>Blight Fright: Wheat’s precarious position in the food supply

>Your average aspiring self-sufficient, food-conscious home or community will likely contain a few staple ingredients or food sources that are local and sustainably produced (or at least as close to sustainable as mere mortals can achieve). You’ve got your farmers-market veggies, free-range eggs, organic dairy products, perhaps even some meat from a local grower if you’re so (gastronomically and financially) inclined.
But there’s one key ingredient missing from this happy pie of wholesome foodery. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to make any sort of pie without it. It’s grain – more specifically, wheat. In most parts of the world, its production is still stuck in the industrial, grossly unsustainable way of doing things, which is unfortunate because it’s such a central part of the Western diet. Had any bread, shredded wheat, crackers, pasta, or doughnuts today? Then you’ll see my point – wheat is everywhere. And while it may not seem to be in short supply, any person on a low income will tell you that the price of all of the above items has risen sharply in the last year or so. That’s because wheat is facing some serious global problems – disease, drought and heightened demand – that is causing the price to skyrocket on the global commodity market.
Clearly, wheat is another example of a food staple that is vitally important to re-localize. Having grains nearby, in the hands of hundreds of small farmers (or better yet, individual consumers with backyard gardens), instead of under the lock and key of four or five global conglomerates, makes their availability a surer bet. Only problem is, if you’re trying to be a locavore, bread and wheat products are one area in which you’re likely to break the local-food diet on a regular basis. Farmers growing for a local market tend to stick to vegetables, meat and eggs. Because of the processing (grinding into flour and other products) needed, wheat and other grains have managed to stay centralized, distributed from regional mills.
Let’s follow a typical pound of flour from the field to your morning pancakes. Once the grain is harvested (whether that farm is organic or conventional) it goes to a regional collection point. In Oregon, for example, all the wheat grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley (the main agricultural part of the state) gets trucked up to temporary storage somewhere near Portland. From there, it goes onto containers headed for Asia. That’s right. For all the millions of acres of grain produced close to home, only a tiny percentage of it makes it to the state’s only commercial grain milling facility in Eugene, and an even smaller percentage is actually consumed in the state. So those pancakes you ate this morning were more likely to be made from grain from the Midwest than from close to home. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, thanks to centralized distribution.
Sounds crazy, you say? Sorry, it’s all economics. The lowest price can only be obtained by controlling the supply through a limited number of processing facilities and shipping it out to retailers as needed. Do you like your cheap box of pancake mix? Do you? Well, then don’t ask so many questions.

In the meantime, local-food advocates keep harping on the need to circumvent this consolidated system – which applies not only to wheat but also just about any food product you can think of – and reestablish direct producer-to-consumer relationships. But why? Put simply, it’s a matter of food security. This means two things: the safety of the food we actually consume, and our ability to obtain it in the first place.
Let’s go back to the bag of mix you used to make your pancakes. Contamination in centralized processing plants (which is what recently compromised the safety of peanuts), isn’t the only problem. Black stem rust, a fungus that attacks wheat plants, is a looming but under-reported threat to wheat harvests around the world. It’s been around a long time – probably as long as wheat has been domesticated – but modern-day strains have been bred to resist the fungus. Now, as if it’s starring in its own terrible sci-fi flick, it’s back – with a vengeance. The fungus has finally evolved the genetic upper hand to destroy previously immune plants. Scientists are calling the new strain Ug99, for the country, Uganda, where it has hit the hardest, leaving behind acre upon acre of ashen, inedible wheat. It seems to be getting more virulent as it progresses, and is so immediately devastating to crops that the US (who else?) once bred it as a biological weapon.
We shouldn’t have bothered – Ug99 is wreaking havoc all on its own, causing famine and strife all over Africa and the Middle East. We’re not hearing much about it now, but as soon as it spreads to developed countries, I imagine that we will hear more.
Ironically, even Norman Bourlag, the much-lauded father of the “green revolution” and industrial agriculture, had to admit that the Ug99 problem is an unintended side-effect of the way conventional agriculture seeks to extract the most production out of a given piece of land. According to this article in NewScientist:

Ug99 will find agriculture has changed to its liking in the decades stem rust has been away. “Forty years ago most wheat wasn’t irrigated and heavily fertilised,” says Borlaug. Now, thanks to the Green Revolution he helped bring about, it is. That means modern wheat fields are a damper, denser thicket of stems, where dew can linger till noon – just right for fungus.

