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Wheat has corrupted humanity The grain gave birth to the tyrannical state

Wheat is a source of tyranny. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images


June 3, 2022   7 mins

“Beef & Liberty”. Such was the slogan of the 18th century London dining club, The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks. The carnivorous Regency gentlemen were sensible in associating the scoffing of sirloin with freedom and the rights of Britons. Food, like the personal, is political. With Russia’s invasion of “the breadbasket of Europe”, it is wheat, the most widely-grown crop in the world, that has been sucked into existential questions. But if meat tandems with liberty, then wheat, historically, comes chained to tyranny.

The blight that is wheat took root 10,000 years ago, when Triticum aestivum, or bread wheat, was domesticated from wild grasses in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East. Initially, the local Neolithics cultivated wheat alongside traditional hunter-gathering and incipient pastoralism (livestock farming). But wheat is a slave-master, demanding in its specific and daily needs, not least the endless — or so it seems to us who have ever grown the stuff — weeding. Wheat locked us into a seasonal cycle of planting, weeding and harvesting from which we have been unable to escape ever since. It also made us more sedentary, both in terms of chaining us to static settlements, and becoming less active. Guarding a wheat field from wild boar requires less energy than hunting wild boar; the lineal ancestor of the couch potato was the campfire bun.

Crop-watching may demand little energy, but it is demanding of time. With fewer hours to hunt and to forage, we settled for a restricted diet. At Abu Hereyra in Syria, archaeology records this shift: when the occupants were hunter-gatherers, they consumed 150 wild plants; as arable farmers, they ate just a handful of crops. Human health deteriorated; the human body changed. Singularly, the jaw shrunk, since the new wheaty diet required less chewing than meat. Human teeth did not reduce proportionately to the smaller jaw, so dental crowding ensued. The diet of starch — wheat’s principal component — caused cavities. And the dietetic value of wheat, which was anyway only modestly nutritious, has declined by as much as 30% under contemporary industrialised agriculture.

The intriguing question is: if wheat-growing altered our corporeal structure, did it alter our brain? Did the systematic rituals and requirements of planting and harvesting wheat change our brains to make us more docile? Organised? Cooperative? Disconnected from nature? Did it turn us away from animism to praise of Ceres, goddess of grain crops, and then to an abstract, monolithic God of whom we ask our daily bread.

What wheat certainly did do was facilitate the rise of the state. As James C. Scott, co-director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University, explains in Against the Grain, wheat became the best way to tax the people: “The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.”

Wheat-fields are fixed and surveillable; livestock moves about. Counting sheep is easy in bed but for a state flunky on an arid hillside, the accurate checking of ovines (which are, anyway, easy to transport, and therefore to hide) is all but impossible. Similarly, communities reliant on tubers or root vegetables such as yams as their staple were more able to evade taxation since the crop can be left in the ground and harvested when the tax collector has gone home. Such societies rarely developed into states.

But where you have wheat, historically, you have state control or its like. The taxing of wheat enabled the emergence of non-productive elites, who required an armed wing to defend their regime. The food that fuelled the necessary population increase to staff the army, the fist of the state? Wheat. Nutrient poor but energy dense, fodder for the masses, it provided just enough energy and health to work, breed, fight. The early grain states were “population machines” (Scott again), domesticating people as the farmer domesticates the cow herd.

The most “domesticated” people were slaves, utilised in wheat’s more unpleasant aspects of production. Wheat states were slave states. The Roman writer Lucius Apuleius recorded in Metamorphoses IX the lot of millers:

“Their skins were seamed all over with marks of the lash, their scarred backs were shaded rather than covered with tattered frocks. Some wore only aprons, all were so poorly clothed that their skin was visible through the rents in their rags! Their foreheads were branded with letters, their heads were half-shaved. They had irons on their legs. They were hideously sallow. Their eyes were bleared, sore, and raw, from the smoke of the ovens. They were covered with flour as athletes with dust!”

To prevent the enslaved fleeing the dirty work, law and policing were invoked, even invented. The legal Code of Hammurabi (c1750 BC) has six clauses to punish the escape of slaves.

Western society was eventually organised around the production and consumption of wheat. And so it became the ultimate political tool. Communism’s iconography of a hammer for the proletariat and a wheat-cutting sickle for the peasantry turned out to be one of history’s crueller ironies. The hammer was taken to the workers, the sickle to the peasant. As well as being easy to tax, wheat is easy to confiscate. And since wheat is a subsistence crop, remove it and you have starvation. During the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3, Stalin deliberately deprived the country’s population — who lacked sufficient ardour for rule from Moscow — of wheat. Some 3.9 million Ukrainians, about 13% of the population, perished.

