Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Poales
Family: Poaceae
Subfamily: Pooideae
Tribe: Triticeae
Genus: Triticum

T. aestivum
T. aethiopicum
T. araraticum
T. boeoticum
T. carthlicum
T. compactum
T. dicoccoides
T. dicoccon
T. durum
T. ispahanicum
T. karamyschevii
T. macha
T. militinae
T. monococcum
T. polonicum
T. spelta
T. sphaerococcum
T. timopheevii
T. turanicum
T. turgidum
T. urartu
T. vavilovii
T. zhukovskyi
  ITIS 42236 2002-09-22

Wheat (Triticum spp.)[1] is a grass that is cultivated worldwide. Globally, it is the most important human food grain and ranks second in total production as a cereal crop behind maize; the third being rice.[2] Wheat grain is a staple food used to make flour for leavened, flat and steamed breads; cookies, cakes, pasta, noodles and couscous;[3] and for fermentation to make beer,[4] alcohol, vodka[5] or biofuel.[6] Wheat is planted to a limited extent as a forage crop for livestock and the straw can be used as fodder for livestock or as a construction material for roofing thatch.[7][8]





The first cereal known to have been domesticated, wheat originated in southwest Asia in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The earliest archaeological evidence for wheat cultivation comes from the Levant and Turkey. Around 10,000 years ago,[9] wild einkorn and emmer wheat were domesticated as part of the origins of agriculture in the fertile crescent. Cultivation and repeated harvesting and sowing of the grains of wild grasses led to the selection of mutant forms with tough ears which remained attached to the ear during the harvest process, and larger grains. Selection for these traits is an important part of crop domestication. Because of the loss of seed dispersal mechanisms, domesticated wheats cannot survive in the wild.[10]

The cultivation of wheat began to spread beyond the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic period. By 5,000 years ago, wheat had reached Ethiopia, India, Ireland and Spain. A millennium later it reached China.[10] Agricultural cultivation using horse collar leveraged plows (3000 years ago) increased cereal grain productivity yields, as did the use of seed drills which replaced broadcasting sowing of seed in the 18th century. Yields of wheat continued to increase, as new land came under cultivation and with improved agricultural husbandry involving the use of fertilizers, threshing machines and reaping machines (the 'combine harvester'), tractor-draw cultivators and planters, and better varieties (see green revolution and Norin 10 wheat). With population growth rates falling, while yields continue to rise, the acreage devoted to wheat may now begin to decline for the first time in modern human history.[11]


Genetics and breeding

Wheat genetics is more complicated than that of most other domesticated species. Some wheat species occur as stable polyploids, having more than two sets of diploid chromosomes.[12]

Heterosis or hybrid vigor (as in the familiar F1 hybrids of maize) occurs in common (hexaploid) wheat, but it is difficult to produce seed of hybrid cultivars on a commercial scale as is done with maize because wheat flowers are complete and normally self-pollinate.[13] Commercial hybrid wheat seed has been produced using chemical hybridizing agents, plant growth regulators that selectively interfere with pollen development, or naturally occurring cytoplasmic male sterility systems. Hybrid wheat has been a limited commercially success, in Europe (particularly France), the USA and South Africa.[14] F1 hybrid wheat cultivars should not be confused with standard method of breeding inbred wheat cultivars by crossing two lines using hand emasculation, then selfing or inbreeding the progeny many (ten or more) generations before release selections are identified to released as a variety or cultivar.[13]


Hulled versus free-threshing wheat

Spikelets of a hulled wheat, einkorn
Spikelets of a hulled wheat, einkorn

Four wild species of wheat, and in the domesticated einkorn[15], emmer[16] and spelt[17] wheats are hulled (in German, Spelzweizen). This more primitive morphology consists of toughened glumes that tightly enclose the grains, and (in domesticated wheats) a semi-brittle rachis that breaks easily on threshing. The result is that when threshed, the wheat ear breaks up into spikelets. To obtain the grain, further processing, such as milling or pounding, is needed to remove the hulls or husks. In contrast, in free-threshing (or naked) forms such as durum wheat and common wheat, the glumes are fragile and the rachis tough. On threshing, the chaff breaks up, releasing the grains. Hulled wheats are often stored as spikelets because the toughened glumes give good protection against pests of stored grain.[15]



There are many taxonomic classification systems used for wheat species, discussed in a separate article on Wheat taxonomy. It is good to keep in mind that the name of a wheat species from one information source may not be the name of a wheat species in another. Within a species, wheat cultivars are further classified by growing season, such as winter wheat vs. spring wheat[8], by gluten content, such as hard wheat (high protein content) vs. soft wheat (high starch content), or by grain color (red, white or amber).

