There is “huge potential” to diversify the range of organic and heritage crops grown in Ireland, according to Irish Organic Association (IOA) development officer Grace Maher.

Maher said "a heritage crop is one which was grown approximately 100 to 150 years ago" which is not grown widely today. Crops grown prior to this period are termed as 'ancient' and crops grown in the last century are known as 'modern'.

Maher highlighted the need for more on-farm crop breeding on organic farms and said that such tillage farmers must work with plant breeders, millers and bakers to fully understand their crops and build a market.

She was speaking during a presentation - 'Growing organic heritage wheat' - as part of this week’s BioFarm Conference organised by the National Organic Training Skillnet.

Potential

Maher described the potential genetic, health, disease resistance and climate tolerance benefits to be found in organic heritage crops.

She said: “Heritage grains have that natural ability and resilience. They certainly can be adaptable to a lot of the climate issues we’re coming up against.

“While heritage grains do have gluten in them, so they’re not gluten free, they have anti-inflammatory properties, which, in the human gut, can be quite beneficial.

“When we look at climate change, heritage crops tend to be far more resistant in the face of drought and flooding.”

Maher described the greater biomass and deeper root systems in heritage crops, which improve the crop’s ability to reach the water table in drought, take nutrients from the soil and allow greater photosynthesis, all aspects which she said will be vital for continued crop production in a changing climate.

Diversity

Maher said that of the “250,000 plant species on the planet, approximately 50,000 are edible, but only 15 crops provide 90% of our calories”.

She highlighted the importance of organic heritage crops in maintaining and improving genetic diversity in arable production and noted that “only 1% to 2% of wheat varieties are grown in fields globally and the rest are kept in gene banks”.

“What we do know is farmers will grow organic heritage crops and will grow them well if there’s a market for them.

“We need to do a lot more from an Irish context when we look at processing and marketing heritage grains.”

Maher claimed that the “public would like to see more organic grown flour available on shelves” and said “there’s certainly potential to diversify the range of organic crops grown” here.