Thursday, July 7, 2016

GMOs, gluten, and the poisoning of a planet's food system

Fixing the food supply is not going to be easy. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
The pro-labeling lobbies believe consumers have a right to know what they are putting in their mouths. The anti-labeling lobbies - funded in part by Monsanto - point out that:
  • 70 percent of what we eat in this country is already tainted with GMOs;
  • That, therefore, the ‘Warning: GMOs Inside’ label would be more ubiquitous than, and hence as useless as, the current label that warns ‘this product was made at a plant that also processes peanuts;’
  • And that GMO-free foods are already labeled – with the word “organic.”
But GMO isn’t the whole problem, or even the biggest, and labeling is not the solution. The problem is greedy corporations putting profits ahead of the health of their customers.

Coca Cola sent ‘nutrition experts’ to the 37th Annual Conference & General Meeting of the Nigeria Institute of Food Science and Technology. Nigeria is seeing a rapid rise in obesity, heart disease, gluten intolerance and diabetes. The Coke experts – presumably with a straight face – told the assembled crowd that the increase in diabetes and other non-contagious diseases is a lifestyle issue and has nothing to do with the increased sales of Coke products.

Is the increase in gluten sensitivity a ‘lifestyle issue’? In our last column we pointed out that wheat consumption has gone down significantly in this country over the past century, yet gluten intolerance has gone up!

To continue with our bread story:
By the 1920s bread companies were using a flour that had had all the healthy bran and wheat germ stripped away. The remaining starch was bleached with a substance called Agene not only to make it whiter but – because large businesses are always in a hurry – to artificially ‘age’ it so that it worked better with mechanized dough-kneading machines.
The government stepped in midway through the century. Doctors in England had some pretty convincing proof that Agene would kill you, but not before making you crazy. Agene was banned, replaced with plain old chlorine bleach.

The government was also concerned (there’s an oxymoron for you) about the utter lack of nutritive value in the bleached, starchy powder, so it was “enriched”… small amounts of four B vitamins and iron were added. Of course they don’t come close to replacing the vitamins, fiber, magnesium, manganese, zinc, calcium, minerals, phytonutrients and lignans lost in processing. And the “iron” added has about as much nutrition as you’d get by chewing on a nail.

To offer customers ever lighter and fluffier bread the competing bread companies demanded higher gluten varieties from the wheat industry, eventually resulting in a bread that, if it was any less substantial, would have been impossible for the average housewife to cut with a breadknife. But a company called the Continental Baking Company pushed forward anyway, in 1928 purchasing another bread company that had a patent on an automated bread slicer and packager, and Wonder Bread was born.

And now you know where the expression, ‘The greatest thing since sliced bread’ came from.

Wheat farmers, like bread companies, work within what’s called the Free Market System. But they have an additional item to consider on their profit-and-loss statement. It’s called The Farm Bill.
The free market system determines what I will pay for:
  • Regular bread flour, about 35 to 50 cents a pound,
  • Red fife flour, $1.00 a pound,
  • Kamut flour, $1.25 a pound,
  • Spelt flour, $1.60 a pound, and
  • Einkorn flour, about 2.00 a pound.
So why aren’t wheat farmers all jumping on the health-conscious, non-mainstream wheat bandwagon? The Farm Bill.
“What’s remarkable and extraordinary about the farm bill is that, at a time of record crop prices and federal deficits, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to increase subsidies,” said Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
You’ve no doubt heard stories of farmers being paid by the government not to farm. Sadly, many of those stories are true. Also true is that farmers are paid higher-than-free-market prices for certain crops.

Thanks to government subsidies a farmer can, for example, get crop insurance for a 60% lower premium than the free market would dictate. But only if he stays in lock-step with the agro-industry: planting government-approved seed and using government-approved methods.

Currently, industrial agriculture uses 2 to 3 times more fertilizer, one and a half times more pesticides and 10 times more energy than a small or heritage crop grown organically.

So, if a farmer switched from his mainstream crop to a heritage organic crop, he would save money in those 3 areas, while earning a larger profit for his crop. But he’d lose his government aid, and have to learn a whole new set of skills, and probably have to purchase a lot of new equipment.

And there’s the likelihood his land is unable to grow anything other than the franken-wheat he’s used to. Is he going to be willing to work on soil improvement for years before his new healthier cash crop turns a profit? How many years (if ever) before his land could be certified as organic?

Farmers need to feed their families. It’s a rare farmer who will break ranks with his neighbors and start growing Einkorn, Kamut, Red Fife, Spelt, Emmer, Ethiopian purple, black, yellow, or blue wheat despite demand, and despite higher profits.

For large, conventional, industrial farmers the government provides incentivesbelow-market loans, below-market insurance and a guaranteed market for their crop.
For innovative, unconventional, risk-taking, organic farmers the government provides how-to booklets.

You and I can’t fix this. No government program will fix this.

The Bible was eerily accurate when it foretold a time when people would buy "Two pounds of wheat for a day's wages!”(Revelation 6:5, CJB)

According to the World Bank, there are still over 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day - about enough to buy a couple pounds of wheat. World Bank pats itself on the back because that number has shrunk slightly, but in the U.S. 15 million more people have been added to the ranks of those below the poverty line in the last dozen years.

A few years ago the U.S. came within hours of what Bloomberg News called, “an economic calamity like none the world has ever seen.” Next time it happens, we may all be paying ‘a day’s wage for two pounds of wheat.’ Since the Bible foretold the problem, maybe we should be looking to the Bible for the solution. We'll get to that in the next column.

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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of several books. You can help support this site by following this link to

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