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The future of food is ancient, according to Bob Quinn

One of the U.S.’s foremost organic farmers on the changes modern agriculture needs most

A wheat field at sunrise on Bob Quinn's farm in Big Sandy, Montana. Hilary Page
20 April 2020
20 April 2020

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Currently, the fastest growing sector of the U.S.’s food industry is organics. Americans spending USD 52.5 billion in 2018 on organic foods and products, the number of certified organic farms grew nearly 40 percent in five years and income for organic farmers has concurrently nearly doubled, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Yet in the mid-1980s when Bob Quinn began regenerative organic farming, fellow farmers thought he was crazy; his agricultural design based on increased biodiversity and naturally fertilized topsoil, which he implemented back in his home state of Montana after earning his PhD in plant biochemistry at University of California Davis, would never reach the same results as with using pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

It did. Kamut International – so named for his primary crop of kamut, a species of ancient wheat – grew into a multimillion-dollar business, and Quinn was tapped into positions of leadership across the boards of the major national organic organizations.

He recounts his story, which parallels that of the organics industry as a whole, in his recently published book Grain by Grain, which he co-authored with Stanford University lecturer and environmental scientist Liz Carlisle. Here, following the end of his recent book tour and the beginning of his retirement, the trailblazing farmer gives his thoughts on where organic farming has yet to go.

Bob Quinn in a field of kamut wheat. Gerald Freyer
Bob Quinn in a field of kamut wheat. Gerald Freyer

What is the difference between modern and ancient wheat?

Wheat was a source of life for thousands of years. People built great civilizations with it. And now, 20 percent of people have trouble digesting or eating it. This is very strange.

But it’s not strange if you look at the industrialization and monetization of wheat. We’ve learned that we’ve changed wheat in a huge way. Clinical studies on chronic disease, while looking at differences with an ancient food diet, have shown that ancient wheat lowers cholesterol, lowers blood sugar levels, has more antioxidents. The biggest difference we saw was anti-inflammatory properties, which increased by 30 to 45 percent. And so it really opened up a new door of understanding to me of the importance of food as our medicine and medicine as our food.

How do you distinguish between a commodity and a food?

A commodity is an industrial product that goes into the marketplace. The goal in this game is to grow as much as possible and get as high a yield as possible. And so we are encouraged to buy and apply as many inputs as possible to increase the yields with no thought of nutrition or what chemicals might do if they remain on the grain. We don’t think about anything other than the volume and the funds and the bushels that we’re getting out of our fields.

When we’re growing food, it’s quite a different perspective. It’s focused on quality rather than quantity, because in the end we remember that someone will eat it.

Were organic foods part of your upbringing?

No. I first learned about ancient wheat when I was in high school, but I never did anything with it until I moved back to the farm, about 40 years ago in the late 1980s, when I converted it to be regenerative and organic. Then we introduced ancient wheat to the marketplace about 35 years ago. But it’s been only recently, in the last 10 or 15 years, when we started all of the research.

It wasn’t until then that I really started to appreciate what a treasure we had in our hands with ancient wheat and, probably, what a window it was on the understanding of other foods that had been changed in significant ways. If seeds have been changed, particularly for only one purpose in increasing yield or increasing some kind of processing advantage, then, by and large, there’s a good likelihood that you’ve lost the nutrient value of that food. We should take care of not only how we grow things but also what seeds we use, because that will set the pattern and the nutrient density that we’re striving to achieve.

Quinn's plots of land grown for wheat research. Hilary Page
Quinn’s plots of land grown for wheat research. Hilary Page

Did you have doubts regenerative organic farming would be successful?

No, because I saw it had been used for 10,000 years, for heaven’s sake. What we’ve been doing for the last 70 years is not conventional agriculture. It’s a great chemical agricultural experiment. And I have more fear that that’s going to fail than I have ever had about organic failing. The wheels are coming off the bus all the time, with herbicide-resistant weeds, pesticide, pollution in our water and our soil and our air and our rain – there’s glyphosate falling in our rain. And people getting sick because of that, farmers going broke all the time because they can’t afford these high inputs. Returns are less and less. This is the disaster we’re facing now. The future is organic.

How does the organic industry in the U.S. compare to that of other countries?

There is a growing demand and interest in organic in the U.S. It’s up to about 6 percent of the total food that’s purchased in the country now, which is an enormous amount of money. But still, we’re not near the percentage that we see in some European countries. And the interest isn’t as high here as it is in some European countries. We’re catching up on that little by little; it’s growing at about a rate of 7 or 8 percent. At that rate of growth, in another 35 or 40 years we’ll be 100 percent.

I’m not diminishing the amount of work it is to finish the project. That’s for the next generation, and I’m here to encourage and pray they never give up, because in another 35 years it can be done. But it’s only through constant hard work and business that the door has been opened. Even though we’re a small percent, it’s growing now in a way that can be continued.

How can nutritious, organic food be made more economically viable for a greater percentage of the population?

Well, I think that if we would avoid the industrialization of it, or people would go and buy and eat food produced closer to home and in season and in a less processed form – buying raw vegetables and raw grains and making your own bread or muffins, or growing your own produce – almost anybody could afford this.

The other thing that people can do is not waste their food. We waste almost 50 percent of everything that’s grown. If you as an organic shopper wasted zero, then you would cut the effective cost of your food in half.

And the cost of food is too cheap. People complain about the cost of food; 50 years ago, it was twice what it is now. Now, healthcare is expected to cost 19 percent of our GDP in a few years. If we would increase the cost of our food and pay for better food, we would make it up in the lower costs of medicines and healthcare. You can’t ever look at food and the cost of food all by itself. You have to combine it with the cost of healthcare.

Grain by Grain book cover

How do you hope to see organics balanced with the increasing amount of genetically modified and lab-grown foods?

I think that we have a right to have GMOs labeled so that we are putting them in our bodies knowingly. For lab-produced food, plants extract minerals from the soil and make a very high-nutrient–dense product, and I do not believe we’re going to be able to duplicate that in a laboratory.

I would never want a law passed prohibiting research or production of these sorts of foods, but I think it’s only fair and right that if we’re going to be used as guinea pigs, then we should be doing it voluntarily and not unknowingly.

You have wanted to establish a research center on your farm. What questions do you want to use that center to answer?

Well, as organic farmers, you’re sometimes running up against challenges with perennial weeds, and we need ways to manage rather than just eradicate them, so they’re not creating an economic loss. I think that can be done with biological controls. If we could spend money on experiments, I think we would find some solutions.

We also need to be looking at making plants more resilient to climate change, and I don’t believe GMOs are necessarily the answer to that. I believe answers probably lie in our seed banks and through traditional breeding, taking the best lines of what we’ve got without disrupting the genetics and crossbreeding them with other lines that have favorable properties and characteristics. That is a better way to find resiliency. Diversity also goes a long way in helping with resiliency, as opposed to monoculture.

How do personal values tie into the organic foods movement?

Almost everybody has traditions of being thankful for the food that they eat before they partake of it. You don’t see it everywhere, but people are mostly familiar with that and have that concept pretty close to their being. And I think that is very, very important. If you have appreciation for creation and how food was created in the first place, then I don’t think you would want to pollute that and to ruin it for future generations just to make more money now. It’s about appreciation, stewardship, caring for what we’ve been given – and then, making it better if we can.

Kamut grains are twice the size of modern-day wheat grains. Hilary Page
Kamut grains are twice the size of modern-day wheat grains. Hilary Page

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