What Borlaug fails to mention is that not only do wheat plants grow closer together now than ever before, those plants are genetically identical thanks to hybridization. Farmers don’t save their own wheat for replanting, they buy it from a seed company (ie, Monsanto), which has developed wheat genetically programmed to produce the highest yield possible. So when a disease or fungus like Ug99 hits the genetic jackpot that allows it to destroy a wheat plant, it can destroy virtually all wheat plants, because there are only a few varieties grown in the world.
Ug99 isn’t the only threat to the world’s food supply, either. Since the beginning of the year, farmers in Canada and the Midwest have noticed a sharp increase in cases of Fusarium head blight, another fungus that affects wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn and grasses used to feed livestock. This one is sneakier: it doesn’t destroy plants right away but makes their grain toxic to consume. That means any slip-up in our notoriously shaky food-safety inspection system could poison hundreds or thousands of innocent pancake-eaters.
The most frustrating part about all of this is that there’s not much the average consumer can do to voice his or her protest against the way wheat is grown and distributed. Sure, we can buy organic, but organic grain is no more resistant to the diseases bred by conventional agriculture than its chemically nurtured counterparts. And “big organic” uses centralized distribution systems that, like any centralized system, erase the connections between producer and consumer until it’s impossible to tell where any given bag of flour was grown.
Still, one thing organic growers can’t do is spray their fields down with fungicide at the slightest hint of black stem rust, which is what conventional growers will surely do. And there is one way to ensure both the supply and safety of your wheat: grow and mill it yourself. I’m not being facetious. It takes surprisingly little grain to feed a family (ten families can live off one measly acre, according to an anonymous informational signboard at the Port Alberni fair last month), and there are actually super-compact mills built today that you can squeeze under your kitchen sink. Unless you live next door to a giant commercial wheat farm, there’s little chance of any global wheat pandemics affecting your plants.
Unfortunately, I have no personal experience with wheat cultivation, so I won’t instruct you on it here (perhaps in a future blog!) Instead, I’ll post yet another recipe, one that I’ve become quite familiar with since becoming the designated baker of Collins Farm. I’ve been making bread practically since I could reach the kitchen counter, but only started making yeast-free bread this summer. It has a unique flavor and texture but a dedicated fan base at our farm market. I’m a bit conflicted about selling it since bread is so deliciously simple to make, so I’m hoping making the recipe public will make kitchen revolutionaries out of a few of you.
The most important step is to find some local flour. If you live in Oregon, the local grain I discussed above is sold under the name Bob’s Red Mill. You can probably also find local farmers that grow grains if you ask around (try Willamette Farm and Food Coalition’s directory) If you live in Port Alberni, find Wayne Smith at the Farmer’s Market at the Harbor Quay – he sources his own organic grain and grinds it up fresh. It’s incredible stuff.

Tuula’s Whole Grain Bread
Makes 2 loaves

To make from starter:
Starter takes about 48 hours to ferment, but it makes awesome bread and eliminates the need for yeast. I start in the morning two days before I want to make bread. Combine a cup of water and a cup of whole wheat flour in an airtight container. Keep it in a warm place where it won’t be disturbed (in the oven with the light on is good). The next morning, “feed” it by adding another cup of flour and another cup of water. It should be bubbly and smell “yeasty”. Set it aside again until you make your bread (that evening or the next morning). You can keep the starter going for as long as you like but it will turn into sourdough starter after about a week (you can find lots of instructionals online for making sourdough bread this way).

To make from yeast:
Use active dry yeast (not instant) or fresh yeast, which is available from bakeries.
In a large bowl, dissolve 2 tablespoons molasses or honey* in 2 cups lukewarm water (no hotter than 115 degrees). Sprinkle in 1 ½ tablespoons yeast and allow to sit for ten minutes, or until it looks bubbly.

*Molasses gives a nice dark color to the bread but some prefer the flavor of honey, so use both if you like.

Bread recipe
2 cups starter or 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 ½ cups water (in addition to water used in yeast method)
2 tablespoons molasses or honey*
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive work fine)
½ teaspoon salt
7 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup dry 7-grain cereal
½ cup cooked brown rice (or substitute more cereal)
½ cup any combination flax seeds, sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds

1. Add 1 cup hot water to the 7-grain cereal, set aside to soak.
2. Prepare yeast mixture as above or pour starter into a large bowl. Add molasses (if using starter), oil, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Mix well (lumps are ok) and add soaked cereal, rice and seeds.
3. Continue adding flour until a dough forms. Turn onto a floured counter and knead for 10 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic.
4. Place dough in a clean and oiled bowl, flip to coat both sides. Allow to rise two hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
5. When dough has risen (it will not double in volume but perhaps get close depending on the strength of your yeast/starter), punch it down. Divide it into two loaves and place in bread pans or on baking sheets. Brush the loaves with a beaten egg and sprinkle on some extra seeds (this is optional but makes the loaves look prettier). Make a ½ inch deep cut lengthwise along the top of the loaf.
6. If dough was refrigerated, allow to rise an additional hour in the pans. If not, half an hour or so should do the trick. Again, the dough will not rise significantly but should grow a bit.
7. Bake at 375 for about an hour. Bread will brown on top and sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool in pans for a few minutes, then turn onto racks to cool. Do not bag until completely cooled.

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