Despite the numerous benefits of triticale, its cultivation and consumption are limited. Production is concentrated in Europe and North America, where the grain is almost always used as animal feed. This analysis looks at the potential for triticale as a food crop in Africa, while examining experiences with the triticale in other parts of the world.
Triticale was first produced in 1876 by Scottish botanist Alexander Wilson. These earliest hybrid seeds were sterile, and so it was not until the 20th century, when botanists began producing fertile, reproducible triticale seeds that the crop’s potential role as a “miracle” grain for the future started to become apparent.
In the 1950s, farmers in Hungary began to seriously grow triticale for animal feed, and at that time, researchers at the University of Manitoba and CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) started a triticale breeding program in Mexico. The programs initially had lackluster results—yields were low, quality of the grain was variable, the crop was late to mature, and triticale had a tendency of falling over. Triticale’s initial promise as a “miracle crop” looked questionable.
Scientists were not easily deterred, however, and they aimed at weeding out the undesirable characteristics of the new grain. They managed to develop a new strain, the Armadillo, in the 1970s, and this new variety had good yields (2.4 tonnes/hectare), better stalk strength and its grains were not as shriveled as past varieties’ grains. This considerable progress helped boost triticale’s uptake by the 1980s.
In 1980, global triticale production stood at about 167,000 tonnes, and by 1990 this figure skyrocketed more than ten-fold to 4.5 million tonnes, and by 2013, global triticale production had grown to 14 million tonnes. This growth is impressive, especially considering current production levels are just 3 million tons less than one of triticale’s parent crops, rye. But compared to wheat’s 713 million tonnes, triticale production still appears modest.
Triticale in Mexico
Combining wheat’s nuttiness and rye’s chewiness, triticale has superior bread making ability when compared to rye, but inferior when it comes to whole wheat. The fact that triticale has less gluten than wheat means that it is often a good idea for millers and bakers to mix their triticale flour with whole wheat flour. Such a mixture, which has been made by several millers and bakers, is a particularly easy way of using triticale for bread, and still helps to reduce the reliance on wheat. Triticale can be more appropriate for the making of dense and flat breads, high-fiber extruded snacks, and in malting and brewing.
These edible uses of triticale have been relatively under-explored, with the overwhelming majority of triticale still used as animal feed. However, triticale has been historically used by countries seeking to reduce their reliance on wheat, especially when there is a shortage or a sharp rise in prices. Some farmers in Mexico, for example, have grown the crop at a subsistence level, with their consumption of the hybrid increasing whenever wheat becomes too inaccessible. Still, the overall human consumption of triticale was relatively small in Mexico—with only about 10 percent of the grain produced used for human consumption.
Mexico’s main triticale-growing region, the southwestern state of Michoacan, has about 4,000 farmers who grow the crop for subsistence and trade. The state is located on a high-lying plateau, between 2000 to 2500 meters above sea level, and its soils are deep and acidic, with low levels of fertility. These factors, alongside the variable rainfall in the highland areas mean that yields for triticale can vary significantly, from about one to six tonnes per hectare. Triticale is also grown in parts of northern Mexico as a winter crop. The region has alkaline soils and limited, erratically distributed rainfall. Due to its relatively low water demand, high disease and frost resistance as well as high grain yield potential, triticale is a choice grain crop in this area widely known for livestock production.
In central Mexico, triticale has historically been used in the making of tortillas, often at a 90-10 blend with corn. Because triticale has a higher sugar content compared to wheat, the tortillas from triticale blends are considered sweeter than those made using a whole wheat blend. The grain is also used to make a popular molasses whole grain triticale bread known as concha.
Focus on Africa
Many of the scientists that were part of the 1970s triticale revival were driven by a desire to create a grain that could act as a weapon to fight food insecurity: as they were working, severe drought ravaged many parts of the world, including several regions within Africa.
It is not just this regional propensity to drought that makes triticale relevant to Africa—the fragile state of African soils, which are severely and continually degraded by aridity, desertification, leaching and erosion, also add to the excitement about the potential of the crop.
