High nitrogen farming fools plants into growing big

Industrial wheat has an imbalance of proteins that's not good for humans.

Glyphosate blocks the uptake of minerals in plants -- and in humans.

A modern industrial flour mill uses giant roller mills  to crush the wheat berries...

Flour made from industrial wheat is in everything. It's abundant and cheap.

A gluten-free diet is a sensible response to the state of wheat. It blames the wrong thing, but it solves the problem.

Organic farming says a lot about what cannot be in the wheat.

On Wheat

Humans have been harvesting and planting wheat for at least 10,000 years. Civilizations were built on the cultivation of wheat. Why? Because wheat is a solid nutritional package, containing a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fatty acids, vitamins and micronutrients — when it's grown properly. And it grows abundantly, requiring less water than almost any other agricultural plant.

Yet now, after thousands of years of cultivation, wheat is becoming a problem for human health. Why? One hundred years ago, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity didn't exist. It's not that we didn't recognize the symptoms. The symptoms didn't exist.

Why is wheat making me sick?

For many people, products made with wheat are no longer welcome in their diets. Is this just a dietary fad, or is something really going on here?

To answer this question, let's go back to the 1940s. Scientists and farmers are looking for ways to feed more people more reliably. They discover that by applying a fertilizer called anhydrous ammonia, they can increase crop yields. Anhydrous ammonia is one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. Anhydrous means “without water,” and when injected into the soil, the liquid ammonia expands into a gas and is readily absorbed in the soil moisture, bringing the nitrogen with it.

Lodged wheatNitrogen is a growth regulator. In healthy soil — soil with abundant minerals and a balance of beneficial bacteria — the plant uses nitrogen as an indicator of all the other minerals it needs to grow. When nitrogen is abundant, the other minerals are abundant too, and it's time to grow.

But when it's applied as a soil amendment in the absence of additional nutrients, it basically tricks the plant into growing as if those nutrients were present.

In the 1940s and 1950s, farmers found out there was a limit to how much anhydrous ammonia they could use. Add more than about 25 lbs per acre, and the wheat grows top heavy and falls over. This is called lodging. The stalk crimps, and cuts off nutrient flow to the head, and it doesn't develop. This happens because the wheat grows big without the nutrients it needs to grow strong.

To get around this limit, scientists and farmers developed varietals that grew stockier and shorter, called semi-dwarf varieties. With these new varietals, farmers could now add 80-100 lbs per acre of anhydrous ammonia.

And the wheat grows like crazy. But what's happening inside the wheat kernel?

What goes on when wheat grows

Wheat is 9-14% protein. When properly farmed, it's a balanced food: protein, starches, carbohydrates, bran, vitamin-e oil, fiber, etc. But industrial wheat milling operations are not interested in wheat that provides balanced nutrients. They're interested in wheat that satisfies the structural and chemical requirements their huge customers demand. If you're making hamburger buns for McDonald's, you want absolute consistency in starch and protein, not nutritional balance.

When wheat grows, the very first protein to develop in the wheat kernel is glutamine. Glutamine is is an alpha-amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins. It also creates bulk, which farmers like. It's a precursor to gliadin and glutenin, the two proteins that crosslink to form gluten. Next to develop is the starch, called the endosperm. After that, in soil that's been treated with nitrogen, there's not enough nutrients and minerals available in the soil to finish the larger plant and allow the glutamine to finish building the longer chain amino acids that are required for human nutrition. If you're a human being eating this wheat, the proteins are out of balance. If you're an industrial grain mill processing this wheat, protein is protein, whether it's balanced or not.

When wheat buyers test protein, they're looking for total protein as a percentage of weight. They're not looking for the diversity of amino acids that is the hallmark of a healthy plant. Large amounts of glutamine count as protein. High-protein flour grown in the presence of nitrogen has a lot of glutamine, but that's not a protein the body can use. If you look up “side effects of glutamine,” what you find is nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, gas; swelling in hands or feet; muscle, joint or back pain; headache, dizziness, tired feeling; mild skin rash or itching; dry mouth, runny nose, increased sweating.