Meanwhile Hitler, a few years later, planned to feed the unformed millions of his master race with wheat tended by Ukrainian slaves, or neger, in the Reich’s terminology.

But the tyranny of wheat can be more subtle than the feeding or impoverishing of the masses in totalitarian grain states, old or new. Since the Second World War, the chief agricultural aim of government (and transnational governments such as the EU) has been productivity: quantity over quality. Wheat farming has become a yield-obsessed industry dependent on labour-reducing but expensive technology. Unsurprisingly, it has become a cereal-killer of small, family farms: a brand-new combine harvester can cost ÂŁ100,000. Farmers who do fork out for one become indentured to an agribusiness complex, which oversees their production of wheat from cultivation to sale.

One example will serve: farmers who participate in the “Climate View” bio-tech programme of chemical giant Monsanto supply harvest data through sensors on combines manufactured by John Deere; Monsanto then sends prescriptions back, telling farmers which product he or she should apply to maximise yield. In his book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott recounts an interview with an ex-Monsanto executive who “painted a future in which farmers would essentially outsource their decisions to Monsanto”. There is a Latin phrase for farmers in such corporate controlled agriculture: instrumentum vocale. Talking tools. Slaves.

Really, one becomes slyly indentured. Back in 1976, Monsanto developed the herbicide Roundup. They then genetically engineered wheat cultivars resistant to their own product, eventually mass-producing the Roundup Ready line of seed in 2019. Yes, you read that right: the grains were developed for their ability to cope with a chemical product that Monsanto wanted to flog. So if the farmer buys Roundup Ready seed, then he or she buys the tied-in Roundup herbicid. And Monsanto cashes in twice.

Chemical use in conventional wheat-growing does much for the coffers of Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), but it is turning swathes of the UK countryside into a coffin for nature. Wheat is the cause of more environmental problems than you can wave a baguette at. Although the lobbyists and the apologists of agribusiness insist that pesticide use has declined over the last quarter of a century, this is not the case when it comes to wheat. Between 2000 and 2016, average spray passes (applications) over wheat increased from 5.5 to 6.6, while the active substances in sprays went from 14.7 to 20.5. Actually, forget  the mgs, and the ratios. The countryside is doused in chemicals.

According to Cornell University’s Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ), which compares approximate toxicities for pesticides, an EIQ of 7 indicates toxicity to wildlife. The fungicide chlorothalonil, usually bought in the UK as Bravo, has an EIQ of 33; it is widely used on winter and spring wheat. Chlorothalonil is now banned by the EU. Extinction of nature is not confined to the savannah and the jungle. It happens at the cottage door. Five wildflowers — “weeds” to some — associated with cereal and arable farming in the UK are now dead and gone due to chemically addicted  industrialised agriculture: So, farewell, Lamb’s succory, Interrupted brome, Thorowax, Small bur-parsley and Downy hemp-nettle.

The environmental woes of wheat go on and on. Yearly planting requires yearly tilling and this constant churning of earth kills the soil’s living organisms, spumes CO2 from soil-stored carbon, and exacerbates climate change. And I have not even mentioned the negatives of nitrogen as industrial wheat’s mainstay artificial fertiliser, what with its polluting run-offs and its release of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas which, pound for pound, warms the planet 300 times as much as carbon dioxide.

Of course, wheat has its champions. According to agribusiness’s advocates, industrial wheat production must continue if we are to satisfy the stomachs of a growing global population. There is not a grain of truth in this. Farming already provides more than enough food for the future; the problem is simply that the West wastes a third of its food, and less developed countries lose about the same amount due to poor processing and storage. Anyway, in a world going to fat and type 2 diabetes more carbs from Mother’s Pride sliced white are hardly necessary.

Humanity took a wrong turn with wheat. But all is not lost. If the Russian invasion of Ukraine is causing a rethink of our reliance on oil and gas, this too is the moment to sow seeds of doubt about our dependence on the “golden grain”. Why not grass over swathes of the arable prairies of East Anglia — and Ukraine — and stock them with free-range cattle and sheep? Grass requires no lashings of chemicals, and livestock dung is excellent at restoring soil fertility and biodiversity; a single cow can feed 2.2 million insects per year, which means snacks galore for the birds and the bats.

I know, I know, as every vegan will exclaim: “Cows belch methane”! But it is not the cow, it is the how. An outdoor cow, on established grass, with methane-reducing seaweed supplement and low stocking density, is actually sequestering carbon. So, bovines are less of a climate problem than synthetic clothes, given that trainers alone cause 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. One can only presume that the Oxford councillors who took the decision recently to go “meat free” are nudists. Or stupid. Or anti-nature. Or all three.

