A few months ago I watched the documentary What’s With Wheat?, produced to portray modern wheat as an industrial fabrication of real food. Most documentaries are sensationalized, as are most popular food books, but you can always learn something from them.
One particular narrative from the documentary really struck me.
“A lot of wheat has at least ten applications of chemicals from start to finish. Starting with a spray they put on the seeds to make them sprout. They have hormone sprays to make their stalks strong. Hormone sprays to make them come into seed all at the same time. And then they have fumigants in the warehouse. So all of these chemicals are applied to wheat, and that’s just the beginning before they start processing.”
—Sally Fallon, founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Quoted in What’s With Wheat documentary, 2016. 24:20-25:10.
To anyone familiar with wheat production in Oklahoma, this seems absurd. Wheat can’t germinate, can’t grow, can’t survive without all these chemicals? I’ve taken certified Oklahoma wheat seed, thrown them in my garden, applied absolutely no chemicals, and got strong, healthy plants. Maybe the person is referring to wheat production in other areas? Or maybe there was a lot of about commercial wheat production I didn’t understand? Or maybe the documentary was wrong?
So I set about corresponding with wheat scientists and farmers, and this is what I have concluded. I’m not saying it’s the 100% truth. Only a documentary would say that! But I am saying it is the conclusion I have reached.
First though, let me explain why I call this article a ‘Myth Sheet’, playing off OSU’s penchant for publishing ‘Fact Sheets’. I am exploring the myth behind this narrative from What’s With Wheat, but by calling it a ‘myth’ I am not saying it is false. I’m only saying it initially seemed like a myth. It turns out that while the narrative is somewhat misleading, you cannot label any part of the narrative as unambiguously false, and I actually learned some new things by exploring the narrative.
Let’s take the narrative line by line.
“Starting with a spray they put on the seeds to make them sprout.”
There is no wheat cultivar that I know of that needs a chemical to sprout. So this statement is not entirely true, but then, she did not say the chemical was absolutely necessary for germination.
There are some places and times when farmers want to plant wheat late in the fall, and the cold weather can cause the plant growth and germination to be slow. In this case they can coat the wheat seed with a hormone called Gibberellic acid, which encourages the seed to germinate faster and promotes faster plant growth in the seedling.1,2 This is a hormone that plants produce in abundance when they are growing, but can also be produced using microorganisms and applied to the seed. Since the chemical is the same regardless of whether it is produced by the plant or in a factory, I suspect it makes no difference if the plant produces it itself or if it is applied to the seed by a company.
So chemicals are not needed to make wheat seeds sprouts, but sometimes they might increase germination rates. To my knowledge, farmers in Oklahoma never use wheat seed treated with Gibberellic acid, but some farmers in colder regions might. How often is such treated seed planted? I have no idea.
“They have hormone sprays to make their stalks strong.”
This is not a practice we see in Oklahoma. Our wheat yields are sufficiently low, and the stalks of our wheat cultivars sufficiently short, that our wheat plants are strong enough to hold the wheat seed high off the ground for the combine to harvest it.
However, there are some regions in the world where the soil and climate is ideal for wheat production, and they can harvest over 200 bushels of wheat per acre.3 Compare this to Oklahoma, where a wheat yield over 50 bushels per acre would be a triumph. In these high–yielding areas the wheat can produce so many seeds that the stalks have trouble holding the seeds erect. In these cases farmers may apply a chemical that inhibits Gibberellic acid (yes, the same acid that you use to encourage seed germination). By reducing the amount of this acid in a growing wheat plant the stalks do not literally grow stronger, but they do grow shorter, and shorter stalks fall over less easily (which you can say makes it ‘stronger’).
Indeed, I contacted a company that verified that the United Kingdom sprays this chemical on almost all of its wheat. So the documentary’s statement is mostly correct, just not for wheat everywhere.
“Hormone sprays to make them come into seed all at the same time.”
