December 27, 2005 1:33 PM   Subscribe

The Story of Wheat
posted by Gyan (24 comments total)
Great reading, thanks!
posted by freebird at 1:37 PM on December 27, 2005

Long live wheat - pasta is made from it. Imagine a world in which spaghetti is a rare treat.
posted by Cranberry at 1:49 PM on December 27, 2005

Interesting reading.

It reminds me that modernity is nothing more than us trying to outrun Rev. Malthus.
posted by dios at 1:49 PM on December 27, 2005

An excerpt about Canada's own Wheat King:

Indeed, Canada's wealth as a nation stems from wheat. Numero uno among Canada's heroes is a gentleman who got his start in the late 1890s with the development of a wheat seed--genetically engineered--that was heartier than the seeds coming from Europe to survive Canadian winters. And from that last century beginning, started Canada's bounty.

The life of Charles Saunders is chronicled in the national bestseller, The Canadian 100 by H. Graham Rawlinson and J.L. Granatstein. Saunders is listed first by the authors in the "100 most influential Canadians of the 20th century."

"King Wheat! The world standard for hard wheat has been and remains Canadian, and it was wheat that settled the prairies and made them rich," says Rawlinson and Granatstein in The Canadian 100. "Even today, in a diversified West, wheat can still bring in $15-billion for each crop, mobilize an army of 40,000 combines in its harvesting, and employ tens of thousands in its distribution and sale.

One of five sons of William Saunders, a druggist and horticultural scientist, Charles was more interested in the music chamber than he was in the farmer's field. In younger days, he ran a music school in Toronto, taught in some of the city's private schools and wrote a music column in The Week magazine.

Lucky for generations of Canadians that he heeded his father's call to return to more earthly pursuits.

According to The Canadian 100, "his father had been searching for a quicker maturing wheat that could prosper on the Canadian prairies, where early frost regularly bankrupted farmers.

"Pressed by his father, Saunders persevered, selecting seed from the best plants and chewing the kernels to test for strong gluten. The resulting strain he called Marquis, a wheat that was clearly superior in 1904 when grown and tested for its milling and breadmaking qualities in equipment he had developed.

"Saunders then arranged for Marquis wheat to be test grown in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 1907, 1908 and 1909, and the crop, maturing seven to 10 days earlier than other strains and producing large crops, did phenomenally well, even when early frosts destroyed most of the other varieties. The next year samples went to 400 farmers scattered throughout the prairies, and by 1912, there was enough Marquis seed for all who wished to purchase it.

"With its faster maturity and its head resistant to heavy winds, Marquis hugely extended the area where wheat could safely be planted. By 1920 there were over 17 million acres in wheat in the West, 90 per cent of them Marquis. Thanks to Saunders, Canada had acquired its reputation for producing the best hard spring wheat in the world, its flour in demand by bakers everywhere. Thanks to Saunders, prairie farmers could plant their crops in the expectation of bringing it in at harvest time.

"Saunders was modest about his achievements. 'Who made Marquis wheat,?' he was once asked, and his response was immediate: 'God Almighty'. Certainly, but without Charles Saunders' work, God alone knows when Marquis might have been found. As London's Daily Express commented on his death, 'He added more wealth to his country than any other man.' Saunders made possible the prosperity of the prairies, and he is entitled to stand first among the most influential Canadians of the century."

posted by furtive at 2:01 PM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

I liked the article, all in all, but the snarky comments about genetically modified food and environmentalists I could have done without. It really bugs me when pro-technology folks take the attitude of "oh, its science, how could it possibly be bad for us?". Its no better than the irrational fear on the opposite side that says "only natural things are ok because nature has our own best interests at heart".

When it comes to genetically modified food, the subject matter is anything but simplistic. It is fundamentally different to produce new mutant varietals of an existing organism through harsh selection environments than it is to do wholesale insertion of genes from another organism into a research specimen. Even when you are irradiating a seed, you are likely only changing a small number of base pairs at a time. The amount of variation you are going to see is fairly small. It will build up over time, but that's how evolution has always worked. Taking a whole gene, or set of genes, from one species and splicing it into another to produce new, complex proteins that the organism hasn't had before...well, that's another level of change entirely.

The author of the article commits a grave sin of omission, in my opinion, by using the successes of the past to distract from the potential issues of a very different set of tools available to us today.

That being said, I thought the historic perspective on relationships between agriculture, population and development was really great. For anyone interested in looking at how humans and plants interact, I'd highly highly recommend The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Brilliant book that examines co-evolution of plants and humans using four different plants as examples. Engaging, well written and a pleasure to read.
posted by afflatus at 2:33 PM on December 27, 2005

Most Americans would stop eating it if they knew it was first cultivated in Mesopotamia. That's where terror comes from.
posted by bardic at 2:34 PM on December 27, 2005

It's good to see Norman Borlaug get a shout-out from the Economist. If you count averting famines as saving lives, he's probably saved more lives than anyone else in history. Thanks to his work in producing high-yield wheat varieties, the Population Bomb never blew.

