A new feature-length documentary from Australian nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara paints a largely one-sided look at wheat’s villainy, from promoter of diabetes and leaky gut syndrome to enabler of industrial agriculture’s greatest excesses. What’s with Wheat, which may be viewed free online from June 24th to 30th, gathers more than a dozen hand-picked scientists, farmers, researchers, and nutritionists from around the globe – Virginia farmer Joel Salatin and activist Vandana Shiva will be the most recognizable to North American audiences – to elucidate the science behind these claims. While the film is a bit conspiracy theory-ish at times – especially with the recurring doomsday soundtrack that comes in whenever a particularly ominous point is made – it does make a valiant attempt to explain the increase of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance in recent decades.
But people have consumed wheat for millennia! the skeptics will say. O’Meara and her panel argue that our health problems aren’t from the plant itself nor the traditional use of the grain – instead the issues are with the ways wheat has been hybridized in modern times, the chemicals that are applied to it in the field, and the industrial methods used to process it. (Not to mention the extraordinary quantities of it that we eat, and even slather over bodies in the form of the wheat-based ingredients in many cosmetic products, they point out.) They also suggest that our ancestors were more tolerant of gluten because their gut flora was not as out-of-whack as it is on the modern Western diet – and that foods made from fermented wheat, such as sourdough bread, are much more digestible.
Michael Pollan would agree with that last point, though in his recent documentary Cooked he celebrates wheat, and calls for a renaissance of bread-making using the feral yeasts native to one’s own kitchen. In Cooked, Pollan’s own hand-picked group of experts portrays the anti-gluten crusade as pseudoscience. You’ll have to watch both films and decide for yourself.
But what is wonderful about What’s with Wheat is how it unpacks the history of this storied grain and our relationship to it, which has ranged over time from reverence to repulsion. Salatin provides much of the agricultural context for the film, which by the end emerges as its most intriguing, and hopeful, storyline. Polyface Farm, Salatin’s “beyond organic,” multi-species, pasture-based livestock operation, was made legendary in Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the documentary Food, Inc.
Joel Salatin. Matt Eich
Modern Farmer recently reached Salatin at his home in the Shenandoah Valley to hear more about his views on wheat, and on grains generally, and how they could have a healthier role in our agricultural and food systems of the future than they do currently.
Modern Farmer: The film reminds me of some of the others that you’ve been in, including Food, Inc. which really unpacks the world of corn. This film did something similar for wheat. In both cases, corn and wheat are really a proxy for the larger food system, though each has such a fascinating story of its own. What sparks your fire about wheat?
JS: Certainly wheat is a cultural mainstay in our civilization. It’s important to appreciate that wheat, and all the small grains, were grown as much for straw – that is, for carbon material – as they were for the grain itself. Historically, the stalks were very, very long and they were used as straw to cover the soil or as bedding for animals, or as straw ticks for human beds. It was a soft thing to lie on, and it was organic matter that went back to the soil. I think today people don’t realize that wheat held such value as biomass in the past.
MF: The film gets into how hybridization changed the genetics of the wheat plant, and the implications of that for the body, but you’re just as interested in the implications for agriculture.
JS: I’m just talking from a farmer’s standpoint – the science of the germ and the seed and all that is beyond my pay grade. But as a farmer I can tell you that the stalks were very, very tall which meant that the ratio of stem to leaf to grain was very different. Breeder’s wanted a bigger seedhead, but of course it’s harder to hold a big heavy head on a tall stem, so the plant breeders started trying to downsize the stem. The amount of grain per amount of biomass today is probably a half to a third what it was 100 years ago.
Now, from a mechanical standpoint, that makes it easier to harvest because you don’t have all this stem and leaf and chaff to deal with. But from an ecological standpoint it means you are harvesting way more of the solar energy – you’re exporting off the land way more of solar energy that hit the plant, in the form of grain, than you did in the past. Before, when you harvested the grain, all that straw stayed on the land either directly as mulch, or indirectly as livestock bedding that was put back onto the field later.
MF: What impact does that have on a farm?
JS: Removing a greater percentage of the solar energy that was captured by the plant in the form of its seedhead fundamentally breaks the carbon cycle and makes the grain a more depleting system than it used to be. Those changes in the phenotype of the plant had to be made up for in other ways. With the availability of chemical fertilizers and petroleum, the demand for this biomass, for straw, to run a farm – what was historically the carbon component on a farm – gradually diminished to where the straw became a liability instead of an asset.
MF: That’s interesting – you’re saying it’s not that chemical-based ag came along and degraded soil quality; it’s that annual monocultures like wheat, which have been bred for high food yield, but low biomass yield, leave the soil impoverished, which then requires chemical inputs to rectify?