A lot of bread wheat is grown in the northern tiers of North America: North Dakota, Montana, southern Canada. The growing season in these areas is marginal. When wheat grows, it has about 15-20% moisture. To get wheat ready to harvest, it has to dry down to 10-11% moisture content, so it won't rot in the grain elevators. Traditionally farmers came in with a swather, which cuts the grain and lays it in rows on the ground so it can dry. It sits on the ground for 1-2 weeks, depending on the weather. Then they go back through the field again with something called a pickup header combine to collect the wheat. If your growing season is short, and you harvest Spring Wheat in mid-September, you don't have long to dry the wheat before the frost comes.

In 1970, a Monsanto scientist named John E. Franz invented a new herbicide called glyphosate, which Monsanto markets as Roundup. Glyphosate is not a poison in the sense that it kills the plant directly. Instead, it locks up the plant's ability to absorb nutrients. Deprived of its ability to uptake the minerals that protect it from disease, the plant dies of disease.

About 20 years ago some farmers figured out they could use glyphosate in the week or two before harvest and the wheat would dry out on the stalk, just the same as if they had swathed it. Now they can go in with a regular combine and harvest the wheat in one pass. And drying out the wheat this way takes a few days, not a few weeks.

There are a lot of hysterical articles about glyphosate use on the Internet. As far as I can tell, here's what's actually happening. First, not all conventional farmers use glyphosate to dessicate their wheat. Some do. When they do, it's applied according to EPA rules for its use, which limit how much can be applied. I'm not advocating this use or suggesting it's safe; I'm simply reporting what farmers who use glyphosate say about how they use it. Second, glyphosate is also applied to control weeds. For those two uses combined, about 1/3 of the bread wheat grown in the United States is grown in the presence of glyphosate. Some portion of that has glyphosate sprayed directly on the wheat kernels.

Now let's go back to that industrial milling operation. They bring in a million pounds of grain a day. Not all of it has been treated with glyphosate. But some of it has. And remember, they're aiming to make an absolutely uniform product, so all the grain gets mixed together. Now we've got flour that's out of protein balance, along with some amount of a substance designed to inhibit the uptake of minerals in the body.

A human being ingests this flour, and the body sees "incomplete amino acid chain," tries to uptake additional minerals to cure the imbalance, runs into this mineral uptake inhibitor, sees "poison!" and raises an autoimmune response.

Concurrent with the emergence of high-nitrogen and glyphosate use, we see a marked rise in celiac cases and various degrees of wheat sensitivity. Of course correlation is not causation, and I don't have a double-blind large-population long-term study to verify the connection. But I'm willing to stake my business on this hypothesis being true.

One more bit of good news...Monsanto is working on a Roundup-Ready wheat strain. That means farmers will be able to spray Roundup directly on the field while crops are growing (to control weeds) and the wheat won't be damaged.

The Wheat Industrial Complex

Normally when wheat is grown and harvested, it is cleaned, dried, and shipped to a miller. A modern industrial flour mill uses giant roller mills to crush the wheat berries, and huge industrial sifters to divide the resulting flour into 60 different streams of product. The bran and the germ are separated: the bran because it makes bread brown, and culturally we’ve preferred white bread; and the germ because it contains all the fatty acids and volatile oils. These fats are not amenable to shipping and storage, because without temperature control, they turn rancid.

There’s another refining step: when wheat is milled, it undergoes an enzymatic transformation as the interior of the wheat berry is first exposed to oxygen. While the wheat is undergoing this transformation, it is not suitable for making bread. It has to be “matured,” which you do by exposing it to air for about three weeks. Of course if you’re processing a million pounds of wheat a day, you can’t have three weeks' worth of the resulting output hanging around your factory. So instead, they treat it with benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas, which matures it in an hour.

As you would expect, the American baking industry wants very consistent inputs to and outputs from their million-pound-a-day mills. So the wheat they mill is industrial wheat. It’s a monocrop grown from a few semi-dwarf varieties that are grown using high-nitrogen farming. This produces uniform “high-protein” wheat that meets the structural and chemical properties their huge customers demand. The flour is further hybridized and standardized and blended so there is very little variation in its chemical and structural properties. If you’re making hamburger buns for McDonald’s, Wonder Bread, or Hostess Twinkies, you don’t want “artisan” variation in your wheat. You want it absolutely consistent in every way, day after day, week after week, year in, year out. Farmers get paid to produce a specific type of high-protein easy-to-process product — and not to provide balanced human nutrition.

