Ancient grains and stone mills in Sicily

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Ancient grains and stone mills, centuries-old tradition is renewed in Sicily, once known as ‘the granary of Europe.’ Thanks to the efforts and synergies between the University of Catania and the Simenza Association, which brings together virtuous farmers and processors.

Ancient grains in Italy

‘Ancient grains’ refers to those wheat varieties with a distinct historical origin and identity, not subject to genetic evolution through crossbreeding but adapted locally through traditional farming systems. (1)

Since the early 1900s these dynamic local populations, the result of selection work by farmers, have given way to varieties subject to genetic improvement. With the goal of increasing yields at a time in history of severe wheat shortages, then more essential than ever to feed populations. (2)

Genetic improvements have at the same time enhanced auxiliary inputs, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides above all. The appreciable and extraordinary increase in production has therefore been associated, as ‘downsides’, with a reduction in biodiversity and an aggravation of the ecological footprint of production. From there on.

In Italy in 1927 there were 291 varieties of wheat, 98 of which were widely grown. Just over 40 years later, 250, or 86 percent, had already disappeared.

Ancient grains, the rediscovery

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in several local varieties of durum and common wheat known as ‘ancient grains,’ which were widely grown until the first quarter of the last century (when genetically improved varieties through selection and crossbreeding took over).

The rediscovery of ancient grains is accompanied by intense debate about their nutritional and health qualities within the agricultural and scientific communities. With wide echo among the public and consumAtors, who are increasingly attentive to the quality and wholesomeness of food. In addition to the


integrity




of supply chains




and to their rootedness in territories.

Demand has increased so significantly that within a few years it has stimulated an exponential increase in the area under cultivation. According to an estimate by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Catania, in Sicily alone, the area planted with ancient grains has increased fivefold in the past four years. Up to about 6,000 hectares, or 2 percent of the total area sown to wheat in Magna Graecia.

Ancient grains, the Sicilian renaissance

In Sicily-thanks to the work of universities, research institutions and ‘custodian’ farmers-the germplasm of about fifty populations of wheat, both durum and soft, which represent part of the heritage of cereal biodiversity available until the middle of the last century, has been preserved and recovered.

These genotypes, while having lower yields than ‘modern grains,’ have some valuable characteristics of rusticity, resistance to adversity (biotic and abiotic) and nutritional and organoleptic quality of the grain. Some 20 varieties have thus been registered, an essential first step in ensuring traceability of the ‘seed-to-table’ supply chain.

The Sicilian Renaissance is one of the goals of the Simenza Association, formed in 2016 to protect and enhance local biodiversity products of agricultural interest. Simenza aggregates most of the producers and processors of Sicilian ancient grains and provides them with agronomic and technical-scientific assistance, as well as useful representation to express shared values.

The perspective is to ensure the integrity of a supply chain that can recover added value by processing the raw material. Milling in stone mills, the production of high-quality, km0 pasta, flours and flour as levees against the social desertification of the interior areas of the big island.

Paolo Caruso and Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) The seeds of ancient grains must be maintained in purity by custodian farmers, who have registered them in the conservation species section of the national biodiversity register. Their maintenance in purity is controlled by CREA



(2) The work of Nazareno Strampelli, one of the pioneers of genetic improvement of herbaceous plants, who through techniques of




breeding


Has developed about 150 varieties. See http://www.icar.beniculturali.it/biblio/pdf/strampelli/Strampelli_rivoluzione_verde.pdf

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Agronomist, collaborates with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the University of Catania, Agronomy and Herbaceous Crops section. Researcher on ancient Sicilian grains.

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.