Genetically modified food is a controversial topic. It’s something which is being endlessly debated, particularly in terms of whether it’s required to feed the ever-increasing population of our planet. It’s tricky for most of us to know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing, but presented with the raw facts by someone such as a small-scale, honest farmer who has genuine hands-on experience with growing food, there’s no doubt that GM crops and seeds are bad – very bad, in fact. For humanity, for the environment and for food security.
John Letts is one such organic farmer in Buckinghamshire who has set out on a mission to grow hundreds of varieties of ancient cereals – heritage grain, as he calls it. He’s also a thatcher, which is significant because it was whilst he was retouching thatched roof houses that he made an amazing discovery. Some thatched houses are hundreds of years old, with the original layer of thatch being laid down in about 1350. Vitally, in some cases, this original layer has never been removed, and this is significant because houses of the 1300s had no chimney, meaning that any smoke simply floated up into the roof, perfectly preserving the grains of straw stitched together to create the thatch.
Mr Letts goes so far as to describe thatched roofs as “archaeological sites”, because of this preserved layer and the subsequent layers replaced over the years, like a record of time from 1300 to now. One of the most important things to be noted about these ancient grains is that they were genetically diverse – people used to grow varieties of wheat, oats, rye and barley in their hundreds, and what’s more, they were land adaptive, meaning they could easily adapt to varying conditions. This genetic diversity meant that wheat and oats were resilient against disease, because if one type of wheat contracted a disease there were hundreds of other varieties still left untouched after the disease had attacked it.
Even in the early 1800s, there were between 200-500 varieties of plant in one field, which is unimaginable when we now walk in monocrop fields with rows and rows of the exact same, genetically-identical wheat, barley or oat plant. Shaking his head, Mr Letts says, “We have a tiny amount of genetic history in the crops we grow. Modern wheat varieties are all the same, and if it weren’t for the layers in thatched roofs then every other variety of wheat ever grown or cultivated would have been lost.”
Comparing ancient and modern varieties of grain and how their crops grow, there are a few evident differences. First of all, modern crop seeds are grown without husks, whereas heritage seeds have the husk still covering them, as they naturally did before we began fiddling and altering the plants. Husks are important as they help protect the plant and seed against fungi – so, through a fault of our own making, when they’re not protected and fungi starts ruining the crop, conventional farmers decide to spray fungicide all over it.
Before the industrial revolution, crops had large root systems, meaning they could absorb various nutrients rather than simply nitrogen, which is 1 of the 3 minerals modern farming deems plants require, even though there are 52 minerals in nature and it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to think that plants (and humans who are eating those plants) really need all 52 nutrients to thrive. Furthermore, these ancient grains grown as mixed crops – with an assortment of plants which complemented one another – had all sorts of different height roots in their systems, meaning they were far more resilient than modern monocrops. Smiling knowingly, Mr Letts points to one of his fields and says, “Ancient wheat with husks on can stand in the rain for 3 months.”
This sounds entirely unbelievable when we hear constant reports of British farmers’ crops being ruined after the weeks of rain we’ve had in recent years, such as in the summer of 2012. But that’s because today’s farmers are using monocrop wheat with shortened stems, weak root systems and roots which can’t connect with the fungi in the soil. Every plant has root fungi – it is a natural part of soil, along with insects, microorganisms, gases and organic matter, all of which exist in a symbiotic relationship with plants and their roots. Unlike ancient crops, modern varieties are unable to take advantage of the fungi, and so they’re entirely dependent on topsoil and therefore cheap fertilisers which nowadays farmers spray on their fields by the bucket load.
All of this is very interesting with international corporations like Monsanto claiming that only GM crops can ‘feed the world’ and how, in the context of climate change, these companies are producing ‘climate-ready crops’ which will supposedly be able to withstand changes in our climate over the next 100 years. It seems much more likely that, in fact, it is these ancient varieties of wheat, oat, spelt, corn, rye etc that will be able to grow and adapt to changing conditions, and what’s more, they would be able to grow without the use of artificial chemicals and fertilisers and without the threat of miles of crops being wiped out by a flood, drought or some new strain of disease. Even better, Mr Letts tells me that the yield of medieval crops was almost exactly the same as it is now, so there can be no argument that modern varieties of GM crops produce far higher amounts of grain per hectare.