So the American baking industry has mostly evolved to make products out of the refined white flour that results when you take out the bran and the germ. And why not? You get beautiful, tall, elegant, crispy and chewy breads and cakes with that white flour. You get that because white flour is nearly 100% starch, which comes from the endosperm of the wheat, and with 100% starch, you can make amazing structures. It’s mostly devoid of vitamins and minerals and trace nutrients, but who cares when you can spray concentrated versions of those things onto the white flour during processing?

What about whole wheat? Industrially produced “whole wheat” flour is made by recombining these 60 streams back into a product with approximately the same ratios of each stream as the input. Then it’s packaged and shipped — without temperature control — to bakeries and consumers. If you make bread from this, as some “whole grain” bakeries do, you have to add sugar, because rancid wheat is bitter, and nobody wants to eat bitter bread.

Flour made from industrial wheat is in everything. It's in Oreo Cookies and Ritz Crackers, artisan panini, Special K cereal, flour tortillas, pizza (including artisan pizza), nearly everything at many corner bakeries, many restaurant meals, almost every brand of "all purpose" flour you can buy, all the bread at Subway, everything in the bread aisle at Safeway. If you grew up in the United States after 1970, then everything you grew up eating that contained wheat likely contained industrial wheat.

Why? Because it's cheap. Industrial flour is ubiquitous because it's abundant and inexpensive, and you can make beautiful baked goods with it. If you have a Costco membership, next time you go into Costco take a look at the pallets of 50-lb sacks of ConAgra Bread Flour they sell for $16. Think about where that flour goes. That's the very tip of an enormous iceberg. It's marketed as a wholesome, vitamin packed, basic building block of a healthy diet. It's not.

Going Gluten-Free

It's no wonder then, that people have determined that wheat is making them sick. And by eliminating gluten, people eliminate all forms of wheat. This solves the problem. Whatever symptoms a person experiences as a result of eating industrial wheat can be addressed by eliminating wheat from the diet. There's also an unintended consequence of this diet: people eliminate a primary source of dietary fiber when they eliminate wheat.

Gluten-free is now a huge business. Even industrial mills are producing gluten-free blends. Why? Because consumers are willing to pay a premium for gluten-free products. In 2016 the market was $1.3 billion.

Yet gluten isn't the problem. This is why some people who have trouble digesting wheat find they can digest bread made from heirloom wheats more easily. Why? Because heirloom wheats aren't amenable to high-nitrogen farming, and they're usually grown organically, which doesn't allow the use of herbicides like glyphosate. It has nothing to do with gluten, except that in industrial wheat the gluten doesn't contain complete amino acid chains, and organic wheat does.

Going Organic

If you've read this far you probably know where this is going. Organic wheat is the answer. Organic farming says a lot about what cannot be in the wheat, including herbicides like glyphosate. Organic farming is not a cure-all, but it goes a long way toward providing an environment in which we can return to wheat grown with integrity. It's also the only tool we have in the US to distinguish responsibly grown grain. In other parts of the world, pesticide residue load is labeled.

Does this mean that organic wheat is the only properly grown wheat available? No. There are conventional farmers who care for their soil, limit the use of herbicides, and produce quality grain. However in the industrial wheat world, they don't get rewarded for doing the right thing. Without a label, their wheat is hard to find.

At Bread++ Sprouted Grain Bakery, we use only organic grain, including hard red spring wheat, khorasan, rye, CA varieties like Yecora Rojo California Wheat, and varieties developed by UC Davis. We're regularly sourcing properly farmed grains that make appearances in our bread.

If you're someone who has gone gluten-free, we very respectfully invite you to try our bread.

Let's bring back bread. Real, responsibly farmed, organic, whole grain, naturally leavened real bread. The way we make inroads into industrial farming and milling is by demanding responsibly farmed food as chefs, bakers and consumers.  Bread++ is one small answer.



Healthy Living Podcast, Azure Standard Farms

Using anhydrous ammonia safely on the farm, University of Minnesota

Glutamine, Wikipedia

Gluten, Wikipedia

Are U.S. farmers saturating wheat crops with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide as a desiccant to facilitate a quicker harvest?, Snopes

The Truth About Toxic Wheat, wheat farmer who uses glyphosate, in Huffington Post




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Lodged wheat

Lodged wheat