Re-discovering how to cook and eat heritage barley – especially in the world’s biggest barley-growing nations of Europe, Australia and North America – could encourage farmers to grow special landrace heritage varieties. These could be grown in marginal climates and make a substantial contribution to ensuring global food security in the face of climate change.

Barley was one of the earliest crops cultivated by humans, and it played a large part in kicking-off the first agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago. Since then, it followed the flow of human migration and spread all over the world. Being an incredibly nutritious and adaptable food source, able to grow in a wide range of climates and conditions from the Arctic to the tropics, by about 1000 BCE barley had taken root everywhere from central India to eastern Finland, northern Norway to the plains of Morocco, the highlands of Ethiopia to the Korean Peninsula. In more recent centuries, barley spread even further, establishing itself in the Americas after 1492, and Australia from 1788.

Over millennia of adaptation across a vast geographical area, barley has developed a broad range of abilities, defences and resistances specific to diverse local environments. The world’s collection of landrace barley varieties might therefore represent one of agriculture’s richest and most diverse collections of genetic material.

However, we are currently missing out on most benefits of this genetic diversity, because we grow only a small amount of these varieties – and only a tiny amount of those for human consumption. Part of the problem, and potentially the solution, might be that we have largely forgotten what barley tastes like.

Across the ancient world, barley was a staple and culturally significant food in countless societies. However, it has long been seen as inferior to wheat as a food for human consumption. At least as early as ancient Roman and Greek times, coarse barley bread was widely considered a food for the poor – to be eaten by peasants and slaves while wheat’s fluffy, soft bread was reserved for the upper classes.

Over the centuries, barley was gradually supplanted by wheat in most areas of production (especially in Europe and the Middle East), and by the middle of the 19th century the only places where barley was still a staple food were cold, high-altitude or harsh environments where wheat could not grow (such as Scandinavia and the remote northern British isles). Since the 1850s – as Vanessa Kimbell outlined in her piece on Growing Intolerance – wheat’s dominance has subsequently been taken to a whole new level following the invention of industrial milling and baking, for which wheat has proved perfectly suited, as well as modern hybridisation techniques. As a result, barley has largely disappeared from daily diets even in those remote areas.

Today, barley is the fourth-largest cereal crop grown globally (covering nearly sixty million hectares of land around the world), yet despite still being revered for its health benefits, we hardly eat any of it – less than 2% of global production is used for direct human consumption. Instead, a whopping two-thirds of barley grown worldwide is used as animal feed, and over 30% of the global barley total goes to the malting industry (primarily to be used in brewing beer and, to a lesser extent, distilling whisky).

As it currently stands, farmers have almost no incentive to select barley based on taste and nutrition, since the standards required to sell barley as coarse grain for animal feed are so low – as is the price – that it isn’t worth the effort or the care. Consequently, most farmers focus on high protein content and high yield, usually from modern hybrid varieties. The brewing and malting industry does offer a premium market for barley growers, where they can sell their grain for significantly higher prices than livestock feed. However, the most desired characteristic for malting barley is a high sugar content (in order to feed the yeast and fuel fermentation), rather than emphasising some of barley’s other outstanding attributes – like its taste or health benefits.

The health benefits of barley are widely known. Barley is rich in beneficial micronutrients and phytochemicals, and it is among the very best sources of soluble dietary fibre and helpful beta-glucans in the human diet. Numerous studies have highlighted barley’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, its positive impacts on cardiovascular health and regulating blood sugar, and its association with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and stroke.

However, since so little barley is eaten directly as a food in Europe, North America and Australia – who between them have the 12 largest barley-producing nations, if we include Russia – there isn’t as much focus on barley’s nutritional benefits, when growing and selecting crops, as there is with other whole grains.

On the other hand, the majority of barley produced in many Asian and African countries – including India, China, Tibet, Morocco and Ethiopia – is grown for local food consumption. That means that many localised varieties have higher health-giving properties than their European, Australian and North American counterparts. The delicious range of traditional and tasty foods found in these countries could therefore be used as a model for how to introduce barley into our daily diets in the UK, Europe, Australasia and North America – where the percentage of barley used for food is as low as a measly 0.3%.

Cultivating more types of barley for human consumption might also encourage the growing of more nutritious varieties. Tibetan highland barley, for example, the primary ingredient in Tibet’s ubiquitous national food ‘tsampahas repeatedly been linked with healthy insulin sensitivity and, more broadly, a reduced risk of metabolicsyndrome. Also, one 2019 Japanese study directly linked a lifelong intake of barley with healthy aging, thanks in part to increasing the body’s levels of HDL (the ‘good’) cholesterol.

What this indicates is that barley’s large and diverse genetic banks – which are also full of undiscovered traits to boost yield and enhance abiotic stress resistance in different conditions – offer a rare opportunity to grow varied, sustainable crops on a scale large enough to affect human nutrition in a positive way.

For example, one recent study carried out in Scotland by the James Hutton Institute and Orkney College Agronomy Institute, proved that Orkney bere (an ancient type of local barley) can grow extremely well in sandy, alkaline, manganese-deficient soils. The modern elite barley varieties, which were grown alongside it, all failed to reach maturity, while the bere plants grew to full size and produced an abundant crop of barley grains. This hints at the potential hiding within the collective barley gene bank for specialised, localised traits that could prove crucial for the diversification of organic, sustainable agriculture with the onset of climate change. It’s not about any one type being the best. It’s about having a lot of different types, in different places, to guard against unpredictable weather and extreme events. So, if one doesn’t produce, another might.

Maybe rediscovering a taste for barley – that rich, nutty, distinctly earthy and slightly sweet taste – will help us re-discover some of these ancient heritage landraces that can grow in marginal conditions. It might also encourage growers and farmers to select barley crops for taste and nutrition, which could be a step in the right direction to ensuring that our future generations have something to eat – something delicious, as well as healthy.

Photograph: George Barker