Barley in the Modern World

Americans eat relatively little barley compared with other parts of the world, but it is growing in popularity in the United States, especially among those who are vegetarians or eating more plant-based foods. Barley is found in soups, stews, stuffings, salads, and other grain dishes. In 1959, however, less than 1 percent of the U.S. barley crop nourished Americans. In the United States, soup and baby food contain barley, as do some breakfast cereals. In North Africa, southwestern and South Asia, Italy, Germany, Finland, Ethiopia, Tibet, Nepal, and Peru, barley is an important source of nourishment. Peruvians grow barley in the highlands of the Andes Mountains. In these regions, people eat barley in flat bread, gruel, and porridge. Barley that goes to make beer has less protein than the barley that feeds livestock. The barley that is fermented into beer needs a long growing season, cool temperatures, and uniform moisture.

In 1990, Germany was the leading grower of barley. Canada was second and France third. The United States was fifth. Europe’s climate, with its cool summers (temperatures range between 54°F and 76°F in July) and uniform rainfall, give farmers the best yields. Yields are high in Switzerland. Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia all boast yields above 100 bushels per acre. Thanks to this productivity, Europe produced 69 percent of the world’s barley in 1990. In contrast to Europe’s fecundity, hot, dry North Africa was not an ideal region for the cultivation of barley. In 1990, Morocco averaged just 16.6 bushels per acre of barley. Yields were worse in Tunisia with 16.2 bushels per acre and Algeria with 12.5 bushels per acre. Worldwide, barley is fourth in acreage, trailing corn, rice, and wheat. Europe and Asia plant 75 percent of the world’s barley acreage.

The success of hybrid corn led to efforts to hybridize barley on an ambitious scale. Progress was initially slow. The production of a hybrid required scientists to emasculate the barley plants that they designated the female lines. Barley has small flowers with anther and stigma close together. To emasculate a plant, scientists must penetrate the flower, removing the anther before it sheds pollen. Although this procedure may be done on a few plants without too much trouble, it is too time consuming and labor intensive to emasculate acre after acre of barley. Once an anther is removed, its pollen is used to fertilize the stigma of another plant to yield a hybrid. The discovery of genes that cause barley to produce no pollen eased the production of hybrids. Scientists now derive hybrid barley by using male sterile lines as the female line, crossing them with fully fertile plants as the male line. Hybrid barley yields between 15 and 35 percent more grain than its parents. Some progeny have even achieved 50 percent more grain than their parents.

In areas of Canada and Australia unsuitable for corn, farmers grow barley for livestock. These countries export barley to Asia for feed. Because of the oversupply of wheat on the world market, some farmers have switched from wheat to barley. In southeastern Europe, however, some farmers have switched from barley to corn because of its superiority as feed. Since 1991, barley acreage has declined 14 percent worldwide as farmers has converted acreage to corn. Worldwide, 85 percent of barley is used as feed. Yet barley faces competition from wheat, whose surplus is also used to feed livestock.

Some 18 million tons of barley are fermented into the world’s 1.3 million liters of beer. Increasing beer consumption in Asia and South America should stimulate the demand for barley. In Moravia, farmers grow the variety Hanna for making beer. In Scandinavia, farmers grow Binder, Kenia, Opal, and Maja, all derivative of Hanna. Scientists crossed Kenia with the variety Britburly to yield Proctor.

Scientists have found challenging the attempt to breed varieties that have both high yield and suitability for malting. In addition to its use in making beer, malted barley is an ingredient in candy bars, milkshakes, chocolate flavored beverages, and vinegar.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Barley: Origin, Botany, Culture, Winter Hardiness, Genetics, Utilization, Pests. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1979.

Briggs, D.E. Barley. London: Chapman and Hall, 1978.

Dineley, Merryn. Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic. Oxford: BAR International, 2004. Hughes, Meredith Sayles. Glorious Grasses: The Grains. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1999. Slafer, Gustavo A., Jose Luis Molina-Cano, Roxana Savin, Jose Luis Araus, and Ignacio Romangosa, eds. Barley Science: Recent Advances from Molecular Biology to Agronomy of Yield and Quality. New York: Food Products Press, 2002.

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