It is estimated that more than 25 percent of African soils are highly weathered and acidic, and contain significant levels of iron and aluminum oxides. According to a study by IFPRI, most African countries have a negative nutrient balance, as farmers have for decades been intensifying their agricultural production without intensifying their use of replenishing products like fertilizer. As a result, many countries in the continent are struggling with stagnating or even declining yields for essential crops—which is alarming given that sub-Saharan African demand for food is projected to grow by 60 percent by 2030.
Triticale appears to be an obvious choice for African farmers, and yet it has failed to catch on. Africa as a whole only accounts for about 0.2 percent of global triticale production, and much of this production has been confined to North Africa, where it is primarily used for animal feed and forage.
Triticale’s potential to displace Nigerian wheat imports
Nigeria’s appetite for wheat is amongst the greatest in Africa, but it struggles to grow the grain—in 2014, for example, domestic production was less than 2 percent of consumption. This means that Nigeria spends billions—over $1.4 billion in 2012—importing millions of tonnes of wheat. And Nigeria’s fast rate of population growth, as well as Nigerians’ increasing demand for bread, means that wheat demand shows little sign of slowing in the coming years.
While farmers and policymakers are working towards increasing wheat production, the reality is that the conditions for its cultivation are far from ideal in Nigeria. The country’s wheat is grown mainly in the northern region, which has a short rainy season (lasts four months from June to September) and a long dry season, conditions which necessitate the irrigation of wheat. Its soil also tends to be sandy, which poses a challenge to successful wheat cultivation. Additionally, over 48 percent of soils in Nigeria have low moisture retention and low organic matter content. This low organic matter content can mean high levels of acidity, and high aluminum and iron content, which can affect the root development of grains.
While these conditions are suboptimal for wheat production, they could be promising for the cultivation of triticale. The government is currently attempting to make a dent in wheat demand by requiring bakers to blend wheat flour with cassava flour in their bread. Many bakers have been troubled by this requirement, arguing that the taste and texture of cassava flour means that bread made using the flour is of a lower quality. Blending wheat flour with locally grown triticale, however, would have a smaller impact on both taste and texture, while also still helping to displace Nigerian wheat imports.
Unrealized food potential
Triticale has come a long way in recent decades. From its premature labeling as a miracle grain to the recent development of varieties such as the Pollmer-2 which can yield of up to 10 tonnes per hectare, the cereal has had its share of successes and failures. But one set of failures linger: why is it not grown more widely? Why don’t more people eat triticale? Currently, only 29 countries in the world produce the cereal at scale, and almost all triticale that is produced is used as fodder. The answers to these questions largely lie in the composition of the grain itself as well as external, market-related complexities.
Although triticale can be used to bake bread, its internal composition presents some hurdles to baking. While it has protein content similar to wheat, its content of one protein in particular,gluten, is lower than the preferred grain for bread baking. Gluten, found in most cereals, is responsible for the elasticity and the rising of dough, while also keeping its shape, and ultimately is responsible for the chewy texture of bread. Triticale is also a softer grain than wheat, meaning that millers have to adjust their processes in order to accommodate the grain. This adjustment is certainly possible, but often presents an additional cost and effort on the part of the millers. One particularly effective way of making triticale milling simpler is to mix the grain with wheat grain—a process which in turn makes bread-baking more straightforward. Furthermore, studies suggest that triticale is better suited to create whole meal products rather than other, finer powders—a fact which is not necessarily negative as many consumers in developed markets are showing a rising interest in perceivably healthier whole meal foods.
Since the majority of triticale is used for feed purposes—between 82 and 96 percent in top-producing Europe—there has been little reason for millers to develop better processing methods for the grain. But with greater human demand and further research, it is likely that more efficient ways of milling triticale would become apparent.
