Sustainability in Your Cereal Bowl

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Rapid population growth in the last few decades has engendered an untameable global appetite. It is no wonder people are turning to alternative diets and digging in ditches for six-legged sources of protein. Rice is one of the top cultivated grains globally; it is a staple food for many nations not just for lunch and dinner, but in your breakfast cereals too. Since rice and its popular food friends such as maize and barley are in such high demand, is it possible to switch to more sustainable sources of cereal?

A European study was pioneered in 2013 called HealthyMinorCereals to investigate how we can maximise alternative cereal grains, such as spelt, rye, emmer and einkorn. The project, due to be concluded in August 2018, aims to reduce the environmental impact of commercial farming, in the hopes of increasing global food security.

Cereal products in the EU are heavily fortified with vitamins and minerals in order to ameliorate their nutrient density, in government efforts to increase micronutrient intake in the population. Examples of common nutrients added to commercial cereals include: Vitamins D, B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B6 and B12, as well as the minerals Iron and Zinc. These are all essential nutrients, meaning the body cannot synthesise them of its own accord, so they must be taken in through your diet. In the UK particularly, Vitamin D absorption is low, due to lack of exposure to sunlight, and a recent recommendation has suggested all adults in the UK should take supplements. Iron levels are often low in women of menstruating age due to the level of blood lost each month.

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Furthermore, commercial cereal crops are cultivated in conditions to accrue a high yield, in order to meet the increasingly high demand. In order for minor cereal crops to be accepted into the commercial food market, food scientists are working on optimising ideal growth conditions that will ensure the required yield is achieved and that the nutritional value is of a stellar standard.

Currently, efforts are being made to genetically characterise these lesser-known crops to ascertain their nutritional quality. Researchers have assessed over 800 genotypes of the crops to find those which have the best resistance against fungal diseases as well as the strongest nutrient quality. Promisingly, these minor cereals seem to retain far greater micronutrient density than conventional wheat varieties. Environmental testing is also being conducted in European zones with differing climates with the help of farmers, to ascertain the best conditions for the growth of the crops.

In order to tackle the aforementioned overpopulation and feed the world, unsustainable farming practices have been adopted globally. Overuse of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and vast amounts of energy has had, and continues to have, detrimental environmental impacts. It is possible that the advent of projects such as HealthyMinorCereals could start to regulate the commercial food industry, and provide more nutritious food to primary and secondary consumers of the crops, but there is a long way to go until long-term effects can be reversed.

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Sub-editor 2017/18. Third year Biology with Linguistics student. Interested particularly in global health, genetics and nutrition. Very disposed towards writing about things that haven't quite been explained yet.

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