Wikipedia on Borlaug
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:43 PM on December 27, 2005

I was also frustrated by the passive-aggresive references to GM crops.
posted by rxrfrx at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2005

Interesting story, wheat is never mentioned as an essential human food source
posted by milos83 at 2:51 PM on December 27, 2005

It was like the last section was written by an entirely different person. It reads like it was taken out of a Monsanto pamphlet.
posted by euphorb at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2005

Nice piece. I was struck by a word in this sentence:

Demographers, who had been watching the exponential rise with alarm, now forecast that the population will peak below ten billion—ten gigapeople—not long after 2050.

"Gigapeople" only gets a couple of hundred Google hits; I hope it doesn't catch on.
posted by languagehat at 3:23 PM on December 27, 2005

Like wheat? Check out The Octopus by Frank Norris; part one of a triptych (or 'tri-lo-gy') called The Epic of the Wheat. Forget Achilles' rage, dude, wheat pwns.
posted by SmarterChild at 4:20 PM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Good read, I enjoyed eating some toast while reading about or ancient grass seed cultivators.
posted by parallax7d at 5:54 PM on December 27, 2005

Isn't The Octopus about the california rail empire? Oh my god - is it all one Giant Tentacled Monster, reaching its arms from the deeps of Indo-European History, throughout the West, and into our times to Throttle helpless farmers and chinese immigrants? From the grain eaters spreading out across the plains, with their sky-gods and their domesticated animals, up to the rail barons building Stanford University and gaming California's integration into the Union...a Manifest Destiny, a Westward Horizon moving with the Rising Sun across the planet, turning all it touches into settled, processed, domesticated land - integrating all that's Wild into Systems and Networks, Harvests of Countless Souls and Stalks of Wheat?
posted by freebird at 5:56 PM on December 27, 2005

Again, nice link, shame about the rubbish proselytising at the end.
posted by wilful at 5:57 PM on December 27, 2005

This was fascinating. Quite terrifying, too, especially if you've read this.

The most interesting thing to me is the bit about wheat getting its Darwinistic niche from human agriculture. Creationism be damned.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:12 PM on December 27, 2005

Totally missing from that article's discussion of modern agriculture was any mention of our dependence on fossil fuels. Much fertilizer is now made from natural gas, and we depend on oil and gasoline to run the equipment and vehicles that make factory farming possible.

If our oil supply starts to run out (which it eventually must), agriculture -- and thus all food -- will become a whole lot more expensive.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:35 PM on December 27, 2005

Interesting link, thanks!

Hear, hear, afflatus - genetic manipulation is like most tools; it can be used responsibly or it can be abused.

Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem.

Artifice_Eternity - If our oil supply starts to run out (which it eventually must), agriculture -- and thus all food -- will become a whole lot more expensive.

When, not if. However, I think that people will start growing food locally (on roofs, in yards - perhaps not wheat, corn, or rice but some [perhaps less traditionally palatble like algae] other organism that turns sunlight and CO2 into sugars that can be digested by humans).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:29 PM on December 27, 2005

Thanks for this! Man, I love wheat. I just can't explain it. Great article.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:12 PM on December 27, 2005

posted by SmarterChild at 10:51 PM on December 27, 2005

"...sugars that can be digested by humans"

Mmm, can't wait to spread that on my baguette!
posted by CrunchyGods at 7:15 AM on December 28, 2005

Know that story about giving a man a fish rather than teaching him to fish? Borlaug is staunchly in the first camp. One of the most overrated thinkers of the 20th century. Even in terms of his short-term goals, he's arguably a complete failure. (His hagiographies are interesting--many are funded directly by big agribusiness). But still a neat read.
posted by bardic at 9:04 AM on December 28, 2005

Can someone explain to me why the article uses "maize" instead of "corn"? I don't remember this being a difference between British-English and American-English in the past, but maybe I wasn't paying attention.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:19 AM on December 28, 2005

Wheat's servants now became its slaves. Agriculture brought drudgery, subjugation and malnutrition, because unlike hunter-gatherers, farmers could eke out a living when times were bad. But at least that meant that they could survive. Population growth was now inevitable.

So all of human culture, population growth, and agriculture is just a mechanism that wheat evolved in us so that we would produce more wheat!

And thus... more spaghetti!

At last, undeniable proof of FSM! We exist to serve pasta. May Your noodly, wheaty wholesomeness be praised!

Pink: To the British, "corn" is just about any type of grain, including wheat, oats, and rye (don't know if rice counts too). "Maize" is the specific term for American corn.
posted by purple_frogs at 11:52 AM on December 28, 2005

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