As some of our readers might know, Realm of History is based on the philosophy that the destiny of mankind’s future endeavors is, often times, guided by the workings of our past. Now, a research by plant biologists from the University of Western Australia has corroborated this belief, while also shedding light on the highly accurate and effective wheat farming practices of the ancient Romans. Published recently in the Scientific Reports journal, the study highlights the impact of rising temperatures on wheat crops, something that the Romans already predicted more than 2,000 years ago.
Essentially, what the scientists have discovered is that wheat is among the crops most susceptible to damage from flooding as a result of Earth’s rising surface temperatures. The damage, according to the team, is caused mainly due to the plant’s inadequate access to oxygen.
As part of the study, lead researcher Dr. Shaobai Huang and his colleagues at the UWA’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology looked at the various cellular mechanisms that different types of wheat plants rely on to cope with a lack of oxygen. He explained –
We tested the plants at 15°C to 28°C, and we found a dramatic negative impact on how well wheat plants recovered from a lack of oxygen under the higher temperatures. Not only is temperature arguably more important than the type of wheat, but small temperature changes can make a huge difference. At 20°C they were fine but at 24°C they suffered really badly.
So, basically, climate change affects wheat production in two ways: increasing temperatures and a higher likelihood of flooding.
Elaborating further, Professor Harvey Millar, the director of ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, stated –
This research shows that we don’t need temperatures to rise at the hottest part of the year to have a big impact on our crops. It might just be the difference between having a cool spring or a warm spring.
Cato’s Highly Accurate 2,100-Year-Old Predictions About Wheat Farming
Interestingly, during the course of the study, the team stumbled upon a Roman farming handbook that mentions the same effect. Touted as the oldest surviving complete work of Latin prose, De Agri Cultura by Cato the Elder is a treatise on agriculture composed in circa 160 BC.
It is a practical handbook on the cultivation of grape vines and olives as well as the grazing of livestock. The work’s historical significance lies in the fact that it details the transition from small landholdings to capitalistic farming in Latium, the region in central western Italy where the city of Rome was founded, and Campania in southwestern Italy.
The essay also contains information about some of the old customs and superstitions of Romans. In the book, Cato suggests that, while it is safe to leave rainwater on wheat fields through the cold parts of winter, it needs to be removed by spring to prevent damage to the crops.
While the sound wheat farming advice of the ancient Romans points to their excellent knowledge of agriculture, Professor Millar believes that the newly-acquired understanding of the mechanism within the wheat cells means that effective solutions to the problem are imminent. He concluded –
The Romans knew the problem but they didn’t have any way to try and find a solution, other than to drain the field. Today we now know that amino acids play an important role in how plants respond to a lack of oxygen. Based on this new research we may be able to come up with a breeding solution because after 2000 years we finally understand the mechanism behind the damage to wheat.