Evolutionary Populations

Color photograph of a wheat field, with trees and mountains in the distance

Sara Levi is RSFP chef and supervisor of interns.

On December 6, 2023, the Rome Sustainable Food Project gardener Andrea Francini sowed, in the Bass Garden, two beds of evolutionary population (EP) bread wheat, gifted to us by the Roccamadre farming cooperative in Pedaso, Marche. It’s the first time we have ever planted wheat in the Bass Garden—what a crazy idea! But the world of evolutionary populations has been a fascinating thing to discover, and I want to share what I’ve learned, because it exemplifies one exciting way in which we can take action to preserve and enrich plant biodiversity and adapt to climate change.

Last June I joined two friends—Laura Lazzaroni, a journalist, author, and all-around bread expert, and Rachel Roddy, a cookbook author and food writer with a weekly column in the Guardian—on a road trip to Le Marche to learn more about these (r)evolutionary little seeds.

Color photograph of a hand holding dozens of seeds
Seeds of evolutionary population bread wheat

In conventional agriculture, wheat, just like any other crop, is grown as a monoculture. This way of farming, popularized by large, conventional farms over the last fifty to one hundred years, has greatly contributed to the loss of biodiversity—one of the most monumental crises to befall agriculture and our ecosystem. Evolutionary populations, by definition, offer one solution: in this approach, developed by agronomists to give farmers in dry, unforgiving landscapes a better chance of successfully growing their crops, hundreds or thousands of varieties (some ancient, some modern) of bread wheat are mixed together, crossing freely and naturally with one another, sown in fields together and growing and evolving according to the environmental conditions in which they are cultivated.

The resulting crops are site-specific reflections of the soil in which they are sown, their unique composition changing depending on which seeds thrive best in that specific plot of land. So they are all slightly different, but what these crops have in common is that they are genetically more resilient and more adaptable to all kinds of climactic conditions, even extreme ones. As it turns out, they are also more resistant to weeds, diseases, and pests, which means they are much more well-suited to organic agriculture than monocultures. Here we have a kind of wheat that can work with climate change, do away with pesticides, and promote biodiversity. Boom! And as if that wasn’t amazing enough, because of their heterogeneity, evolutionary populations can’t be patented, which means that farmers can regain the freedom to grow and maintain control of their seeds, severing their dependence on Big Agriculture.

Color photo of a man speaking to six people about the wheat field behind him
Salvatore Ceccarelli led a visit to a field with wheat grown from evolutionary populations

In the Marche, Lazzaroni introduced us to two of her mentors, the Italian agronomists and plant geneticists Salvatore Ceccarelli and his wife, Stefania Grando. Their work has centered on using genetics to make crops more adaptable to climate change. They spent decades researching and working directly with farmers, developing evolutionary populations of barley and wheat in Syria at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), but also in Africa, Iran, and Nepal, to name a few. In Pedaso, Ceccarelli and Grando took us to visit a field of EP bread wheat: it was a stunning sight. We waded into a golden field of beautifully diverse ears, ranging in color from pale yellow to a deep ochre. Some had long whiskers; some had none. Some were tall and wispy; some were short and robust. Each ear of wheat seemed to have its own personality, its own story, but as a unified whole, the population swayed majestically in the soft breeze. Ceccarelli explained to us that one of the greatest weaknesses of a conventional crop is something called lodging, where the stems flatten out after a heavy rainfall, making it impossible to harvest (this happened extensively around Italy this year). But what we were witnessing, in this field before us, was the ingenious ability of the EP wheat to naturally avoid this problem: the shorter, more robust ears of wheat were providing structural support to the long, wispy ones, making the entire field stronger and more unlikely to lodge, ensuring a greater yield.

We are hopeful that our tiny crop will do well in its sunny spot on the Janiculum, and when we harvest next June, we will save the seeds so that we can sow again next winter. Eventually, the Rome Sustainable Food Project will have its own unique EP flour. In the meantime, we have purchased some EP flour from Coste del Sole, one of the farms that we visited in Staffolo (AN), where Ceccarelli’s original blend is being cultivated. Looking at that caramel-hued, nutty flour, I find it enchanting to think that its qualities are unique to its terroir, not unlike a wine, and that the same mixture of seeds that produced it, sown somewhere else, perhaps with a different elevation and sun exposure, would result in another, quite unique flour, with a different flavor profile and set of characteristics. 

If nothing else, this journey has taught us to think much more carefully about what kind of flour we are buying, to experiment with different varieties, to pay attention to their taste, smell, and performance in different culinary applications. If we use only conventional, modern, bleached bread wheat, we are directly contributing to the loss of agrobiodiversity. We choose to move in a different direction, bringing back biodiversity, making it useful in the kitchen once again, and supporting those brave farmers who choose to feed their soil with these revolutionary seeds.

Color photo of a man dropping seeds into a raised farming bed
RSFP gardener Andrea Francini sowing wheat seeds in the Bass Garden

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