To save the planet, pastoralism is the intelligent solution. The brain is 60% fat, and omega-rich fat from grass-fed meat is excellent for mental health. The sine qua non of free thinking. Beef and liberty! More meat, less wheat!


John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.

JLewisStempel

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Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
2 years ago

I want a steak.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Ed Cameron

I want to hunt and kill a wild boar or, even better, a wooly mammoth.

David Sharples
David Sharples
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

Venison for me. There are no king’s deer in America. Archery season awaits. Enjoying the summer, fall will be here soon enough.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  David Sharples

What ARE king’s deer? America has deer of all sizes, and of course various types of elk.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

Having spent years as a ‘state flunky’, required to count sheep on ‘arid hillsides’, I can assure you that I was able to do it extremely accurately and identify their breed and sex while I was at it.
But, as a Cumbrian farmer once said, after seeing me turn a flock of several hundred sheep and count them past a stone wall, ‘By, there’s stockman in you, lass!’

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Now that is a compliment to treasure.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

The simplest method is to count the legs and divide by four.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

I wonder whether he was being ironic, while four fifths of his flock sat it out on the other side of the hill.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

So we should stop growing grains (changing form wheat to barley is unlikely to change much), and then all live as free, untaxed meat-eaters? And we would be able to feed just as many billions of people that way?

Is this person serious? Is the editor who committed the piece?

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Indeed. Estimates of how many hunter gatherers the world could support vary from around 10 million to 100 million. Might we support more with carefully curated herds of animals? Perhaps. But that still leaves billions of people to feed, somehow.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Given the number of quite witty puns, I suspect a somewhat tongue in cheek element.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Duffett

“Not a grain of truth” was my favourite!

John Thorogood
John Thorogood
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Indeed. Just a tad early for 1st April!

TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Duffett

I have heard that a bun is the lowest form of wheat!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

There is a middle way. As we stand a lot of land that produces crops like wheat has rendered soil completely dead. They plant (often GMO – not all benign) seeds, feed chemical fertilisers and pesticides and then feed the produce to humans. Then humans expect a good outcome. The level of ignorance is staggering.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago

Ordinarily, I would not criticize pieces for being Eurocentric, but rice doesn’t seem to be that wonderful for liberty either — consider the legalist tradition in China with death sentences for all manner of infractions, with the seriousness of the infraction grading the degree of suffering inflicted with death from a quick beheading for things like theft to the death of a thousand cuts for things at the level of attacks on the Emperor. Nor is maize, the staple of the Aztecs with their gruesome mass sacrifices of weeping children to ensure the rain would fall, such a great thing either. (There is a reason all the non-Aztecs in central Mexico sided with Cortez.)
Of course, in America, we manage to cultivate all three, and the cultivation of grains does not seem to be at all mixed up with our failings in living up up to our founding ideals. Even in the days of slavery, it was cotton and sugar that were the mainstays of the slave economy, while grains were mostly grown by free labor in the northern states. Jim Crow wasn’t in any way about cereal agriculture, nor do we set the mass of prisoners our over-obsession with carceral retributive justice has created to tending grain fields. Last I checked, American agricultural policy was hardly tyrannical, and tends to be, if anything, overly solicitous of the interest of farmers.
Likewise Canada and Australia seem to manage cereal agriculture without tyranny, and even to the extent they have recently fallen from the Anglo-Saxon ideal of liberty (cf. treatment of the truckers’ protest and COVID abatement policy, respectively) this has nothing to do with raising wheat (or maize or rice).

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  David Yetter

A story from Western Australia – a very big state, the size of Europe, but with ancient, not very fertile soils. In what seemed a good idea at the time … it was decided to clear vast areas of bush, plant wheat, and pour on the super-phosphate. But the deep-rooted trees had taken the water from deep below and transpired it into the air – without the trees, the water table rose and rose, bringing toxic salts with it.

So now, as you fly over this experiment on the way to Sydney, you look down and see large areas of glittering white salt in a barren landscape. The water which had run into dams and supplied our drinking water when I was young, became too salty to drink, the dams useless. But hey, there’s always a way, so now we have two big desalinators to very expensively turn the Indian Ocean into drinking water, and we also drink our own treated sewage.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russell Hamilton
chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

ah the trees, the trees…

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Sewage is only one of the many processes from which water is reclaimed and eventually used as drinking water. The water cycle is universal.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

The water cycle is universal”

Sounds sort of timeless and comforting. But did water ever have so many drugs added to it? Water testing shows that we humans now take an astounding quantity of legal and illegal drugs, a lot of which end up in the universal water cycle!

Of course we have to look on the bright side … we can’t drink the water from the dams anymore – – but we can water ski on it!

