A helping hand for Swiss organic wheat
In a three-year research project, a project team identified the key factors that have a positive effect on the quality of organic wheat. The project is exemplary, since it involved all the players in the supply chain, from wheat farms and processing plants to bakeries, linking agronomic and economic aspects.
From 2012 to 2014, researchers examined the fields of forty wheat producers located between Basel and Geneva to see how quality and yield could be improved. Gluten plays a central role.
The gluten challenge
The gluten content of flour has an effect on the baking quality of flour. When the wet gluten content of flour is higher, the dough absorbs water more easily, keeps longer, is more elastic and has a higher baking volume. Dry organic gluten or flour from imported organic wheat is added to local organic flour to ensure that it satisfies the regulations. Both of these added ingredients are inconsistent with the customer demand for naturally produced organic bread from Swiss wheat. Dry gluten, in particular, is not environmentally friendly since it requires an energy-intensive process to be produced.
The researchers found that genetics, i.e. crop variety, play a decisive role in influencing gluten content. Flour from certain crop varieties naturally contains more wet gluten than other crop varieties. In addition, crop rotation (planting cycles) also plays an important role: if cereals are cultivated too often at the same location, this has a negative effect. Alternating between planting clover or leguminous crops and cultivating cereal crops has a positive effect. The soil also played a role: a high humus content had a positive influence on the content of wet gluten. An additional dose of nitrogen increased the crop yield, but did not guarantee a higher content of wet gluten in organic farming alone.
Quality testing at the collection centre
The farms’ efforts to achieve better wheat quality is tested at the collection centre using a quick measurement process to determine the protein content, which correlates with the content of wet gluten measured in the lab. Quality testing makes it possible to classify organic wheat and to introduce an incentive scheme.
An incentive scheme sets different prices for different quality grades of organic wheat, motivating producers to produce wheat of the highest possible quality. This scheme also contributed to the success of the three-year project. Producers received detailed feedback on the quality of the wheat delivered and were paid different prices based on wheat quality. The researchers were able to confirm that producers also have a decisive influence on quality in organic wheat cultivation.