In countries where triticale would fare well as a food crop, failures in government policy have been part of the challenge facing its adoption. For instance, Kenya started triticale research in 1967 and the cereal was earmarked for production in various high-altitude regions of the country with medium to high rainfall, acidic soils and vulnerability to crop disease. New varieties were developed in the 1970s and later a triticale grading system was adopted to facilitate trade. The price of the cereal was pegged at 85 percent that of wheat with the claim that since it has 15 percent higher yield than wheat, it would push wheat out of production if traded at the same price. The price and marketing were controlled by the National Cereal and Produce Board (NCPB) and there was no direct contact between farmers and buyers. Dealing with the NCPB caused many challenges for the farmers. Among the issues were high transportation and handling costs due to delays in offloading at NCPB depots, late payments for their crop and low prioritization of triticale by the NCPB. Lack of sufficient awareness programs as well as a lack of available seed for planting put the nail in the coffin for a crop which could have supplemented Kenya’s demand for wheat, half of which needs to be imported.
Competition from other food grains also plays a key role in undermining triticale’s potential—corn, wheat and rice are all hugely popular grains throughout Africa, and so they tend to command the most attention and resources. Furthermore, wheat, the crop which triticale has the most potential to displace, has been in a global state of surplus in recent years, and prices of the commodity have been falling as a result. The International Grains Council (IGC) has also projected an increase in wheat production in 2015/2016, and interest in the hybrid as a potential substitute has been waning as a result.
Lastly, there is a lack of an established global triticale market, as well as of price and grading factors. The price of triticale tends to track that of other cereals, sometimes containing a premium for protein content. Individual countries, such as Canada and the United States, have their own grading systems for triticale, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. A harmonized, more global market will have to be established in order for triticale production and trade to truly take off.
The Polish experience
Poland was the world’s largest producer of triticale in 2013. Triticale was introduced to the country in 1968 through a CIMMYT breeding program. In many ways, this was an excellent match both with the climate and soils of Poland.
Poland’s soils are of fairly low quality, and light, loose and weak loamy types make up 34.6 percent of total soils in the country. Of total arable land, only 23 percent is considered good or very good, compared to 30 percent that is rated as extremely poor. The country’s winters go from fairly wet with temperatures around freezing to dry and extremely cold with temperatures averaging -10 degree Celsius. Rainfall averages 583 mm annually with most of the country receiving between 500 and 600 millimeters of rainfall.
Due to Poland’s poor soils and weather conditions, rye is well-suited to grow in the country. Hardy and disease-resistant, rye withstands harsh Polish soils and unpredictable weather. That said, its protein content and yield are low when compared to a crop like wheat. These realities made Poland a perfect candidate for triticale. In 1967, through one of the most successful triticale breeding programs to date, Poland developed three new strains of the cereal, Lasko, Grado and Dagro. Lasko was particularly successful and went to be the most popular variety and was grown in other European countries and as far afield as New Zealand.
Between 2000 and 2011, Poland increased triticale production by 123 percent, hitting 4.2 million tonnes in 2011 and the area dedicated to the crop grew by 83 percent in the same period to 1.2 million hectares.
Poland only exports between 0 and 4.6 percent of its triticale, with the bulk of production being consumed on farms as animal feed. Most of the production happens on large, highly-mechanized farms during the winter since Poland tends to have dry summers and short springs. Winter triticale accounted for over 90 percent of total triticale production in Poland. Persistent research into triticale has seen Poland produce adaptable cultivars such as Lasko and Dargo.
Triticale’s low cost of production and adaptive properties have led to its growing popularity in Poland and other European countries. The low input requirements of the crop also make it an ideal option for non-extractive, sustainable agriculture and organic farming. While both wheat and rye are avidly consumed in Europe, the hybrid of the two has yet to catch on as a grain consumed by humans. But as interest in new “alternative” and healthy grains is growing around the developed world, so too is interest in, and chatter about, triticale.
According to the World Bank, food demand in Africa is set to increase by 60 percent over the next 15 years. Africa, whose poor soils have suffered for decades from a lack of nourishing fertilizers, would therefore benefit from the use of sustainable crop varieties capable of growing in the continent’s varied, hostile conditions. Triticale is far from being a panacea for the impending food crisis; but nevertheless it does have the potential to displace some of the region’s growing dependence on wheat imports, while also representing an inspiring option as a crop capable of withstanding erratic climates and increasingly marginal soils.