I am not sure exactly what she is talking about here, but I suspect it refers to the practice of applying glyphosate to wheat plants shortly before harvest. Glyphosate is also known as Round Up, a herbicide that will kill any plant that is not genetically engineered to resist it (or has not recently evolved to resist it).
This is not done in Oklahoma, but in some regions the wheat seed may not dry evenly in the field. Before a farmer can harvest wheat, all of the seed must have a moisture content below a certain level, but you also don’t want the moisture level to drop too low, so the moment the targeted moisture level is reached you want to crank up the combine.
In Scotland, for example, some of the wheat will be ready to harvest when some are not, so farmers started applying glyphosate to the entire wheat field two weeks before harvest to kill the wheat and cause all the grain to reach the proper moisture content at roughly the same time. The practice is called desiccation, and most all non-organic wheat farmers in Saskatchewan do it.4
“And then they have fumigants in the warehouse.”
Yes, this is true. As you can imagine, any place where lots of grain is stored will attract pests. Just think how hard it is to keep all insects out of your relatively clean house! So fumigants are used to keep insects from destroying the stored wheat.
“A lot of wheat has at least ten applications of chemicals from start to finish.”
Once again, this is generally not true for Oklahoma but it appears it might be true for more northern regions where they obtain higher wheat yields. In a bad year an Oklahoma farmer might use the following chemicals
- Pesticide coating on seed
- Herbicide application to field in spring
- Late spring fungicide application for leaf rust
- Late spring insecticide for army worms, and maybe in a really bad year another insecticide application for greenbugs.
- Insecticide in grain storage bins
This is only 6 chemical applications, and only in an especially bad year. In a good year you would have only 3, maybe 4. However, if other regions are also applying Gibberellic acid to the seed, a chemical to inhibit Gibberellic acid when the plant is older, and glyphosate before harvest, that’s three more chemicals. Moreover, perhaps these other regions need more pesticide applications than Oklahoma (especially if they receive more rain, which encourages fungal infestations) so ten chemical applications might actually be a reasonable estimate for some places.
Should this discussion frighten you?
Certainly, the point of the narrative in What’s With Wheat is meant to frighten the viewer, to make them believe that wheat has become so industrialized that it can no longer function as a natural plant without loads of chemicals.
Should we give up on wheat, or revert back to heirloom cultivars, so that we can acquire food with less chemicals?
This is how I always view the chemical/pesticide/hormone debate. All of these chemicals are regulated—heavily. You have to get a pesticide license and you are required to follow the chemical label (meaning the directions on when and how you can use it). These regulations are designed such that, when followed, there is almost no possibility of any harm coming to you.
Of course, if the regulations are not followed, then the potential harm is serious.
So … do farmers and seed companies follow the regulations diligently? Despite some documented instances when they were not, I believe they are. Is my belief based on fact or myth? I leave that for you to decide.
1. Gupta R, Chakrabarty SK. Gibberellic acid in plant: Still a mystery unresolved. Plant Signaling & Behavior. 2013;8(9):e25504. doi:10.4161/psb.25504.
2. Pavlista, A.D., Baltensperger, D.D., Santra, D.K., Hergert, G.W. and Knox, S. (2014) Gibberellic Acid
Promotes Early Growth of Winter Wheat and Rye. American Journal of Plant Sciences, 5, 2984-2996.
3. NorthernAg.net. April 12, 2016. “New World Record Wheat Yield.” Accessed February 20, 2018 at http://northernag.net/AGNews/AgNewsStories/TabId/657/ArtMID/2927/ArticleID/6363/New-World-Record-Wheat-Yield.aspx.
4. Roseboro, Ken. March 5, 2016. “Why is Glyphosate Sprayed on Crops Right Before Harvest?” Accessed February 20, 2018 at https://www.ecowatch.com/why-is-glyphosate-sprayed-on-crops-right-before-harvest-1882187755.html.