Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

The Social Worlds of Wheat

in Environment and Society
Author:
Jessica Barnes University of South Carolina jebarnes@mailbox.sc.edu

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ABSTRACT

Wheat is one of the world’s most widely grown, traded, and consumed crops. This article reviews the interdisciplinary literature on human-wheat interactions, tracing how various actors engage with wheat up until its point of consumption. I look first at wheat as a seed, examining efforts to transform wheat over time through farmer selection and scientific breeding, and the emergence of high-yielding wheat, hybrid wheat, and genetically modified wheat. Second, I look at wheat as a plant and what it means to farm wheat. I highlight two key dimensions of farmer-wheat interactions—farmers’ choice of variety and their management of risk. Finally, I look at wheat as a grain and the practices of transportation, sorting, and trade that mediate flows of harvested grain from field to market. Through reviewing these three areas of literature, the article reveals the social worlds that both shape and are shaped by this globally significant crop.

Contributor Notes

JESSICA BARNES is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and the School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of South Carolina. Her work focuses on the culture and politics of resource use and enviromental change in the Middle East. Her publications include Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (2014), Climate Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives on Climate Change (coedited with Michael R. Dove, 2015), and articles in a number of peer reviewed journals including Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Critique of Anthropology, Social Studies of Science, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and Geoforum. Her current project draws on ethnographic and archival work to examine the longstanding and widespread identification of food security in Egypt with self-sufficiency in wheat and bread.

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