Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The integrity of wheat

By Tom Zwainz, Reardan area farmer 

Any wheat farmer knows that if you fail to jump on a problem in the field in a timely manner, you’re liable to get hammered. Miss the window to effectively treat stripe rust with fungicides or fail to spray weeds at their most vulnerable and you’ve wasted money and, more importantly, time.

Farming is all about being proactive, so it was discouraging to watch over the last year as accusations William Davis made about the crop we love were allowed to flourish without response. For those of you too busy farming to keep up with the cultural current Davis represents, let me update you.

In August 2011, Davis, a preventative cardiologist, released his book, “Wheat Belly—Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight.” There is not enough space here to list the accusations against wheat that Davis leveled in his book, but the Cliffs Notes version goes something like this: Wheat is a crop that has been so manipulated by breeders in the last 100 years that it looks nothing like the plant our ancestors ate. As a result, the gluten that is an essential part of wheat and makes it possible for bread to rise smoothly, not only makes you fat, it can potentially make you crazy too.

Everybody from Bill O’Reilly to Lady Gaga have embraced the gluten-free lifestyle, proclaiming from their media soapboxes that eliminating wheat from their lifestyles has solved everything from fuzzy thinking to allergies and, of course, weight gain. And what began with a snowball of detractors has rolled itself into an avalanche of criticism. And yet, when Davis’ book came out, representatives of the organizations responsible for defending wheat’s good name argued that any reaction would only add fuel to the fire. They counseled against engaging Davis directly. Best to wait out the hullabaloo, let it run its course and die on its own.

Since waiting doesn’t work with problems we confront on our farms, your WGC commissioners questioned whether it would work with “Wheat Belly’s” accusations, especially given the highly connected Internet society we live in. Early on, we engaged with the Wheat Foods Council, arguing for a more muscular response. And we hired Art Bettge, a retired cereal chemist from the Agricultural Research Service, to do a literature search of all the misinformation being conveyed over the Internet and elsewhere.

Although we tried our best to galvanize the industry, I believe our voices didn’t have near the impact as the data, which showed between 2010 and 2011, per capita wheat consumption dropped from 133 to 131 pounds. The loss of two pounds may not sound like a lot, but multiply it by the 330 million people who live in the U.S. and we’re talking about a lot of dough. Another way to measure the impact on wheat is by looking at the market penetration of bakery products made without wheat. This so-called gluten-free category was $1 billion in 2006. This year, it is expected to top $4 billion. Again, a lot of dough.

The drop in consumption got the attention of the wheat chain, including bakers, millers and manufacturers, and it is no surprise that in the last few months, several studies have emerged which refute Davis’ claims point by point. Glen Gaesser, an Arizona State University professor and researcher, and Julie Miller Jones, a professor emeriti at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul Minn., have both released papers which convincingly argue that Davis frequently doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Not only is wheat not a chronic poison that makes you fat, Gaesser and Jones point to numerous studies which demonstrate wheat is good for lowering cholesterol levels, increasing bowel health, boosting brain functioning and, get this, losing weight.

The problem is that Davis’ misinformation campaign has more than a year’s head start. And as Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” We missed the boat on addressing “Wheat Belly” early, and the domestic milling and baking industry will be paying the price of that tardiness for years to come. If nothing else, the experience should remind us that it’s the rare problem that simply goes away. The good news for those of us who farm in Eastern Washington, where 85 to 90 percent of our wheat is exported, is that “Wheat Belly” is mostly— but not exclusively—a U.S. phenomenon. Thanks to the research from Gaesser and Jones, however, we now have the ammunition to refute Davis’ half truths in our important overseas markets.

Farming is not a static operation, and neither are the issues that arise around our commodity and the end-use products it creates. No doubt, there will be the equivalent of other “Wheat Belly’s” in our future. I just hope when the next assault on our crop arises, we can join together to protect the integrity of wheat with the same alacrity farmers bring to their cropping operations.

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