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.
Brewers have long appreciated the value of hops from the Pacific northwest, but it was Cascade, a variety practically synonymous with craft brewing, that made the area more generally famous among beer drinkers. Cascade was named for the Cascade Range, which runs down the west coast of North America. The home of the Cascade hop is the Willamette valley, roughly halfway between the mountains and the coast. Cascade was released in 1972, but the history of hops in the Willamette valley goes back to the 1830s. The industry has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs, all examined by historian Peter Kopp in his book Hoptopia.
The whole question of changing tastes in beer, and how that affects the fortunes of different hops, is fascinating. If you’ve been a listener forever, you may remember a very early Eat This Podcast, about the rediscovery of an English hop known prosaically as OZ97a. Deemed too hoppy and abandoned when first tried, the vogue for craft beers resurrected its fortunes. It’s a fun story, though I say so myself.
- Peter Kopp’s book is Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
- Cover photo is Ezra Meeker, the early grower of hops in the Willamette valley who pioneered the global marketing of Oregon hops. The booming hop business made him the territory’s first millionnaire, and perhaps also its biggest bust. Hop King: Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years chronicles that part of his long, rich life.
- Banner photo of hops by Paul on Flickr.
I had a roommate in college from the Czech Republic who fondly remembered spending time on hops farms picking what he called the county’s “green gold”. It’s interesting to think about the economic and cultural differences and norms built up around such a product. I hadn’t known that the Pacific Northwest figured so prominently in production and find it amazing that the economic timing for the industry was so fortuitous.
What a fantastic episode on all fronts.
Refugees selling the food of their homeland to get a start in a new life is, by now, a cliché. Khaled (in the photo) joined their ranks a year ago. But cliché or not, selling food is an important way to give people work to do, wages, and hope. If it’s happening on your doorstep, which it is, and the food is good, which it is, what’s a hungry podcaster to do? Go there, obviously, and report back. Which is why, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, microphone in hand, waiting patiently in line for a falafel wrap.
Truth be told, there aren’t that many Syrian refugees in Italy. The most recent official statistics put the total at around 5000 with a little over 600 in Rome. Hummustown is helping a few of them.
Somewhat different than the usual episode here, but in the best of ways. Still a wonderful look at food, culture, and humanity wrapped up in a fantastic story.
Jonathan Bethony is one of the leading artisanal bakers in America, but he goes further than most, milling his own flour and baking everything with a hundred percent of the whole grain. He’s also going beyond wheat, incorporating other cereals such as millet and sorghum in the goodies Seylou is producing. I happened to be in Washington DC just a couple of weeks after his new bakery had opened, and despite all the work that goes into getting a new bakery up and running, Jonathan graciously agreed to sit down and chat.
And almost as if to prove my point after writing about Modernist BreadCrumbs, Jeremy’s is a stunning example of love and care in a podcast dedicated to food. I’m really so pleased that he can take a holiday, have so much fun with bread, and simultaneously turn it into something like this.
Even the title reads as if he were trying to out-do the entirety of eight episodes of Modernist BreadCrumbs in one short interview. I think he’s succeeded handily.
There’s so much great to unpack here, and simultaneously I wish there was more. I found myself wishing he’d had time to travel to some of the farms and done a whole series. With any luck he actually has–I wouldn’t put it past him–and we’ll be delighted in a week or two when they’re released.
“Plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety.”
The best advice for a good diet I’ve ever heard. It’s a maxim devised by Colin Tudge, long before anything similar you may have heard from more recent writers. Tudge, more than anyone else I know, has consistently championed the idea that meat ought to be seen in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction, a garnish, if you will.
Tudge has been thinking and writing about agriculture and food systems for a long time, and we’ve been friends for a long time too. In fact, it’s fair to say that knowing Colin has influenced my own thoughts about food and farming quite a bit. As far as Colin is concerned, we’ve been going about farming in completely the wrong way for the past 100 years or so. Instead of asking how can we grow more food, more cheaply, he thinks we should focus on what we need – good, wholesome food that doesn’t destroy the earth – and then ask how we can provide that for everybody.
He’s expanded and built on those ideas in many books since Future Cook (Future Food in the US), which contained that pithy dietary advice and which was published in 1980. And rather than reform or revolution, neither of which will do the job he thinks needs to be done, he advocates for a renaissance in real farming.
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Durrus is a village at the head of Dunmanus bay, south of the Sheep’s Head peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. Durrus is also the name of an award-winning, semi-soft cheese, while Dunmanus is a harder cheese, aged a lot longer. Both were created by Jeffa Gill and are hand made by Jeffa and her small team up above the village and the bay.
Jeffa is one of the pioneers who turned West Cork into a heaven and a haven for cheese-lovers. One of the special characteristics of Durrus and many West Cork farmhouse cheeses is that they are washed rind cheeses. The young cheese is inoculated with specific bacteria (some cheeses pick their surface moulds up from the atmosphere) and is then frequently washed or moistened with a brine solution, which gives those bacteria a boost and keeps other micro-organisms at bay. The result is what many people call a stinky cheese, although the actual flavour of these cheeses is often mild, sweet and creamy.
The really remarkable thing about West Cork is how an entire food ecosystem has grown up there in the past 50 years or so, each part depending on and encouraging the others. The fact that there are so many outstanding farmhouse cheesemakers is no accident; they all gathered originally and shared their ups and downs, from which each developed their own unique cheeses. They were supported by local shops and restaurants, who created demand not just for fine cheeses but for so many other foods too. Surely someone must have documented it; so where is it?
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I could go on listening to this for ages… though I wish I could have done it with some of the cheeses discussed.
I often wish I could subscribe to this Eat This Podcast along with a delivery service that would include samples of the food items discussed. Hmmm….