Another interesting point is that it was in the early 1800s when commercial baking with yeast began – before that, we didn’t use cultivated yeast to make bread. Medieval bread was almost all sourdough – a process which uses only naturally occurring yeasts within the bread and which creates bread which is flatter. Mr Letts, who is a passionate baker and bread eater himself, has a friend called Colin who is opening his own bakery and lives a short distance from his farm. When my friend Eloise and I were helping out on his farm back in the summer, Colin would bring over freshly baked sourdough using Mr Letts’ very own flour every morning. This sourdough was some of the most amazing bread I’ve ever tasted, with a wonderful flavour which surpasses the stale, flabby white bread you find in supermarkets in every single way, and it even got the French seal of approval from Eloise.
Making pizzas one night with some of Colin’s dough, Mr Letts starts talking about rye and the wisdom of medieval farmers, saying, “Ergot fungi is a type of fungi that grows on rye plants and is highly toxic to humans, but the sourdough baking process detoxifies the ergot. Somehow people living in the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s onwards knew how to do this, and worked out a way to eat rye without poisoning themselves.”
There’s another aspect of sourdough bread which is fascinating in the context of the number of people who now have gluten intolerances and celiac disease. Mr Letts describes how there’s current research in Germany into sourdough in relation to gluten. Apparently, when making sourdough bread, long term fermentation of the dough is required with the sourdough culture, which uses naturally occurring lactobacilli. These bacteria produce lactic acid which lowers the pH of the bread to 3, and such a low pH destroys the gluten so those who are sensitive or allergic to gluten can eat it.
Nowadays, modern wheat flour has various emulsifiers and enzymes added to it so that bread can be made in half an hour. This, Mr Letts believes, is a big part of the problem. “We’re eating raw starch and raw gluten, and our stomachs can’t digest them so they go straight to our guts.” Once in our gut, they cause inflammation which allows food (importantly, raw gluten, but many other foods as well) to leak into our bloodstream via a common disorder called leaky gut syndrome, and once there our body treats the food like a foreign invader and it triggers an immune response. So it’s no wonder so many of us are intolerant to wheat and gluten.
When delving deep into the way our food is grown and produced, it’s often easy to get downhearted. Mr Letts, speaking of his experience with growing food and his first-hand experience of working for American chemical companies producing fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, says that what these multinational companies spew out is a “fake argument about feeding the world.” Moreover, it is companies such as Monsanto who are now patenting seed (because they have modified and created their own types which they supposedly ‘own’) and trying (and often succeeding) to stop farmers saving their own seed as they have done for hundreds of years, as the term ‘heritage’ suggests.
“It’s all about money,” Mr Letts says. “GM crops so easily contaminate non-GM and organic crops, and Monsanto can then claim they own those crops because their GM seeds start growing in them. When this happens, they can sue farmers who try to save their seeds. And even if you’re not up against Monsanto, lots of varieties of wheat and other crops are illegal to plant and grow – if you do want to grow them they have to be approved by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). But, thankfully, a few people like Mr Letts are pitting themselves against corporations and the governments they’ve bought out by growing these ancient varieties of grain (legally, of course).
Furthermore, the future is looking brighter. “They won’t be able to criminalise the keeping and swapping of seeds because people are catching on all over the world,” Mr Letts says to me, dropping a spelt seed from one of his crops into my hand as he shows me how to work his old fashioned miller, which will turn seeds into flour ready for selling under the brand Lammas Fayre. It’s been a long process over 10 years of his life, but his heritage grain flours are now up on the market available to buy from Bakery Bits. The idea behind them is that each flour reflects the time and type of people who were using a particular mix of grain in their baking. They’re like flours for history, so he offers Medieval Peasant’s Blend Flour, Victorian Blend White Flour and Roman Blend Wholemeal Spelt Flour.
But Mr Letts isn’t stopping there. “We need a magna carta for seed,” he says, “so that seeds can be protected by laws which are moral, ethical and environmental, and so they can’t be stolen from the farmers who have saved and cultivated them for us over hundreds of years.” With that in mind, he’s aiming to produce a flour which has thousands of varieties of ancient seeds in it – 1215 to be exact, for the year the Magna Carta was created, to be ready next year in 2015, for its 800th anniversary.