Competing with wheat

A NEW variety of a human-made cereal called triticale that is nutritionally superior to wheat will be planted in India's hilly tracts in the next rabi, or winter crop, season. Developed after 7 years of efforts by a team of scientists of the Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the new variety can be easily grown in acidic soils which is found in the lower Himalayan region, traditionally inimical to wheat.

K L Chadha, the deputy director general for crop sciences at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, is confident that in the hill districts of the country, this new variety has a good chance of gaining acceptability as a super foodcrop.

Triticale -- produced by crossing wheat with rye -- has the advantages of both wheat (Triticum aestivum) and rye (Secale cereal). It has inherited wheat's high yielding potential, its large grains, and adaptability to diverse climatic conditions. From rye it gets its superior nutritional qualities and its ability to resist diseases such as wheat rust and powdery mildew. Triticale has about 15 per cent protein, whereas the protein content of wheat is only 10-12 per cent. Moreover, triticale is rich in lysine, an amino acid that is one of the 20 basic building blocks of proteins.

The new variety of triticale -- DT-46 -- the team of scientists led by M K Upadhaya reckons, should also do well in areas where the soils are plagued by aluminium toxicity and boron deficiency, much the same way as its parent rye. They are confident that this variety will prove to be less dependent on fertilisers as compared to wheat.

Developed by American scientist A S Wilson in 1876, triticale has progressed from a mere biological curiosity to a foodcrop. Triticale has been a runaway success in Australia and Brazil. However, in India, the crop failed to catch the farmers' imagination when it was introduced in the '70s because its flour lacked chapati-making qualities.

IARI scientists claim that they have been able to lick this problem. They explain that the poor processing qualities of triticale flour as compared to wheat flour are due to its lower gluten -- a component of starch which is activated when the flour is kneaded into a dough -- content. Because of the comparably lower gluten but higher protein content, triticale flour dough is not as elastic as wheat dough.

Following a hunch the IARI scientists concentrated on breeding triticale varieties with amber coloured seeds. They assumed that these seeds which resembled wheat grains would also contain more gluten. The surmise paid off.

B K Mishra and A K Duggal at the quality control lab of the wheat directorate analysed the flour from the new triticale variety's grains and found that it does contain higher gluten than other varieties. Moreover, IARI scientists claim that their studies show that it has good processing qualities -- puffing, elasticity and kneadability.