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

I have an idea– let’s ban the illegal drugs to get them out of our water supply

Michael K
Michael K
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

Good luck banning the pill. Maybe that way we’d be able to un-gay the frogs though.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Careful with your criticism of the Aztec leadership. According to Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan “it’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people, whether it’s a country, its leadership, or any part of a society and culture.”

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
2 years ago

A most excellent article this is. I once had the aspiration to write a book along the same lines called The Grain Slaves (ie us humans). The title was based on a three-part BBC documentary – with that Scottish presenter whose name I’ve forgotten – and the series basically ended with the haunting idea that instead of us using wheat to fulfill our needs, it’s actually grains controlling us to safeguard its future as a species, and thus its dominance on this planet. Like some alien invader taking over.

It’s a thrilling idea, considering all the far-reaching consequences that the decision to grow wheat (instead of hunting and gathering) has had on human history. As described in this, again, excellent article.

Thank you, John Lewis-Stempel, for writing, and thank you, Unheard, for publishing!

Last edited 2 years ago by Neven Curlin
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

A small aside, but I suspect that the Scottish presenter whose name you forget may well be the one who receives a lot of thank-you letters with only one line of address on the envelope saying “the Scottish bloke from Coast”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

What an interesting article, especially relevant to the Ukraine.

The author spurns the opportunity to mention that a lot of the Soviet ‘experiments’ in collective farming were in the Ukraine and Stalin had many ‘kulaks’ sent to prison camps because they were keeping grain for themselves instead of giving it to the state. In the 1930s wheat from the Ukraine was just about the only way Stalin could earn money abroad, even if the Ukranian farmers starved in the process.

Today, in a Soviet-style Russia, we would have the same situation. This must surely be one of the reasons for the Russian invasion.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Similar situation in Cambodia, except with rice. Once socialists took over they exported the peasants’ rice to China to pay off their debts from their insurgency, then continued doing so to buy more weapons for their war with Vietnam (and by that point there was only one, the non- communist one was gone). So it was a forced starvation. Probably deporting city folks into the fields only made it worse since they didn’t know what they were doing.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

There are a lot of echoes of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in this article. By generating food surpluses, agriculture and domestication of animals enabled the formation of a ruling class which coordinated social activity but also siphoned off the surplus. With a ruling class in place, a state could be built up from tribes and chiefdoms. But another key message of that book is that regions that did not master agriculture (and especially animal domestication, which produces disease and the associated immunity) are inevitably conquered by regions that did. So if Eurasia did not master wheat technology – with all the tyranny that goes with that – it would have been invaded and tyrannized instead by some other civilization with corn technology or rice technology.

Olly Rathbone
Olly Rathbone
2 years ago

I think the Mongol empire might disagree with this statement

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Olly Rathbone

I’ll admit that the Mongol empire is a bit of a counter-example to the main thesis in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, and it would be interesting to hear what an intellect such as Diamond’s would say about it all. A person might say that with their military prowess, the Mongols did end up playing the role of the ruling class of the agriculture-based societies they conquered. Sure, they extracted tribute at sword point, but they also provided “governing services” – coordination of trade via the Silk Road, fiat currency, etc. Of course, none of this helps to support the “tyranny if and only if wheat production” thesis of the original author.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
2 years ago

I was also reminded of Diamond’s book, which I’ve read recently. Another book that is related to the subject is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

Yeah but the Mongol empires were short lived. And they were even more so, if they ever succeeded in the first place, when they tried to operate outside steppe terrain. Even looking at China– the northern part fell relatively quickly. But the southern part? They spent only slightly less time conquering it than they did ruling it. The area that is now Vietnam- total failure. The middle east? Early massacres, but barely had time to get comfortable before they were defeated. We’ll never know for central or western Europe, but previous steppe tribes rarely had success further west than where the Mongols had reached before internal politics called off their invasion.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

Give me beef and liberty, or give me death.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Now I enjoyed this article, even though it is a little one-eyed. Wheat probably did enable the rise of the state both through settling the people in place and through producing a storable surplus that the elite could live off.
But the storable surplus (in a good year) also enabled population growth (enabling the rise of the state too), even if that population was feeding on reduced quality calories. You could argue that the increased wheat (and rice and sugar etc) harvests were as much driven by population growth as the convenience of the state.
There again barley was used to make beer… and we are still uncertain if that was a good thing overall.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Quite. The key point is that wheat enabled food calories to be not just created, but stored for future use. This advance is best described as a form of wealth creation, and it’s a bit of a stretch to then blame the wealth itself for how certain sections of society might choose to abuse it.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I appreciate your comment!
I guess we can all connect dots–this happened, then that happened, then that happened–and suggest that somehow we took a wrong turn somewhere and everything went to hell. Thus, if we could only roll things back and undo that one wrong turn, we put ourselves back on the path to paradise rather than on the irreversible path to something less than paradise.
Meanwhile, carbs did motivate civilization: rice in East Asia, potatoes in South America, maize in Central America, wheat in in the steppes, in Asia Minor, in North Africa and in Europe. These things did motivate a lot regulation, central government. And people have observed that our bodies have adapted to civilizational rhythms. Different rhythms, and not always better rhythms (by some measures). But neither always worse…

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Why no mention of the true antidote to all the misery contained in this article? A free market economy!

