The odds are pretty good that someone reading this has Celiac Disease. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it is also referred to as gluten intolerance. Today, 1 in 133 people has the disease and the numbers continue to grow. Considering how long mankind has relied heavily on wheat as a major food crop, it seems strange to many that it is now often a major allergy for some. There are those who propose that the sudden increase has been caused by overuse, but if that were true, the Victorian and Edwardian eras would have been the time we saw this sudden increase.
Rise of the Modern Wheat
Instead, the rise began sometime in the 1970s when it was found only in 1 out of every 2500 people on average and most of those cases were a minor intolerance. What changed in that time range that could have accounted for the sudden shift in what is known so well as the staff of life? As it turns out, the answer might be the rise of the modern wheat.
To understand the difference, you first need to understand what ancient wheat was. Cultivars like Dinkel and Emmer were tall grasses whose grains were covered by heavy husks. These husks had to be pounded and worked, then winnowed to remove them. Modern wheat, by contrast, is considered to be a ‘naked-wheat’. This means that husks are thin and easily removed from the grain. Modern wheat isn’t generally very tall and has a much higher yield than ancient wheat. We have science to thank for this, and oddly enough, not GMO.
The Birth of Hybrid Wheat
No, instead of GMO, they used something understood just as little and used just as irresponsibly for the sake of profit. It started innocently enough. Dwarf cultivars were selected to limit the lodging problem that had been made much more important with the advent of modern agriculture. Lodging is where the wheat tips over and rots because the shaft or the roots can’t support the weight. Shorter crops meant less lodging even with the application of modern fertilizer blasting the plant with extra nitrogen. As an added bonus, the plant put less effort into growth and thus had more energy put into the production of grain. This meant higher yields.
Once they had selected the dwarf varieties that seemed the best, they began crossing these with foreign wheat, along with backcrossing and other techniques starting in the 60’s. This hybridization led to not only much higher production, but also increased the gluten levels beyond anything ancient wheat could manage. The only problem of course was that no one took into account the digestibility of these foreign grains and what their genetic makeup might bring to our plate besides the traits they were seeking.
Skip forward in time and we come to 2003. Clearfield wheat was introduced as being completely non-GMO, but tolerant to the herbicide Beyond. It was stated that the producers used a technique known as “enhanced traditional plant breeding”. The other name for the process is “chemical mutagenesis”, though they didn’t announce that little detail. The technique consists of exposing the seeds to a toxic chemical known as sodium azide along with exposure to gamma radiation and X-ray Radiation. The wheat embryo forcibly mutates and when planted, grows with some random traits unrelated to the parent plants. Most mutations are not beneficial and lead to a seed that doesn’t grow or a plant that dies off. Those that did grow were exposed to the Beyond formula and when one showed resistance, it was added to a breeding program.
Unfortunately for us, we have no way to know what other mutations happened in the wheat along side the resistance. Mutation does happen naturally, but much more slowly over time. Forced mutations can have all sorts of unforeseen negative effects. As of now, there are 20 varieties of Clearfield wheat being grown in the US and Canada.
Where Wheat is Now
And of course, Celiac disease is cropping up more and more often. I think what is really interesting here is that people with Celiac disease are often able to still eat ancient wheat varieties with no affect on their systems. Their bodies don’t reject the gluten in the same way they do for modern varieties. Studies of this are limited, likely due to how negatively it would affect the industry production levels if they had to move away from modern wheat back to ancient wheat. Still, it does give some glimmer of hope for bread lovers who end up with the disease.
It does seem odd though, how the practices that led to modern wheat began just before the sudden sharp rise in gluten intolerance. The problem with genes, be it through GMO, forced mutations, or hybridization of the edible with the inedible, is that changing even a single gene in the code can sometimes affect many aspects of the organism. Multiple changes can set off chain reactions we never could have imagined would happen. We get to be the happy families casually observing the nuclear blast at close range because no one has yet told us there might be anything deadly to us involved. One day we will understand, but by then it is too late for the ones who were there. This time, it is the whole world sitting in the chairs and soaking in. Food for thought.