Alex Chambers (narrating): The story starts at an American air base in Portugal. It’s 1949, and there’s a pilot from a farm in Fort Benton, Montana. He’s chatting with another American, who says “Hey, check this out. I was just on furlough in Egypt. I got into one of the old tombs. Not too far from the pyramids, you know? And I found something. Here.” And he drops thirty-six seeds into the pilot’s hand. The pilot grew up on a farm, so he knows it’s wheat, but the kernels are a lot bigger than he’s used to. He mails them to his father, back home. His father plants them. Thirty-two of them come up. He replants their seeds and in a few years, he has bushels. A mailman gets ahold of some and starts passing it out to all his customers, calling it King Tut’s wheat. Bob Quinn was a teenager at this point, growing up on a farm in the 1960s. One day, he went to a county fair in Fort Benton,
Bob Quinn: and I saw this old fellow passing out something, and he called me over and said “Hey sonny, would you like some of King Tut’s wheat?” and I said “Sure” and he poured this handful of grain in my hands, and it was giant. It was about three times the size of the wheat I was familiar with growing on our farm. And the story was that it came out of a tomb in Egypt, and that was quite a novelty. And everybody kind of wowed over it, but nobody did anything with it past being a novelty and I pretty well forgot about it,
AC (narrating): Until years later that is, when it would give Bob new insights into how modern wheat might be affecting people’s health, and help him transform the farm economy of north-central Montana. Bob started out as a strong believer in chemical farming. He even got a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry. But then he went back to the family farm, and he’s been farming organically for thirty years. He served on the first National Organic Standards Board, and among other things, he started a company that sells that ancient wheat, which he calls Kamut. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Bob also has a book out, called Grain by Grain, that he co-wrote with Liz Carlisle.
Liz Carlisle: So I’m Liz Carlisle. I am also a Montanan, left the state at 18 but found myself back there visiting with organic farmers, and now teach and write about sustainable agriculture,
AC (narrating): Because I bake a lot of bread, the part of the book I was most interested in was the ancient wheat. But it turned out that Kamut can tell us a lot about the wheat we eat today, and how we farm, and even about jobs, rural economies, and multinational corporations. But first, I want to get back to the story of that strange, ancient wheat. After the county fair, Bob forgot about it for years. Then one day in grad school,
BQ: I was eating a package of corn nuts, just idly in the hall one afternoon taking a little break and on the back of the package it said “Corn nuts, made with a giant corn.” And I thought, “I wonder if corn nuts would be interested in a giant wheat,” so I called them up, they were nearby in Oakland, and they said “Yeah, we might be interested in that,” and I called my dad right away, said “Dad, see if you can find some of that old King Tut’s wheat!” And in a week or so he said he’d found the jar in a friend of his basement, and he sent a couple tablespoons to corn nuts and they loved it and said “Wow, we’ll take 10,000 pounds of this stuff, this is fantastic.” And I said “Well, I don’t really have 10,000 pounds.” I didn’t want to tell them I didn’t even have one pound.
AC (narrating): So he called his dad and said “Plant it all! Stat!” Okay, he probably didn’t say “stat.” They planted two crops a year for a few years and got up to fifty pounds. He called Corn Nuts again, but the guy he’d talked to was gone, and no one else was interested.
BQ: And so we just put it in the shed. And there it sat till about ’86, when we went to our first health food show in California,
AC (narrating): where, out of the hundreds of people who walked by, only one showed any interest. But that one conversation led to a contract.
BQ: From that we planted the whole 50 pounds and 30 years later on half an acre and 30 years later we’re up to 250 farmers all over Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, all organic, planting over a 100,000 acres. So that’s how it blossomed. And I had no idea it would do anything like that.
AC (narrating): But Bob still didn’t really know where the grain came from. He knew it couldn’t be from a four-thousand-year-old tomb, because it wouldn’t have grown. So where could it have come from? What was this wheat? It got clearer after he started shipping to Europe. At a food show there
BQ: I ran into a fellow from Egypt and he invited me to Egypt
AC (narrating): So he went to the Cairo museum and took a look at the wheat kernels that had been found in the tombs. It didn’t look anything like his wheat.
BQ: And so I was pretty dejected. But I – bc we’d been telling this story for ten years or so.
