




Martin Jones:

The good news is we're much more able now scientifically to embark on an unknown crop than we were just a generation ago.

Human history has shown a phenomenal diversification of use, of many tens of thousands of different plants, and to a great extent the advantage of our progress is, we can now explore diversity in a in way that we haven't in the past.  A key question is not how you can make a profit from plant, but how you can feed the hungry in the world.

Phil Howell:

We need to be open to different varieties, and different ways of growing crops, to deal with climate change.  For example intercropping, which used to happen in the past. You put more than one crop in the field. You have a legume that turns atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate in the in the ground, and then the cereal crop takes up that nitrate, so you don't need as much fertiliser because the legume does the job for you.

We must combine lessons learned from the olden days with the opportunities and the science of the present.

Shailaja Fennell:

Diversity is needed, in crops and in terms of diverse knowledge systems; recognizing there is still quite a lot of tacit knowledge in how to cultivate, how to store, particularly in the context of the climate crisis. Any system that allows us to do it with a lower level of either energy use or more cyclical and recyclable systems would be very helpful.

Alexa Bellows:

Bread has been demonized in the last couple of decades, because much of the affordable bread we consume is not good for us, and better bread costs more than most people can afford. We need public procurement policies that make better bread more affordable for everyone.


Useful references:

The Fens | Centre for Landscape Regeneration (

Chambers, R. (1995). Poverty and livelihoods: whose reality counts? Environment and Urbanization7(1), 173-204.

Cambridge University Research News on Food Security