Ancient and modern grains: intolerances, celiac and pesticides
I wanted to write this contribution to make some clarity around some topics that are discussed a lot but where there is often so much confusion or, even better, there are those who have the interest to create so much.
Meanwhile, let’s start with some definitions.
The cultivars present before the so-called “Green Revolution” are defined as ancient or traditional. What are the main differences between pre-revolution and post-revolution grains? analyze them:
The strength of gluten. It starts from ancient grains, which have a W value of gluten strength of 10-50 and you get to the modern ones that have a strength around 300-400, with all the consequences that the immune system, activated to an abnormal extent by gluten, reacts by damaging the intestine and some glands responsible for the assimilation functions of food (especially the pancreas). It is evident that the structure of gluten changes to meet the needs of food industrialization.
The size. The pre-revolution grains are high-cut (let’s say over one meter and thirty), while the posts are low-cut (far below the meter).
Productivity per hectare. Through the selection of modern grains there has been an increase (which however is based very much on the considerable input of nitrogenous fertilizers, without which production decays within a few years). When one speaks then of surrender, it is necessary to insert a whole series of energy efficiency parameters, so if we want to summarize this we can confidently assert that the modern grains have yields less than their ancestors.
The lower genetic variability. The ancient cultivars were a group of genotypes with a very high biodiversity. Following the selection of modern grains, we went towards grains “in purity”, made of plants that are all genetically identical, with a net loss of biodiversity that is not negligible (and very dangerous from an ecological point of view). In other words, the concept of adaptation has changed: while a wide genetic variability is able to adapt to environmental changes, a reduced genetic variability requires a greater control and intervention of the man with an energy waste of the priceless Environment and with a 10-fold return loss (see Rifkin J.).
It is evident that a loss of plant biodiversity also corresponds to a loss of animal biodiversity in the territory. And this is a value universally (and scientifically) recognized, which I hope no one will want to question, also because it is clear that wheat is not the only monoculture to have problems of loss of biodiversity.
This great loss of biodiversity, suffered in recent decades has been due to genetic improvement practices, which even if they have always been done in the past and long before the green revolution, obtained with a drastic and substantial change in the selection and induction of mutations. During the green revolution we even get to the use of ionizing radiation, which today by law could not be done in Italy or in most industrialized countries. But it seems that all this has fallen into oblivion.
On the fact that, according to some, there would be no green pre-revolution grains of certain provenance, we can reassure those who suspect it’s all about marketing: that Sicilian and non-Sicilian cultivars have so different morphological characteristics that it is very difficult for industry experts to confuse them with post-revolution grains.
As for celiac disease, now all the international scientific societies that deal with this pathology agree that we are witnessing an increase in incidence, at least in the populations of countries where the statistics are reliable. Scientific research carried out with the same diagnostic tools on frozen blood banks, demonstrates without any possibility of doubt that this increase in prevalence exists, especially from the 50s onwards. The causes can be multiple and complex definition; it is certain, however, that celiac disease can not take any type of gluten, even ancient or ancient grains. From this point of view there are no differences between the grains. This must be said clearly and celiacs generally know it well by simply buying gluten-free certified products.
On the sensitivity to non-celiac gluten (or wheat), on the other hand, the discourse is much more complex. It is true that according to the criteria of scientific conferences the diagnosis is made by a gastroenterologist after a double blind gluten challenge, but it is equally true that in clinical practice this test is almost never done, both for reasons of cost and time. Despite all these limitations, there is little doubt that this pathology exists (see the conclusions of the various consensus conferences of world experts, held from 2011 to date).
These experiments show that there are differences in the pro-inflammatory characteristics between some ancient and some modern grains. No study could ever compare all the pre-revolution grains with all the post ones, because they are too many. The fact that studies are done with few patients (that of Whittaker with 21 diabetics and two different types of wheat, that of Valerii with 48 patients sensitive to gluten and 4 types of wheat) is easily explained by the high costs of clinical trials.
Such high research costs can not be sustained by companies that market pre-revolution grains, as they are small (or very small) and can not afford it. That is why Research should have a channel of public funding to protect not only the health of citizens but also of scientific truth.
This story on the piloting of the research is so real as not to forget that all the drugs we buy in pharmacies have followed exactly this process: from aspirin to antibiotics.
To cite one of the researches funded by the public (mainly by the University of Bologna), on a small group very well selected and followed by children sensitive to gluten, it was observed that the reintroduction of modern grains made the gastrointestinal symptoms reappear in a few hours, while the reintroduction of two different ancient grains (the ones that most mothers could easily find at the supermarket) made them reappear in a more gradual and moderate way and only after several days, to underline that differences between the different grains are there and they can be observed clinically . Which means that there is a lot of work to do and a lot of public research to be funded.
As for the large-scale factors discussed in modern agriculture, let’s take a closer look at the topic on nitrogen, pesticides and glyphosate.
As for nitrogen, on average, especially in areas of high intensity of cultivation and animal husbandry, the nitrogen carried in agriculture amounts to about 38-40%, that from farms, 58-60% from fertilizers and 2- 4% from sewage sludge. So even in areas (see research in Emilia Romagna) where animal farms are many, most of the non-industrial nitrogen that ends up in the water is due to fertilizers. This issue is so well known to the Administration of the largest Italian Regions that we have had to take action on the matter and others will be taken, in an increasingly restrictive manner in the future.
But the most creepy scenario is that related to pesticides. It is too frequent now, even by many farmers (who often can not know the delicate mechanisms of ecological and biological action of these molecules) that the use of a single treatment a year with only one pesticide on wheat in conventional is a made of little account. It is enough to leaf through monographs on wheat published by the companies producing these products to discover the existence of dozens of pesticides specifically designed for wheat, which very rarely are used singly or only once during the crop cycle. We recall here that any non-natural molecule (therefore not metabolised by the same organisms of the ecosystem) interferes consistently on the dynamics and ecological balances and on the wholesomeness of the environment of which we are a part.
Last and not least important (since you find other contributions on this portal), glyphosate.
Even if it is true that in Italy glyphosate is no longer used, today 30% of the durum wheat we eat in pasta is of North American or Canadian origin, and in these countries the climate is more humid and cold compared to our south and glyphosate it is widely and abundantly used. Many companies measure glyphosate in imported durum wheat and are well aware of this presence. It is true that in the products sold the values are always within the limits of the law, but it is also true that on the legal limits there has never been a scientifically valid and correct work, so the pressure, above all of the multinationals, has never it helped to protect us, men of this time, the last protected of a perverse chain of interests.
To summarize this brief (and never exhaustive treatment) it is clear that, to return to the ancient grains, as these are mainly grown organically, are ground to stone and dried at low temperatures, for the consumer have a nutritional value, ecological and totally different cultural. This is even more evident if we look at the entire production chain: the ancient grains are grown exclusively under organic or biodynamic farming, they are not mixed with North American or East-European grains, they are ground almost exclusively with stone and, in the case of pasta, they are dried at low temperatures. These are not just marketing issues: the ancient grains certainly represent a growing niche in the market, which allows to sustain higher production costs but considerably lower ecological, human and energy costs.
This discussion should make us understand how agriculture must be addressed as a question of return to the old but with a truly modern approach and a completely different holistic vision.
To do all this we need to open a big political debate on Research that can only have one conclusion. This must be financed by the State, aseptically, without the co-participation of partisan or distorted “interests” with a single objective: human well-being.
Without this great humanistic leap not only agriculture but the whole of humanity risks that attempt of pure race that we have paid so dear especially with the two world wars.
Rifkin J., (2004), Entropia, Baldini Castoldi Dalai Editore, Milan.
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