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Breeding Better Wheat

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Earlier this year I went to a fundraiser where I bought a bag of Glee flour. Glee is a variety of hard red spring wheat that was developed at Washington State University. I used the flour in my favorite bread recipe, one I have modified a bit from a Mennonite cookbook I treasure.

There is a bit of soy flour and powered milk in my bread, which ups the protein content. The recipe calls for 50 percent white flour, 40 percent whole wheat, and 10 percent rye. I used the Glee flour as the white flour. When I set the dough in a slightly warm oven, I was amazed at how fast it rose.

"That's perfect," said Professor Kim Kidwell of WSU who bred the wheat that went into the Glee flour. "Glee was specifically bred to bake bread, so I understand why the dough popped up quickly."

Kidwell explained to me that "all-purpose flour" from the grocery store is a blend of wheat varieties, some of which are not ideal for baking bread.

"I often say that all-purpose flour is really no-purpose flour," she said. "It is kind of good for making everything, but not great for making any one thing."

I buy bread flour, not all-purpose flour, at the grocery store, just as my mother taught me. But Kidwell explained even bread flour is a blend of varieties. By using a lot of straight Glee flour in my bread, I benefitted from its special properties. The bread made great eating and now I know why.

Glee is currently grown by farmers in the Pacific Northwest. It has several attractive features: it has good yield potential, and it has good resistance to a disease called striped rust.

"I don't want farmers to have to apply a lot of chemicals on their fields," Kidwell said. "My favorite way to reduce input costs is through genetics."

By genetics Kidwell means the traditional approach to breeding better plants: crossing varieties and looking for resultant strains that have desirable properties. If all goes well, it takes about 8 to 10 years from the time of the initial cross to when the researchers have a variety ready for release to farmers. Breeding better crop plants is part of the ongoing research work that takes place at land grant universities across the nation.

The name "Glee" deserves a bit of explanation. The variety was named in honor of Virginia Gale Lee, a graduate student in the WSU spring wheat breeding program. Lee was dedicated to research that could revolutionize crop production and help feed the world. Unfortunately she was struck down by an aggressive cancer at the age of 24. Money to help support current graduate students in her area has been donated to WSU, much of it raised from people who knew Lee and were inspired by her idealism and dedication.

I wish I had known Lee because the people who did were clearly touched by her life. But I am glad I was able to learn about her - and wheat breeding more generally - through my use of Glee flour.

 

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Billy Wharton

is the editor of The Socialist and the Socialist WebZine. His articles have recently appeared in the Washington Post, Monthly Review Webzine, Dissident Voice, The Indypendent, Common Dreams and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Billy lives in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx.