For more than 40 years, one wheat variety dominated the Canadian prairies. Red Fife — the red-seeded wheat grown by David Fife, a Scottish immigrant — gave the highest yields of the best quality. It almost didn’t happen, if you believe the stories. And then, having set the standard, Red Fife was eclipsed by its own offspring and slowly slid into oblivion. Until, in 1986, Sharon Rempel set about rescuing it.
Thanks to Kara Gray and Richard Gray for their help.
This short episode fails to do justice to the man who, more than anyone, first grasped the importance of knowing where and how wheat arose. It does, however, explain why Vavilov wanted to collect the building material of future food security, for wheat and many other crops. In more than 60 countries, Vavilov and his colleagues gathered diversity from farmers’ fields; they died protecting their collections.
Thanks to Luigi Guarino for the photograph of Vavilov’s desk with his route across Ethiopia, and much else besides.
One day I’d like to get a solid biography of Vavilov’s to read, but until then, this short, but excellent story will have to suffice.
Kamut® is a modern wheat — registered and trademarked in 1990 — with an ancient lineage. The word is ancient Egyptian, and the hieroglyphics may literally mean “Soul of the Earth”. More prosaically, “bread”. The story of its discovery and growing popularity says a lot about our hunger for stories. It is also quite capable of leading hard-nosed molecular biologists astray.
Ancient grains used to be rare and hard to find not because they contained some magical secret for a long and fulfilled life, but because they take a lot more work than modern wheats. Instead of the wheat berry popping free after a gentle rubbing, they need to be bashed and pounded. Now, of course, we have machines to do that kind of thing, but our ancestors were mostly only too happy to abandon hulled wheats, unless they had no option.
Drop what you’re doing and immediately go out to subscribe to Our Daily Bread: A history of wheat and bread in very short episodes!
The illustrious and inimitable Jeremy Cherfas is producing a whole new form of beauty by talking about wheat and bread in a podcast for thirty days.
It’s bundled up as part of his longer-running Eat This Podcast series, which I’ve been savoring for years.
Now that you’re subscribed and your life will certainly be immeasurably better, a few thoughts about how awesome this all is…
Last December I excitedly ran across the all-too-well-funded podcast Modernist Breadcrumbs. While interesting and vaguely entertaining, it was an attempt to be a paean to bread while subtly masking the fact that it was an extended commercial for the book series Modernist Bread by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya which had been released the month prior.
I trudged through the entire series (often listening at 1.5-2x speed) to pick up the worthwhile tidbits, but mostly being disappointed. As I finished listening to the series, I commented:
Too often I found myself wishing that Jeremy Cherfas had been picked up to give the subject a proper 10+ episode treatment. I suspect he’d have done a more interesting in-depth bunch of interviews and managed to weave a more coherent story out of the whole. Alas, twas never thus.
A bit later Jeremy took the time to respond to my comment:
I’ve no idea how the series actually came about, or what anyone aside from Chris really thought about it. It would be nice to see any kind of listener engagement, but it’s hard to find anything. There are three tweets over the entire series that use the show’s official tags.
Still, what’s done is done, and I doubt anyone would want to support another series all about bread. Or would they … ?
I’ll admit I did spend a few long and desperate weeks salivating with \hope over that ominously hanging “Or would they…?” statement. Ultimately, I let it pass distracted by listening to Jeremy’s regular Eat This Podcast episodes. Then this past week I’ve been bowled over by discovering what has obviously been fermenting since.
I’d love to take credit for “planting the seed” as it were for this new endeavour, but I suspect that the thousands upon thousands of adoring listening fans that Mssr. Cherfas’ podcast has, he’s heard dozens of similar requests every day over the years. Even more likely, it’s his very own love of bread that spawned the urge (he does, after all, have a bread blog named Fornacalia!), but I’ll quietly bask as if I had my very own personal suggestion box to have a first-class production staff at my beck and call to make me custom podcast content about food, science, and culture.
It’s always amazing to me how scintillating Jeremy Cherfas’ work manages to be in these. What is not to love about his editorial eye, interview skills, his writing, his production abilities? I’m ever astounded by the fact that his work is a simple one man show and not a 20 person production team.
I’m waiting for the day that the Food Network, The Cooking Channel, HGTV, or a network of their stripe (or perhaps NPR or PBS) discovers his supreme talent and steals him away from us to better fund and extend the reach of the culinary talent and story-telling he’s been churning out flawlessly for years now. (I’m selfishly hoping one of them snaps him up before some other smart, well-funded corporation steals him away from us for his spectacular communication abilities to dominate all his free time away from these food-related endeavors.)
Of course, if you’re a bit paranoid like me, perhaps you’d find his fantastic work is a worthwhile cause to donate to? Supporting his work means there’s more for everyone.
Now, to spend a moment writing up a few award nominations… perhaps the Beard first?
Cultivation is not the same as domestication. Domestication involves changes that do the plant no good in the wild, but that make it more useful to the people who cultivate it. Seeds that don’t disperse, for example, and that aren’t all that well protected from pests and diseases. In this episode, where did people begin the process of domesticating wheat, and what set them on the road to agriculture.
Modern bread wheat contains more than five times more DNA than people, in a much more complicated arrangement. As a result, it has taken a fair old while to decode wheat’s genome. Having done so, though, the DNA confirms what plant scientists have long suspected — that bread wheat is the result of two separate occasions on which an ancestor of wheat crossed with a goat grass. The DNA also tells us when those crosses might have happened.
Maybe you heard about the oldest crumbs of burnt toast in the world. But have you stopped to wonder how the archaeologists found those crumbs? The bread they came from was a fine, mixed grain loaf that might well have been a special dish at a feast. It is even possible that bread was the first elite food that became affordable thanks to industrial technology — agriculture.
When did people start to eat wheat? The date keeps getting pushed back, and is now around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. That is long before the dawn of intentional agriculture. How do we know? Because a man who died in a cave hadn’t cleaned his teeth, and stuck in the tartar were grains of boiled starch. Which raises another set of problems that seem to have been solved by wilderness survival experts.
It’s magic, I know. First a pretty ordinary grass becomes the main source of sustenance for most of the people alive on Earth. Then they learn how to turn the seeds of that grass into the food of the gods. Join me, every day in August, as I dig into Our Daily Bread for the Dog Days of Podcasting with short episodes on the history of wheat and bread.
In the 1960s, using the most primitive of tools, an American plant scientist demonstrated that a small family, working not all that hard for about three weeks, could gather enough wild cereal seeds to last them easily for a year or more. Jack Harlan’s experiments on the slopes of the Karacadağ mountains in Turkey offer a perfect gateway to this exploration of the history of bread and wheat.
Photo of Wild einkorn, wild emmer and Aegilops species in Karacadag mountain range by H. Özkan.
In the previous episode, I talked to Phil Howard of Michigan State University about concentration in the food industry. Afterwards, I realised I had been so taken up with what he was telling me that I forgot to ask him one crucial question.
Is there any effect of concentration on public health or food safety?
It seems intuitively obvious that if you have long food chains, dependent on only a few producers, there is the potential for very widespread outbreaks. That is exactly what we are seeing in the current outbreaks of dangerous E. coli on romaine lettuce and Salmonella in eggs. But it is also possible that big industrial food producers both have the capital to invest in food safety and face stiffer penalties when things go wrong.
Are small producers and short food chains better? Marc Bellemare, at the University of Minnesota, has uncovered a strong correlation between some food-borne illnesses and the number of farmers’ markets relative to the population.
Phil thinks one answer is greater decentralization. There’s no good reason why all the winter lettuce and spinach in America should come from a tiny area around Yuma, Arizona. Marc says consumer education would help; we need to handle the food we buy with more attention to keeping it safe. Both solutions will take quite large changes in behaviour, by government and by ordinary people.
Right now, it probably isn’t possible to say with any certainty whether one system is inherently safer than the other. But even asking the question raises some interesting additional questions. If you have answers, or even suggestions, let me know.
- Phil Howard’s work on food-borne illness is on his website.
- Marc Bellemare’s work on farmers’ markets and food-borne illness has gone through a few iterations. He’ll email you a copy of the final paper if you ask.
- An episode early last year looked at aspects of food safety in developing countries. Spoiler: shorter food chains are safer there.
- Banner photo, norovirus. Cover photo, E. coli. Both public domain to the best of my knoweldge.
Industrial accidents, tragic though they may be, can also lead to change. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911 is credited with changing a generation’s attitudes to worker safety, unions and regulation. Eighty years later, another industrial fire also killed workers because, like the Triangle fire, the doors were chained shut from the outside. That fire, at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, changed almost nothing.
In his new book The Hamlet Fire, historian Bryant Simon uses the fire to tell what he calls A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government and Cheap Lives. Simon’s thesis is essentially that the Hamlet fire wasn’t really an accident; circumstances conspired to make it likely, and if it hadn’t happened in Hamlet, it would have happened somewhere else. Among the points he makes: at the time of the fire North Carolina, a state that my imagination sees as resolutely rural, was the most industrialised of the United States. It had become so essentially by gutting control, regulation and inspection in order to attract jobs.
The USDA, responsible for the safety of the food people eat, agreed that a good way to keep out flies would be to lock the doors of the plant. But the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration had never once inspected the plant.
There’s a whole lot of Bryant Simon’s analysis that just wouldn’t fit comfortably in the episode. One nugget I really want to share here is a brief little scene from the first season of The Wire.
In a minute and a half, David Simon’s characters offer an object lesson in poultry economics, which Bryant Simon uses to explore the real history of the chicken nugget. And the dipping sauces are the key to overcoming chicken fatigue. Genius.
We need some better regulations to prevent this type of race to the bottom… Companies that are found in violation of things like this should be forced to pay a multiple of the cost of having supported the potential regulations upfront in addition to major fines for the loss of life. Too many companies are free-riding on the fact that they’re not paying the cost for externalities which affect their workers, their environment, and their communities.
One week jam, the next global hunger and malnutrition. That’s the joy of Eat This Podcast; I get to present what interests me, in the hope that it interests you too. It also means I sometimes get to talk to my friends about how they see the big picture around food. Dr Jessica Fanzo, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Columbia University’s Insitute of Human Nutrition, Special Advisor on Nutrition Policy at the Earth Institute’s Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, also at Columbia, and much else besides, is one such friend. She was in Rome recently for a preparatory meeting for a big UN conference on nutrition next year, so I took the opportunity to catch up, and to ask some very basic questions about global hunger.
I confess, I have very little time for the global talk shops that meet so that, somehow, magically, the poor can eat. And having attended a few, there does seem to be a dearth of people who have studied malnutrition and hunger first hand, and made a difference. Jess Fanzo has been promoting the idea of nutrition-sensitive agriculture as a way to make a difference locally, while recognizing that there can be no simple, global solutions. You have to see what works in one place, and then adapt it to your own circumstances. There are no simple global solutions. The primary point – that governments have some responsibility for ensuring that their citizens at least have the opportunity to be well-nourished – seems often to be lost in the din of governments talking about other things. And interfering busybodies declaring war on hunger don’t seem to have much luck either. I don’t have any solutions.
- Check out Dr Fanzo’s credentials at the Institute of Human Nutrition and the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development.
- She was also the first winner of the Premio Daniel Carasso; there’s a videoabout that too.
- She’s written about her fieldwork and how it informs her global view. (And, as an aside, how come big-shot bloggers don’t care about spam? Come on, people. Your negligence makes life worse for everybody.)
- The Integration of Nutrition into Extension and Advisory Services: A Synthesis of Experiences, Lessons, and Recommendations reports on ways to promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture. And the research extends to social media.
- The paper I mentioned, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is Comparative impact of climatic and nonclimatic factors on global terrestrial carbon and water cycles.
- Photo of Jess Fanzo in Timor Leste by Nick Appleby.
I love plumbing the archives of this podcast and relistening to old episodes. This is easily my second time around on this episode.
Dairy cows unavoidably produce male calves that are of no use to the dairy industry. They used to end up as veal, and in 1960, Britons ate more than 600,000 calves worth of the stuff. By the 1980s, that had dropped to less than 35,000. Ten years ago, a UK trade magazine said that “public opinion … generally regards veal as ethically somewhere between dodo omelettes and panda fritters”.
And yet, today there’s no shortage of veal and no surplus of dairy bullocks.
Time was when veal calves were kept in the dark. These days, it may be the shoppers who have helped to solve the problem of surplus male dairy calves. Behind the shift is a complicated story of moral outrage, utterly unpredictable disease outbreaks and the willingness of some strange bedfellows to work together to solve a difficult problem for the food supply system.
- Gillian Hopkinson is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University School of Management.
- Clips from BBC Radio 4 – You and Yours and BBC World Service – Witness, Mad cow disease – CJD.
- Music by Podington Bear.
- Banner photo of two Dutch dairy calves by Peter Nijenhuis and cover by debstreasures.
The realities of milk and beef production may not always square with our societal morality. Things are more complicated than they may seem and require second and third level thought and problem solving to come up with worthwhile solutions. I remember outcry when I was younger and knew that things had shifted, but haven’t heard any follow up stories until now. Glad to know that things seem to have reached some sort of equilibrium that seems generally acceptable.