JS: Now it’s true that annuals have always depleted the soil and perennials have always built it up. But just because they deplete it a little and can be replaced with a couple of years of perennials to replenish the soil does not give license to make them more depleting to the point where the fertility takes much longer to replace or can’t be replaced at all.
MF: What are your thoughts on how modern wheat cultivation practices relate to human health?
JS: Part of it has to do with the actual logistics of harvesting. You used to go in with a scythe and cut it down, tie it up in a shock, and leave it in the field. This was always done in the summer or early fall, so it would get dry in the daytime, and then dew would come in and swell the grain heads in the night, so you had this dry, damp, dry, damp, dry, damp cycle which very, very gently fermented the grain a little bit after harvest.
Today we go in with a machine and harvest it and within a few minutes it’s taken to a gas grain dryer. The grain doesn’t go through that gentle curing process. Well, that gentle curing process has a dramatic effect on the enzymes; just like any fermentation or curing process – from charcuterie and smoked meats to pickling and whatever – that part is as important as the actual production phase. What are all of the nuances of that? I don’t think we even know yet. But there are definitely indicators that it does change the enzymes and the digestibility of the seedhead.
You might say, how can we grow pigs and chickens without all this wheat or whatever? The answer is we put those animals in their traditional roles.
MF: Polyface Farm doesn’t grow grains for human consumption, but grains do play a role on your farm. What is your vision of the role of grains on the modern farm?
JS: In my perfect world, certainly cows would not get any of them. And omnivores – chickens and pigs – would get almost none. The grains would go to people. You might say, how can we grow pigs and chickens without all this wheat or whatever? The answer is we put those animals in their traditional roles. For example, chickens would become salvagers, they would eat kitchen scraps. There has been a fundamental shift in our food and farming system in how we use food waste – it used to be the input for the omnivores. They got very, very little grain, just a smidgen of grain, and primarily ate off the land. If just one in three homes had enough chickens to eat their kitchen scraps, we could lay enough eggs for the entire country and wouldn’t need a single chicken factory.
So when you get into the discussion of what would the perfect world look like, it’s obviously a whole lot different; it is far more integrated than today’s segregated system. When you head down that path, you very quickly to begin to realize that there is a reason why ancient civilizations were founded on perennials with herbivores – goats, sheep, cows, yaks, camels, and whatever. That was the ancient foundation of diets, and then birds were royalty. They were a luxury. And pigs were simply scavengers. And grain was extremely expensive because it required tillage, it was hard to handle, and hard to keep vermin and rats and mice out of it.
What I’m getting at is that grain has always been a Holy Grail because it is very difficult to grow and harvest and store. With today’s mechanization, petroleum, chemical fertilizers, and all that, the reason we have been able to go to confined animal feeding operations and feed animals so much grain, is because we have a cheap energy source and mechanical harvesting that has fundamentally altered the cost of the grain. So for the first time in human civilization grain is very, very cheap, as opposed being very expensive.
MF: You are raising your cows on grass, but even though wheat is a grass, it’s a different approach because you are not harvesting the grain and raising your animals on that. Tell us how it works.
JS: That’s right. We do buy grain for the pigs and chickens. We get it GMO-free from local farmers here, and of course we like to see taller varieties of grain. It’s not all that way, but everybody is in a context. Our context is not a context of Little House on the Prairie. We have taxes, healthcare, and a cash-based society that creates a totally different context than people had 200 years ago.
MF: In that vein of thought, what are the options for industrial agriculture, as it is, to take baby steps in the direction you’re speaking of?
JS: One huge step would be to eliminate crop insurance and the government incentives that artificially keep grain prices low and mask the cost of erosion and dead zones. Corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, sugar, and cotton – those are the six major commodities. All six of them are artificially cheap and extremely erosive to the soil; they account for the lion’s share of the herbicides and pesticides and insecticides used, and they are overproduced. That would be the first place to make a change: to take away the prejudicial policies that make those artificially cheap and ignore their true costs.
Number two is for consumers, people like you and me, to quit eating grain-finished beef and animals produced in concentrated animal feeding operations. Some people say, [feigning an obnoxious accent] well there’s not enough produced right now. Well, the fact is everybody’s not going to make the change right now either. If every reader of Modern Farmer made that commitment today, that would be an incremental change in making a different tomorrow.
We need to get the herbivores – the cows, the goats, the sheep – we need to get them off of grain. That would drop 20 to 30 percent of the grain production overnight. And the beauty is that you don’t have to sacrifice any production to make that happen. With modern electric fencing and water piping we can now produce at least as many pounds of herbivore per acre than you can producing those same pounds on grain. So you are not sacrificing production for the ecology.