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

But, but, but … centralisation dominates decentralisation, right? The Center, populated with experts, can organize everything more efficiently than that grubby, chaotic business of free exchange. Right?
And the ideal, of course, is … what?: We own nothing, subsist on our rations of insect protein, and end up being happy.

Frank Freeman
Frank Freeman
2 years ago

I would urge people to google “Farm for the future”, a BBC “Natural World” documentary, which suggests that permaculture and organic gardening can produce more food per acre than conventional monoculture, without the use of as much fossil fuels.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

True, but with a lot more labour. Not in itself a bad thing, but not sure how many of the 8 billion are up for it

Greta Hirschman
Greta Hirschman
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Good, more labour means less unemployment. More trees mean more production of biomass. I would add population degrowth to have a more stable world.

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

A very interesting and enjoyable read.

earlene xavier
earlene xavier
2 years ago

Fabulous article! As someone with celiac disease and now 100% grain free, I 100% agree with the author. I have never felt better. Protein and fat are essential to life and in spite of what the ‘experts’ tell us there are no essential carbs.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I can attest to the fact that eating hardly any wheat and refined sugar keeps me slim and trim. Wheat is one of the contributors to the obesity pandemic.

Bob Croft
Bob Croft
2 years ago

Good read! A somewhat similar idea is developed in Wittfogel’s ‘Oriental Despotisms’ (original title was to have been ‘Hydraulic Despotisms’), that large water projects, necessary for irrigation or flood management, led to large governments, large government projects, and coercion (think taming the Nile leading to pyramids).
The bits posted about cattle ranching, assumed to be the only alterative to grain, are straw arguments. Think, for instance, small family farms (“family” as in ownership over generations, to pass along knowledge about the land, and what works in what portion of the farm). Turns out that huge, Monsanto directed wheat farms are tremendously productive, in a “per man hour” meaning of productive, but not so much in a “stuff per acre” meaning. Mixed crops, and mixed animals (even draft horses, on small plots, can be more productive than combines). Plow the manure, and stalks, back into the soil, to build it. Mix crops enough that pests don’t take much. Do different varsities of crops (think several verities of apples) so that they ripen, and need be harvested, at different times, smoothing out the labor demands so that family and a permanent hand or two are fully employed, but not migrant labor. And, with more urban dwellers willing to pay top price for “artisanal” fruits and veggies, the heavy labor demands for such a farm might very well be affordable.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Wonderful. Hugh Brody wrote an excellent book on the transition to agriculture and the birth of the Abrahamic religions called I think, The Other Side of Eden – he spells out beautifully what humanity lost when it ceased to hunt and gather (and as is here pointed out so clearly, what it cost the planet). For wheat, one can also presumably also read rice, and possibly spuds.

LEON STEPHENS
LEON STEPHENS
2 years ago

In 1970 I was 20 pounds overwright, all concentrated in the lower torso. Not just fat, grotesque. During three weeks I ate only boiled whole grains and cooked and raw vegetables, with basic condiments, oil, salt, herbs, ginger, miso, soy sauce. In that time I lost 40 pounds because I had so much energy and was so busy that I forgot the original purpose of losing weight until I looked in the mirror and saw that I had gone too far. With the readdition of fish and legumes to this diet the balance was quickly restored. I’m underweight now: whether that’s due to my diet or is simply an inevitable result of age plus a particular sort of metabolism I can’t say. The point is, with this grain-vegetable-legume-fish diet, low on dairy, meat and sugars, and finally altogether without meat of mammals, I have never been fat since and have experienced few health problems. For those addicted to generalizations and meat vs. carb dichotomies and other dogmas, my experience can easily be dismissed as an anecdote. However, I’m not presenting myself as a universal model possessed of the only possible solution: I’m saying there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If we could perhaps look at details (whole grains compared with refined carbohydrates for example) instead of lining up well armed with stats and bats in the belfry on opposite sides of an ill-defined but often virulent debate, we might be able to think things through in a more complex, nuanced way. As for tyranny, that will be produced in any and every form of society because it comes from people with tyrannical psyches skilled in inducing and manipulating fear, as in the current fake pandemic, not from this or that societal structure or set of dietary customs.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

