Photo © Steven Foster
Barley is an annual that grows to 3 ft (1m) with an erect hollow stem, lance-shaped leaves and “ears” bearing twin rows of seeds and long bristles.1 Barley originated as a wild grass in the Near East and evidence suggests that it was cultivated as early as 6000 BCE. Barley is the fourth largest crop in the world.2
History and Cultural Significance
Barley is one of the world’s oldest cereal crops. Historically, it has primarily been used as a grain for bread and malt production.3 Bread made from barley grain is flat and heavy due to the lack of gluten.4 The earliest evidence of barley was found at an excavation site in Syria that dates to 8000 BCE, although the store of barley discovered is believed to have been gathered from the wild rather than harvested from a domesticated crop.3 Roman gladiators were referred to as hordearri, or barley men, since it was a staple of their diet.5 Barley was the basic unit of measurement of the Sumerians from 4000 BCE until 2000 BCE. Evidence of its use as a form of monetary exchange has been translated from The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE). In India, it was dedicated to the God Indra, “He who ripens barley”. The Dutch brought barley to the New World for use in the manufacture of beer.6 Barley is the main ingredient of tsampa, a principle dish of the Himalayas consisting of roasted barley, black tea, salt, and yak butter.5 Historically barley has been employed as a remedy for fevers and inflammation of the respiratory and urinary tracts. Barley water has been added to cow’s milk to dilute it, making it easier for infants and small children to digest.7 Other uses of barley as food include barley sugar, barley water, and in soups and stews.
Studies have shown that barley may help support cardiovascular health.8 These benefits are attributed to the soluble fiber content within barley. Another study found that women who included barley in their regular diet may lower their risk of developing gallstones. Researchers believe this is due to the insoluble fiber content of barley.9
Currently the largest commercial producers of barley are Canada, the United States, the Russian Federation, Germany, France, and Spain. In 2003 Canada produced 12.3 billion tons of barley.10 In 2004 the United States exported 51,455 thousand metric tons of barley for sale outside of the U.S.11 Most commercial sale of barley is for use as malt in beer and as grain for animal fodder.
Sustainability of barley as a cash crop is improved by crop rotation, including rotation of varieties. Not only does this maintain crop health but it also prevents the build-up of disease organisms.12
1 Chevallier A. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing; 1996.
2 Barley Foods: Just the Facts. National Barley Foods Council. Available at: http://www.barleyfoods.org/facts.html. Accessed July 3, 2005.
3 Davidson A. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press;
4 Judd PA, Vaughan JG. The Oxford Book of Health Foods. New York: Oxford University Press; 2003.
5 Wood R. The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin Group; 1999.
6 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company; 1996.
7 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. Vol.2. New York: Dover Books; 1971.
8 Kay M, Behall, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch J. Lipids Significantly Reduced by Diets Containing Barley in Moderately Hypercholesterolemic Men. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004;23(1):55-62.
9 Tsai CJ, Sc.D., Leitzman MF, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Long-term intake of dietary fiber and decreased risk of cholecystectomy in women. American Journal of Gastroenterology. July 2004.99(7):1364-1370.
10 International Food Conference Highlights a Food Marketplace in Transition. Barley Country. Alberta Barley Commission. Available at: http://www.albertabarley.com/publications/downloads/BarleyCountrySpring05.pdf. Accessed July 7, 2005.
11 Map & Graph: Agriculture: Grains - Coarse grain exports. NationMaster.com. Available at: http://www.nationmaster.com/red/graph-T/agr_gra_coa_gra_exp&int=50. Accessed July 7, 2005.
12 How to maximize wheat and barley success with ICM. Western Grains Research Foundation. Available at: http://www.westerngrains.com/n_researchMag/rm_0402a.html. Accessed July 7, 2005.