Major cultivated species of wheat


Sack of wheat
Sack of wheat
Cracked wheat
Cracked wheat

Harvested wheat grain is classified according to grain properties (see below) for the purposes of the commodities market. Wheat buyers use the classifications to help determine which wheat to purchase as each class has special uses. Wheat producers determine which classes of wheat are the most profitable to cultivate with this system.

Wheat is widely cultivated as a cash crop because it produces a good yield per unit area, grows well in a temperate climate even with a moderately short growing season, and yields a versatile, high-quality flour that is widely used in baking. Most breads are made with wheat flour, including many breads named for the other grains they contain like most rye and oat breads. Many other popular foods are made from wheat flour as well, resulting in a large demand for the grain even in economies with a significant food surplus.


Costs and returns

In Western Europe target wheat yields attainable are around 8 tonnes / hectare. Until recently a tonne of wheat was worth around 90 euros / tonne, giving a total income of 630 euros per hectare for an average yield of 7 tonnes / hectare. European Union subsidies available in 2006 add 400 euros / hectare, giving a total income of 1,030 euros. In some instances the straw yield of around 4 tonnes per hectare may be saleable at between 9 and 30 euros / tonne.

Seed, fertiliser and pesticides cost around 60 euros, 100 and 160 euros respectively. Labour cost comes to about 200 euros, Power and Machinery 200, while rent and overheads come to around 250 euros per hectare for a large scale arable farm of over 200 hectares. Smaller farms would have higher costs due to economy of scale differences. With total costs of 970 euros a small profit of 60 euros per hectare, or 12,000 euros per year income for 200 hectares is available to the farmer for living expenses and loan repayments.

The recent world price rises (2006) for wheat as a commodity could bring in as much as 400 euros per hectare extra for producers.

Organic wheat typically halves yield attainable but costs less as there are no fertiliser and pesticide costs. Seed costs are typically higher, however, and arguably labour and machinery costs are higher as the organic crop, and more importantly the whole rotation and cropping on such a farm, is more difficult to manage correctly.


Production and consumption statistics

A mature wheat field
A mature wheat field
Top Ten Wheat Producers - 2005
(million metric ton)
Flag of People's Republic of China China 96
Flag of India India 72
Flag of United States United States 57
Flag of Russia Russia 46
Flag of France France 37
Flag of Canada Canada 26
Flag of Australia Australia 24
Flag of Germany Germany 24
Flag of Pakistan Pakistan 22
Flag of Turkey Turkey 21
World Total 626
UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

In 1997, global per capita wheat consumption was 101 kg, with the highest per capita consumption (623 kg) found in Denmark.

See also International wheat production statistics.



Wheat spikelet with the three anthers sticking out.
Wheat spikelet with the three anthers sticking out.

While winter wheat lies dormant during a winter freeze, wheat normally requires between 110 and 130 days between planting and harvest, depending upon climate, seed type, and soil conditions.

Crop management decisions require the knowledge of stage of development of the crop. In particular, spring fertilizers applications, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators are typically applied at specific stages of plant development.

For example, current recommendations often indicate the second application of nitrogen be done when the ear (not visible at this stage) is about 1 cm in size (Z31 on Zadoks scale). Knowledge of stages is also interesting to identify periods of higher risk, in terms of climate. For example, the meïosis stage is extremely susceptible to low temperatures (under 4 °C) or high temperatures (over 25 °C). Farmers also benefit from knowing when the flag leaf (last leaf) appears as this leaf represents about 75% of photosynthesis reactions during the grain filling period and as such should be preserved from disease or insect attacks to ensure a good yield.

Several systems exist to identify crop stages, with the Feekes and Zadoks scales being the most widely used. Each scale is a standard system which describes successive stages reached by the crop during the agricultural season.


Estimates of the amount of wheat production lost owing to plant diseases vary between 10-25% in Missouri[2]. A wide range of organisms infect wheat, of which the most important are viruses and fungi.


Wheat is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including The Flame, Rustic Shoulder-knot, Setaceous Hebrew Character and Turnip Moth.


