What is a landrace? And why should we care?


Peter Martin, of the Agronomy Institute of UHI Orkney, gives us the lowdown on landrace crops and their relevance to contemporary society, with a particular emphasis on our shared interest – bere barley.

Where it all began

Today’s agricultural crops originated in many different parts of the world where they were brought into cultivation by local people many thousands of years ago. Over time, spontaneous genetic changes (mutations) occurred in crops. These mutations resulted in the occasional appearance in farmers’ fields of plants with special characteristics. These outstanding plants had traits like better yield, better taste, better disease resistance, or better ability to grow in adverse conditions. 

Farmers have always looked for and nurtured plants with useful characteristics, for obvious reasons. By repeatedly collecting and sowing seed from such plants, they developed new crop strains with special traits. This process continued down the generations and farmers and seeds moved from one area to another. By the 19th century a great variety of crop strains, well‐suited to specific areas or for special purposes, were being grown across the world. These strains have been called ‘landraces’. 


“Big Ag”

When modern plant breeding started at the beginning of the 20th century, breeders commonly used superior plants from landraces as parents for producing the first hybrid crop varieties. They could produce a new variety in as little as 6 -15 years depending on the crop and method. A major difference between landraces and modern varieties is that landraces developed over long periods of time by a process of farmer and environmental selection and continually evolve as the conditions under which they are grown change.

Bere barley [left] measured against modern varieties

The new varieties of crops produced by plant breeders in the 20th century had many advantages over landraces – higher yields, more grain heads per plant, improved quality traits and resistance to several diseases. Dramatic changes were made to make them more suitable for mechanised agriculture. In barley, the long straw of landraces was replaced by much shorter, stiffer straw [see photo], allowing more fertiliser to be applied without the risk of crops lodging (falling over). But they don’t evolve. Modern varieties usually only have a short commercial life; they are soon replaced by ‘better’ varieties.

As high yield became an increasingly dominant objective of crop production in the more economically advanced countries, farmers rapidly adopted modern varieties in preference to landraces.  In order to obtain the high yields from the new varieties, however, farmers also had to adopt a wide range of inputs (e.g. fertilisers and crop protection chemicals) to provide them with optimum growing conditions.

Over the 20th century it is thought that the area of bere barley, a landrace grown for 1000 years in Scotland, decreased from about 4,000 to 20 hectares.

The picture in modern times

Today, in Europe, landraces are seldom grown on a large scale and are mostly only grown in less developed, less intensively farmed, more remote, more peripheral areas. They tend to be more resilient to stress (e.g. drought or poor soils) than modern varieties and even out‐perform them in places where growing conditions are not optimal. 

Bere barley is only grown now in the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) and the Western Isles where they grow bere (Hordeum vulgare) for animal feed as part of a crop mixture with landraces of rye (Secale cereale) and black oats (Avena strigosa). In these regions, growing seasons are short, late and cool. The coastal locations have sandy soils which are nutrient-deficient. Bere grows successfully with low-input farming on these soils and it can produce a crop of grain in a short period of time. The unfashionable long straw always was and still is valued for animal bedding. 

Landraces also survive where they can be grown for higher value specialist markets for which they may still have a quality advantage over modern varieties – for instance, their taste. Products made from them might hold a cultural / heritage value that can aid their conservation. 

This is certainly the case in Orkney with bere barley flatbreads, called bannocks, and the Barony Mill. Happily, Bruichladdich’s bere barley whisky has been part of the revival since 2005 [Read more here >]. There are other craft enterprises that value bere barley’s distinctive flavour and high provenance up on Orkney too. [more here from a trip to Orkney >]

Conservation of landraces is also important because they are a valuable genetic resource for producing modern varieties. In the face of accelerating climate change, for example, they give us more options.

While it is generally agreed that the best method of conserving landraces is to continue growing them in their region of origin, it is also vital to conserve them in genebank collections in case they are lost or abandoned. This is now being done in several parts of the world, so we should be able to draw on landrace crops, and recognise their value, long into the future.

roots and futures

With thanks to Peter Martin.

See our latest bere barley whisky here Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2010 > 

Read more about everything barley  Our Barley Obsession >


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