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“Eat like an Egyptian”: How ancient crops can be used to address current problems

What can we learn from the past to address modern problems in food quality and nutrition?This is the question posed by Dr Fritz Heinrich from the Social and Cultural Food Studies (FOST) research group at Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), who together with colleagues is assessing the nutritional composition of ancient crops.“We are doing this…

What can we learn from history to solve modern food quality and nutrition problems? This is Dr Fritz Heinrich, from Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s Social and Cultural Food Studies research group (FOST), who is assessing the nutritional content of ancient crops with his colleagues.

” This is possible because of the unique collection of preserved and desiccated…plant remains that were found in the Greco Roman town of Keranis, Egypt.

Built at the edge the desert, this town is able to sustain organic materials in ‘hyper-arid’ conditions. Keranis is, as Dr Heinrich stated at the recent European Food Forum event (EFF), an ‘Egyptian Pompeii”. These remains, which are now housed at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology allow the researchers to study the crops’ nutritionally important trace elements’ such as iron or zinc.

From tall to short crops

Little research has been done into the nutritional composition of ancient crops. Dr Heinrich says historians are ‘fairly pessimistic about ancient nutrition’, largely due to the poor nutritional quality of staple crops like cereals and pulses. The researchers’ initial findings indicate that this is not the case. Rather, significant agricultural changes that have occurred over the past centuries – and particularly those during the 20th century’s Green Revolution – appear to have altered the nutritional profile of these once-nutritionally rich crops.

barley Monty Rakusen

The introduction of artificial fertilisers had a significant impact on crop yields. GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

The introduction of artificial fertilisers, for example, had a significant impact. ” “The amount of nitrogen available to plants was a limiting factor in agricultural productivity throughout the history of agriculture,” explained. “The amount of nitrogen available depending on the amount of animal manure, which put a cap on output.”

This all changed in the early 20th century when artificial fertilisers came onto the scene, bringing a new limiting factor: lodging. This is when cereals get a lot of nitrogen, and their ears are heavier. This causes the plants to become top heavy and more prone to fall over. It also results in a decrease in yields. This was a problem because most cereals were grown long ago.

To counter this, crop scientists created short-stemmed, high-yield varieties. These innovations dramatically increased the yields of wheat and other crops worldwide. According to Dr Heinrich, these developments, under the umbrella of the Green Revolution, helped prevent major famine in the 20th century and feed mouths in the post-WWII demographic explosion.

Paying the price for productivity

The compromise for higher yield, it turns out, was reduced nutritional quality. Cereal chemists found that these varieties had a lower micronutrient level than their pre-Green Revolution counterparts.

” “As yields increased, mineral content decreased,” stated the researcher. “So this productivity came at a price: up to 30% less micronutrients.”

At least some of this difference in micronutrient content can be explained by dilution. The yields of plants increased and the availability of trace elements decreased.

It was also discovered that shorter-stemmed varieties of crops were less efficient in routing minerals to their kernels.

lentils jimmyvillalta

It has been discovered that the new short-stemmed varieties of crops were less efficient at routing minerals. GettyImages/jimmyvillalta

These same factors do not apply to ancient crops, which prompted the researchers to take a closer look at the organic material preserved from Greco-Roman Egypt.

Early findings revealed

Rolled barley, lupins, safflower, and lentils are amongst the cereals and pulses being put under the microscope by the VUB researchers. The researchers use ICP-MS technology to assess the micronutrient content of the crops as well as potential pollutants.

“Our goal is to evaluate micronutritional trends in time. We have samples from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD

The researchers were then able compare the micronutritional profiles of preserved organic material with modern crops, as well as those described in literature.

lupin Luso

Rolled barley, saflower, lentils and lupin (pictured) are amongst the cereals and pulses being put under the microscope. GettyImages/Luso

Although results are preliminary, Dr Heinrich told delegates the team has already made ‘interesting observations’.

“The most import

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