Wheat People and Plant Breeding

Selecting improved varieties of wheat from among existing wheat plants is an ancient art that dates back thousands of years. In contrast, the deliberate generation of new varieties by controlled breeding is more recent. Wheat breeding developed from an arcane art practiced only by a few isolated individuals into a global community of professional scientists in the period from about the mid-eighteenth century to about 1925, but especially from about 1875 to 1925.

Wheat improvement, however, ultimately involved more than just finding or creating varieties with greater utility. A relationship between people and wheat developed over the millennia that increasingly left both species in a state of ever higher mutual dependency. Put another way, wheat and people coevolved in ways that left neither much ability to prosper without the other. Professional wheat breeders occupied a pivotal role in this ongoing coevolutionary process, especially after the nineteenth century. An understanding of wheat breeding thus depends upon understanding how wheat and people "grew up together."

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