AC (narrating): But he kept trying to figure it out. On a trip to Turkey, people recognized it. They call it Camel Tooth, because the kernel has a kind of a hump on it. They told Bob they also said they call it the Prophet’s Wheat
BQ: and I asked them, “Why do you call it the prophet’s wheat?” They said – I said “Does it have something to do with Mohammed?” And they said “Oh no, no, not that prophet, you know the one with the boat.” And I asked and said, “You mean Noah?” And they said, “Oh yes, it’s the grain Noah brought with him on the ark.” And I said “Wow, that’s a lot better story than my old tomb story.”
AC (narrating): Although the tomb story is pretty good. In any case, after more sleuthing, he eventually figured out it was most likely a variety from the Khorasan region of Iran. He trademarked it as Kamut, an ancient Egyptian term for wheat. The trademark meant that any farmer who used that name had to grow it organically. As the grain became more popular, people who usually had problems eating wheat realized they could eat Kamut breads and pastas without their usual symptoms.
BQ: And I was very curious to try to figure out why that was so, what was different, what we had changed. And we had a hard time finding researchers in America that took seriously this claim. Most of them said “Oh this is just all in their head. People say they can eat one thing or can’t eat another.” But in Italy we found a very great interest in this question.
AC (narrating): So they teamed up with researchers in Italy to see how rats were affected by diets of ancient versus modern wheat. And what they found surprised them. The rats eating modern wheat had a lot of inflammation, whereas the ones on ancient wheat had none. That was a big deal, because inflammation is a factor in a lot of chronic disease. Then they did clinical trials with human volunteers and had similar results. And it wasn’t just inflammation. The groups eating ancient wheat had much lower cholesterol than the ones with modern wheat, even the people who were on medication.
BQ: So it was really an astonishing discovery, and it was so consistent, and every single person had similar responses that it really gave us a brand new picture of what we had done to modern wheat and its breeding program that changed the gluten and changed the yield potential and everything that we’ve been doing.
AC (narrating): And if that’s the case, if ancient wheat really is better for us, Liz Carlisle thinks we should listen to that.
LC: Wheat is trying to tell us something. This grain that we’ve had a longstanding relationship with in human societies, one of the first crops really, that we developed in the way we understand a crop, it’s trying to tell us something about what’s wrong with the food system.
AC (narrating): From raising food with so many chemical to taking out the nutrients in processing, even how we breed our crops.
LC: A lot of the food we eat comes from a very small number of crops, and that small number of crops are the ones that have been bred really intensively for just a couple of goals: high yield, and in the case of wheat, high loaf volume. But along the way, people weren’t really paying attention to things like nutrition.
AC (narrating): And not just our bodily health, but also the health of our land and local economies. Liz says in industrial agriculture, most of the money doesn’t go to the farmer, it goes elsewhere in the supply chain, like the fertilizer and pesticide and seed companies, and expensive machinery. At the other end of the food chain it goes to the processor.
LC:So as a result, you have these areas of the U.S., you’re in one yourself, where there’s a lot of agriculture, but not very much money is actually staying in that community with the farmers, or with the small businesses that farmers would support. Whereas with organic agriculture, essentially what I see is that instead of the money going to chemicals, the money is going to people.
AC (narrating): So why isn’t everyone switching to organic? Bob Quinn says it’s partly because, for so many farmers, converting to organic is a step into the unknown. It’s a big risk, and there’s very little support from the USDA. But there are cultural pressures too. Major multinational corporations make a lot of money off the current system, and they don’t have any real incentive to change.
LC: And also I think, you know in more nuanced ways in communities, they’ve been very sophisticated about getting messaging out in rural America. But also in urban America where people eat, and convincing people that they really have the best interest of the farm community and the American public at heart.
AC (narrating): Liz has seen some of the ways that major ag corporations have also created a cultural divide. At farm conventions and in rural advertising, they tell farmers that organic agriculture
LC:is a project of urban environmentalists and foodies who don’t understand what’s happening in farm country to insult and discount and disrespect the hardworking family farmer. And so, this messaging goes, it’s really the chemical companies that have the farmers’ interests at heart, understand what they’re going through on a daily basis, and are gonna provide them the tools they need to deal with their problems.
AC (narrating): Still, Bob and Liz are optimistic. Bob’s had more calls in the last eighteen months from farms wanting to convert to organic than in the last thirty years. And Liz says that addressing the issues in our food system is helping us achieve human potential,
LC: And really becoming what we’re capable of in terms of the way we can care for each other and live in community and also steward and care for the rest of the planet.
AC (narrating): You can learn more about Kamut wheat and its role in the health of soil and local communities – and some of the new research on ancient versus modern wheat – in their book, Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. It was pretty fascinating. We’ve got a link on our website.