Island Resilience, June 2024

Breeding for Profit: Reflections on Commodity Wheat

By Thomas Vroom

When one thinks of a wheat field, they imagine “amber waves of grain,” which are fields of ripened wheat about waist-high. This used to be wheat, but really it has now been bred for mechanization, from sowing to baking the cake-like slurry that results in the loaf many people are familiar with, in a plastic bag sliced 1/2″ thick, and white as a Victorian woman’s ankle. 

This wheat has been bred to grow short, as it doesn’t need to outcompete weeds, which have been killed by herbicides. It’s uniform, genetically the same, easy to harvest with the machine built for its characteristics and maximum profitability. (Profit is little, as one needs massive acreage to achieve a large enough harvest to offset the inputs of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and the list goes on.) 

The bran is brittle, to be easily removed by roller mills, which is fine because this wheat was bred to reap the endosperm only. The bran and germ go off to other processes, but aren’t meant for a loaf. There have been farmers who have tried to grow industrial wheat organically, only to fail, as it is bred to grow with chemical inputs.

I have to ask: Is this something we should be putting in our body? This highly effective method of destroying soil for corporate profit has given rise to the “heirloom” or “heritage” wheat buzzwords. Are those varieties better for the planet? Not necessarily, but it is part of an answer to a bigger question. 

I use modern wheat varieties that are bred for disease resistance, organic/regenerative cultivation, and they happen to taste good and bake well. 

I suppose what I’m really conversing about is cultivating a sane food system with people in mind. We need the flora, fauna and funga. We need to eat and breathe and create art. We don’t need to race to the bottom for a dirty buck and a distracting cat video, only to succumb to poor health from a lousy diet that humans have not adapted to thrive on.

In summary, commodity wheat is bred for processes and profitability, rather than a healthful environment for the beings of this planet. 

A wise person once said “I’m sorry I didn’t hear your question, but I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘diversity.'”

June 2, 2024

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