Since wheat from a given plot of land can feed many more people than the livestock raised on the same plot, I find this ridiculous. I say this as someone who supports grain-fed beef–but eaten in far smaller quantities than now.
The only comfort is that no one will ever embark on such a mad enterprise.
The (unintended) thrust of the piece is that we better start thinking–quick–about what we are going to do if a significant part of Ukraine’s harvest doesn’t come through.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Logan
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Hopefully British farmers are even now planting more wheat to assist the forthcoming shortage and to take advantage of the stronger market for them this year. Or at least agitating for more government support and help and subsidies and grants so that they can buy some nice big shiny machinery

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

The UK is largely self-sufficient in production of grains, producing over 100% of domestic consumption of oats and barley and over 90% of wheat.
The above is from the “United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021”, I thought that you migfht be interested
https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021-theme-2-uk-food-supply-sources

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Yes, thank you, I was aware of those statistics. But there’s always the export trade for a world short of food

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Thanks, but isn’t UK grain productivity premised on access to industrial fertiliser and pesticide. The security of gas as the necessary feedstock is being guaranteed how?

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Bit of a stretch all this quite frankly. Cultivation was an essential step for human organisation: it is what enabled the development of complex societies and trade. There is far too much romanticisation of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle both in this article and generally: we would not like the lives our ancestors led prior to farming, even allowing for the fact that lives became even more difficult for a few thousand years as humanity adapted to the need to farm. That adaptation was nothing less than the construction of society itself – of course it was hard work.

As for the effects of wheat-growing on the modern environment, we’ve had the ability, through GMO technology, to substantially eradicate pesticides from the farming process, but apparently we’d rather douse ourselves with chemicals than do that, so let’s have a bit less of the Monsanto-bashing please.

Paul K
Paul K
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

we would not like the lives our ancestors led prior to farming

ï»żSpeak for yourself. All the evidence suggests they were healthier and longer lived (as this article points out) not to mention considerably freer and living in a more beautiful and abundant world. I’ll take that over your smog-ridden megacities and ‘GMO technology’ any day.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul K

“All the evidence suggests they were healthier and longer lived (as this article points out) not to mention considerably freer and living in a more beautiful and abundant world.”

Claptrap. Hunter gatherers averaged 30 years lifespan.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Also, hunter-gatherers have an incredibly high homicide rate, much greater than societies where the state has a monopoly on violence. In particular, the homicide rate of hunter gathers is orders of magnitude greater than that in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Developed (WEIRD) countries, Stephen Pinker has quantified this precisely in “Better Angels of Our Nature”.

Moro Rogers
Moro Rogers
2 years ago

Yeaaah…After reading an article about how certain Melanesian tribesmen would gang-rape a woman if she saw their special ceremonial flutes, this article was a bit hard to take. You don’t need a large population to have a tyranny.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul K

You’re writing off pretty much all of human culture, including writing itself.

John Shone
John Shone
2 years ago

The argument in The Dawn of Everything (2021: Graeber & Wengrow) is, I believe, that both the coercive power of the state and slavery are precursors to intensive agriculture, rather than this article’s Rousseauian notion that agriculture gave rise to the state. The article’s core argument – that there is a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and indenturedness (or at least dependence) should not be ignored.

andrew harrison
andrew harrison
2 years ago

You had me until the CO2 climate change bit ,
Stopped eating carbs a while back never felt better, meat butter and veg in, potatoes rice and pasta out.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

Great article. But it is not just wheat that turned hunter gatherers into farmers – any cereal did, and enclosed livestock. From then it was a short step to creating nations.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

The USDA estimates that a single dairy cow takes about an 2 acres of grassland to produce a 1200 lb animal. That’s about 600# hanging weight and about 400# finished beef, at an average of 1200 calories/lb. It took two acres to produce our approx 500,000 calories of beef:
Beef – 250,000 calories / acre
For comparison, modern crop production yields:
Wheat – 4M calories / acre
Corn – 15M calories / acre
(source)

Our ancient ancestors weren’t forced to become farmers. They did it because it made them grow bigger, live longer, thought faster, and therefore reproduce more.
Mr. Stempel may envy the wild and free life of a hunter-gatherer, but most of us prefer to grow bigger, live longer, think faster, and especially reproduce more. Rural life is far healthier than urban living (and rural boredom tends to yield more of that reproduction part), but nutrition science can put to rest any Rousseau-ian dreams of a pastoral eden.
Interestingly, the charts above also imply that American Indians were pretty smart. On a pure calories / acre basis, ground corn is the most efficient thing you can possibly grow.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

I love meat, never want to live without it. But if we ditch having grains as well… how do we decide who has to starve? And how do I apply to be on the committee making this decision?