We need to get the herbivores – the cows, the goats, the sheep – we need to get them off of grain.
MF: So you’re saying if you took a certain amount of land that was being used to grow grains to feed livestock, and you just graze the livestock on that land instead, the yield of meat would be the same?
JS: Yes, the yield of human nutrition is identical or even better. I can go through all the numbers, but that is essentially what happens when you use perennial forages – things like clover, plantain, orchard grass, bluegrass, fescue, fall panicum, and gamma grass. There are tons and tons and tons of grasses and legumes and forbs that can grow together in a pasture. In a natural prairie the general rule of thumb is there are 40 species of plants in every single acre. There is that much diversity.
Nativized perennial forages, as opposed to annual grains, absolutely produces as much or more nutrition than if you grew grain and fed it to the animals. No question about it. That’s just pound-for-pound nutrition; it doesn’t account for the fact that it doesn’t take any petroleum, energy, machinery, or fertilizer, and it doesn’t result in dead zones. And it’s not nearly as fragile! An annual is always more fragile because you have to plant it; you have to get enough moisture on it to keep it alive. The beauty of a perennial is it’s much hardier season-to-season and year-after-year. That’s why it’s a perennial – it lasts!
MF: That’s a perfect segue to my next question. What are your thoughts on perennial wheat and the mission of some folks like Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Kansas to breed perennial grains?
JS: I think it’s fantastic. He’s devoted his life to it. A lot of people would call him a Don Quixote, but I think anything worth doing generally takes a lifetime. I’m a believer that if your vision can be accomplished in one lifetime, it’s too small. I applaud every effort in this direction; and they’ve actually made some real strides.
MF: Right. Because there’s nothing wrong with eating wheat or any other grains, it’s a matter of how we consume them, and the quantities we consume, and the way they are grown.
JS: Exactly. There is a guy in Australia named Colin Seis who has developed a system called pasture cropping. This is using animals, specifically herbivores, to strategically weaken a perennial sod enough to get an annual grain to germinate in it and grow. So rather than using an herbicide to kill the sod or a plow to turn the sod, instead you simply come in and graze, and then you back off for a little bit, and then you graze again quickly. And that actually weakens the sod temporarily to the point where you can seed in an annual. The annual then gets up ahead of this weakened sod, shades it out, and retards its growth; but you end up with a perennial groundcover underneath the annual grains. Then you harvest the annuals with a combine and the sod starts coming back.
MF: Sounds like a good method to grow grains on a large scale without some of the erosion and fertility issues.
JS: It’s absolutely stunning and profound. In my view it’s as big of a breakthrough in the annual game as electric fence and plastic pipe was for the controlled grazing game. It’s huge. If you can grow a grain crop without herbicide or fertilizer, using perennials as a groundcover so that you never expose the soil; that is a big deal.
If you can grow a grain crop without herbicide or fertilizer, using perennials as a groundcover so that you never expose the soil; that is a big deal.
MF: Is it being done on a large scale in Australia?
JS: He has a couple thousand farmers in Australia doing this method, and it’s jumping the pond now and people are doing it here in the US. In fact we’ve done a little bit of it here. We don’t harvest the grains with a combine, but we graze them down with cows. And we don’t use small grains that people would eat, but we are using some annuals like cowpeas, milo, sudex, and some grazing corn.
But here’s the thing. You can’t do that every year. I think Colin is doing it once every five years. So it takes four years for the perennials to replace the fertility that one grain crop pulled off. But you know, typical rotations in the past were seven years.
MF: Maybe this is way to bridge the more sustainable practices of the past with the present needs of feeding seven billion people?
JS: We need to put the animals back in their historic roles. Indeed, we need to put people in their historic roles. Just since the 1970s the per capita consumption of wheat in this country has tripled – since Triscuits and Doritos and all that stuff. So when we talk about feeding grains to animals, we have to also appreciate that the human consumption of grain has dramatically increased.
If the human consumption of grain dropped to pre-industrial levels – now we are back to Michael Pollan’s argument – healthcare would be a different story. If we just ate like we did before 1900, we wouldn’t have all these chronic diseases. Back then we mainly had infectious diseases, because we only took a bath about twice a month, but now that we have indoor plumbing and electricity and things like that we’ve eliminated these infectious diseases through better hygiene, but we’ve traded them off for non-infectious diseases by dropping the quality of our nutrition.
So the question is, why can’t we elevate the quality of our nutrition to where it was before 1900, and enjoy our bath every day? Why do we humans have to be so… [laughs].
JS: Unbalanced, I guess. It seems like we always trade one for another. Why can’t we just enjoy both?