Wheat in the United States

Wheat harvest on the Palouse.
Wheat harvest on the Palouse.
Combining wheat in Hemingway, South Carolina.
Combining wheat in Hemingway, South Carolina.
Combining wheat in Washington.
Combining wheat in Washington.

Classes used in the United States are

Hard wheats are harder to process and red wheats may need bleaching. Therefore, soft and white wheats usually command higher prices than hard and red wheats on the commodities market.

Much of the following text is taken from the Household Cyclopedia of 1881:

Wheat may be classed under two principal divisions, though each of these admits of several subdivisions. The first is composed of all the varieties of red wheat. The second division comprehends the whole varieties of white wheat, which again may be arranged under two distinct heads, namely, thick-chaffed and thin-chaffed.

Thick-chaffed wheat varieties were the most widely used before 1799, as they generally make the best quality flour, and in dry seasons, equal the yields of thin-chaffed varieties. However, thick-chaffed varieties are particularly susceptible to mildew, while thin-chaffed varieties are quite hardy and in general are more resistant to mildew. Consequently, a widespread outbreak of mildew in 1799 began a gradual decline in the popularity of thick-chaffed varieties.


Sources and notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Belderok, Bob & Hans Mesdag & Dingena A. Donner. (2000) Bread-Making Quality of Wheat. Springer. p.3. ISBN 0-7923-6383-3.
  2. FAOSTAT database of World Agriculture, 2006
  3. Cauvain, Stanley P. & Cauvain P. Cauvain. (2003) Bread Making. CRC Press. p. 540. ISBN 1-85573-553-9.
  4. Palmer, John J. (2001) How to Brew. Defenestrative Pub Co. p. 233. ISBN 0-9710579-0-7.
  5. Neill, Richard. (2002) Booze: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. Octopus Publishing Group - Cassell Illustrated. p. 112. ISBN 1-84188-196-1.
  6. Department of Agriculture Appropriations for 1957: Hearings ... 84th Congress. 2d Session. United States. Congress. House. Appropriations. 1956. p. 242.
  7. Smith, Albert E. (1995) Handbook of Weed Management Systems. Marcel Dekker. p. 411. ISBN 0-8247-9547-4.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Bridgwater, W. & Beatrice Aldrich. (1966) The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia. Columbia University. p. 1959.
  9. Kingfisher Books. (2004) The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. Kingfisher Publications. p. 8. ISBN 0-7534-5784-9.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Smith, C. Wayne. (1995) Crop Production. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 60-62. ISBN 0-471-07972-3.
  11. The Economist, 2005
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Hancock, James F. (2004) Plant Evolution and the Origin of Crop Species. CABI Publishing. ISBN 0-85199-685-X.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Bajaj, Y. P. S. (1990) Wheat. Springer. pp. 161-63. ISBN 3-540-51809-6.
  14. Basra, Amarjit S. (1999) Heterosis and Hybrid Seed Production in Agronomic Crops. Haworth Press. pp. 81-82. ISBN 1-56022-876-8.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Potts, D. T. (1996) Mesopotamia Civilization: The Material Foundations Cornell University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-8014-3339-8.
  16. Nevo, Eviatar & A. B. Korol & A. Beiles & T. Fahima. (2002) Evolution of Wild Emmer and Wheat Improvement: Population Genetics, Genetic Resources, and Genome.... Springer. p. 8. ISBN 3-540-41750-8.
  17. Vaughan, J. G. & P. A. Judd. (2003) The Oxford Book of Health Foods. Oxford University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-19-850459-4.

See also

Wheat resources (edit)
History: Domestication, Neolithic Revolution, Tell Abu Hureyra, Aaron Aaronsohn Evolution: Triticeae
Types of wheat: Wheat taxonomy, Common (Bread) wheat, Durum, Einkorn, Emmer, Kamut (QK-77), Norin 10 wheat, Spelt, Winter wheat
Agronomy: Wheat diseases, Wheat mildew Trade: Canadian Wheat Board, International Wheat Council, International wheat production statistics
Food: Wheat beer, Wheat Thins, Whole grain, Whole wheat flour, Farina (food), Bran, Flour, Gluten, Bread, Matzo, Wheat gluten (food), Complete Wheat Bran Flakes, Shredded wheat, Pasta, Macaroni, Couscous Other Uses: Wheat pasting
Associated Diseases: coeliac disease, diabetes mellitus type 1, Exercise-induced anaphylaxis, baker's allergy

Further reading

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