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

I would recommend reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari to understand the issue with grains. Personally, I consume no gluten so would be very happy to see wheat production stopped. Grass fed, organic beef is fine, but not every day!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

So it all went wrong in Neolithic times! The evolution of agriculture did lead – in some cases required – the growth of organised and often tyrannical states, though it took hundreds if not thousands of years and wasn’t a conscious process that could easily have been reversed.
I support mixed farming, but animal protein production is, generally speaking, a much less efficient producer of calories than crop farming, for basic reasons of physics and the conservation of energy. The use of over-the-top comparisons with slavery also does nothing to advance this rather extreme case.
And as for ‘Farming already provides more than enough food for the future; the problem is simply that the West wastes a third of its food, and less developed countries lose about the same amount due to poor processing and storage’. That ‘simply’ is doing a heck of a lot of work in that sentence! More state planning, that would obviously work!
Sheep, which are not indigenous to Europe, North America or Australasia, notoriously eat most plants down to ground level, do nothing for biodiversity, and have been described as a ‘white plague’. I would be interested in a proper moderated debate between George Monbiot and John Lewis-Stempel on this issue.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

I blame the chaff.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

This started well but the idea of growing crops causing climate change was where I stopped reading.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
2 years ago

I enjoyed this very much. The author might be interested to note that the emblem of the Royal Statistical Society was until very recently, indeed, a wheat sheaf. The origin of the academic discipline that has become known as ‘Statistics’ lies in the root of the word – the State, and how to measure it – and so it fascinated me to read this overview of how the history of wheat and the state are so interlinked.
(I think the RSS gave up on the wheat sheaf recently. Like every other institution about which one used to care, it’s now more concerned with [insert fashionable shibboleths here] than it is about its founding raison d’etre.)

Michael Hogan
Michael Hogan
2 years ago

Any discussion without reference to fish is invalid. The slave trade to the New World or the scale and timing of the Industrial Revolution would not have happened without two important species of fish i.e. cod and herring. The Hanseatic League of North Germany [Lubeck] dominated the herring trade in northern Europe from the 13th/15th century. The Dutch significantly controlled it briefly for a century and then East Coast of the UK particularly Scotland dominated the North Sea herring trade until the Great War. The Battle of Jutland in May 2016 and the subsequent blockade of Germany starved them into submission. Herring from the North Sea had enabled Europe to switch from rural communities to urban societies associated with industry. Germany and Russia were Scotland’s biggest customers for herring until the Great War. Herring and cod can be preserved as food without refrigeration and the main preserving agent is of course salt. In 2018 the global capture of fish reached 96.4 millions tonnes with 80% going to human consumption. Now this is protein.
Russia has very poor access to the Oceans for such a huge country and this alone would make them anxious to secure the Crimea and explain to some extent their activities in Syria.
These are are all random thoughts but I state them to caution any debate about food without the inclusion of fish.

James Helberg
James Helberg
2 years ago

What a crock.

Stephen Stirling
Stephen Stirling
2 years ago

The State is good. Investigation of human remains shows that in pre-State societies, violence is the predominant cause of death in adult males, and lower but still very high in adult females.
Hunter-gatherer and Neolithic societies don’t have Cannae or Stalingrad, but they never have any -peace-, either. It’s constant feuding and raiding and low-level killing, punctuated by the occasional massacre.
The State freed us from that. Someone born in an un-contacted New Guinea village in 1890 stood a higher chance of dying by violence than someone born in that year in Russia or Germany, world wars, Holocaust and Holodomor included.
Long live wheat, long live the State.

Peter Ashby
Peter Ashby
2 years ago

In the Pacific there was no grain yet there were states. In Hawai’i, In Tonga and in Aotearoa/New Zealand. When Europeans entered the Central Pacific the Tongans were building an oceanic empire. That is why there is still a king in Tonga.
Staples are Taro, breadfruit, sweet potato, coconut. In Hawai’i the state was oppressive including compulsory human sacrifice.
In Aotearoa iwi (tribes) were run like states with paramount chiefs and fortified Pa which required community construction and maintenance.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

well written,informative and apposite essay thanks – tho am not sure if millions of unborn cows would agree with the proposed gameplan….

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

Now, pay attention. There were many changes to material conditions that affected human behaviour in that transition to early state formation from sedentism.(around 7000 years) I don’t doubt the role wheat played in revenue extraction methods resulting in creation of slave-states. The abundance of clay and sticks to record quantities allowed the invention of cuneiform which represented one of the early rungs in the ladder of the creation of social distance, aka hierarchy. As smug and apparently satisfying it may be to denigrate the socially exploitative and environmentally erroneous decisions of our Mesopotamian and Indic farming forebears, we need to understand those were not ‘decisions’. The incremental ‘steps’ taken in response to those changing material conditions represent cultural evolution in concert with the laying down of phenotypes compatible with the increasing indifference to the suffering of ‘others’.

Kathy Bushell
Kathy Bushell
2 years ago

Excellent piece!

Jacob Smith
Jacob Smith
2 years ago

Wow, this piece is so bad. I feel like I’m being trolled. Sadly, I bet this douche is totally serious. What I worry is that people will only doubt his conclusions while the made-up ”facts” will quietly be incorporated into their store of known facts.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

Nobody knew Ukraine grew wheat until a week or so ago.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago

This guy’s at least a decade (15 years?) behind the Paleo bros and wheat-bashing brigade that hookwinked me, for a time. I tried the low-carb, Robb Wolf style diet, waiting for all the wheat-free benefits to wash over me. Within a week my stomach felt like it was on fire, all the time, and I felt mildly nauseated frequently.
Anyway, I’m not falling for this again, no matter how “learned” anyone tries to make the case look. Anyone who has ever been treated to the experience of fresh hot bread, of any kind, knows that wheat, and all of its relatives that can be ground into flour, was a gift from God.

Charlie Clutterbuck
Charlie Clutterbuck
2 years ago

If you like this article, you’ll really like ‘Oceans of Grain : How American Wheat Remade the World’ by Nelson, Scott Reynolds. It came out a few months ago so must have been written at least a year ago, but starts while flying over Ukraine towards Odessa….

Peter Beard
Peter Beard
2 years ago

Wow, amazing, thanks. From now on every night is steak night.

Bella OConnell
Bella OConnell
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Beard

Jordan Peterson would agree. His and his family’s story about their immune-mediated diseases is astonishing and radiantly uplifting to a real shift in the way we should all view nutrition

’food is thy medicine’.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

Yes, that’s what the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is about, but our ancestors expelled themselves: no angel with a flaming sword required.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 years ago

I can see the Bilderburgers now, with benign post-prandial smiles, and a single common thought balloon floating above the Monte Cristo smoke: What are the mass of men eating today? Oh well, qu’ils mangent de la patate douce. (Or bugs. Or Soylent Green.)

Nanda Kishor das
Nanda Kishor das
2 years ago

Sounds like someone cashed a fat check from the meat lobbies.

Ann Noble
Ann Noble
1 year ago

From my understanding with the discovery of wheat the population exploded from the time of hunter/gatherers. Maybe humans would of faced extinction without wheat discovered. Wealthy farmers were at war with one another and there are poor man rich man society developed. The market place. So after all this time gluten isn’t good for us. I understand celiacs disease but a lot of gluten haters don’t have Celiac’s. I’m still in fence with gluten.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 year ago

The rethinking of oil and gas is in the direction of making your own, instead of buying it with free trade, not doing away with it.
And, I think wheat is liked by all those people who don’t starve to death because of it’s abundance.

Can we do things better? I sure hope so, getting to the end of history would be depressing. But I think wheat has a place in history. It has allowed alot of people to be born and be creative.
I look forward to more years of creativity.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

It was an interesting article until it got to the nonsense of greenhouse gases. There are no gasses that can cause the earth to get warmer. Gases cannot spontaneously generate energy and energy cannot continually be recycled. If it could we would do this in our homes but there is no way to do it.
Agriculture did result in control because it became efficient, and it was easier for somebody to control the excess than to do the hard work of farming. But the excess production also allowed cities to become established, so there is a big positive. Without cities we would not have the scientific discoveries we enjoy. Another issue with taxation is that in Roman times the tax was based on an assessment of the production of a far and so in a bad year the tax could not be paid. The result was that some Romans just packed up and left.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Energy keeps pouring in from the sun, and streaming out again through heat radiation. Greenhouse gases heat the planet by slowing down the ‘streaming out’ part. Glass also ‘cannot spontaneously generate energy and energy cannot continually be recycled’ but greenhouses still work. So do greenhouse gases (even if the underlying mechanism is slightly different).
Basic physics.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
2 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

There is also geothermal energy being produced by nuclear reactions in the earth’s core, else the planet would have cooled off many millions of years ago.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

“Gases cannot spontaneously generate energy and energy cannot continually be recycled” The temperature on earth is what it is because at that temperature the heat it absorbs from the sun and the heat it emits are in balance. That balance depends upon how that heat is absorbed and emitted.  It is the sum of the contribution of all the materials that cover the earth. Greenhouse gases and greenhouses do not add energy but they do change that balance. CO2 absorbs heat from infrared light from the sun and emits it differently. That is a scientific fact. Denying it is akin to saying it does not get hot in a greenhouse. You can of course debate the exact contribution it makes alongside everything else.