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Going with the Grain, Occupying Our Food Supply

As someone who grows nearly a dozen acres of heritage grains in the desert—including the oldest corn and oldest wheat varieties in North America– I recently learned a fact about cereal commodity trading that knocked me off my feet.

The most powerful transnational corporation you’ve never heard of—Glencore International PLC, the world’s largest diversified commodities trader—currently controls one tenth of the world’s wheat supply, and one quarter of the global harvest of barley, sunflower and rapeseed. You may have never heard of the Swiss-based Glencore because it operates under many names in some thirty countries. Even its subsidiaries are among the owners of other grain and oilseed conglomerates, such as the Moreno Group in South America.  Its total assets amount to more than $79 billion dollars, including minerals, cereals and biofuels.

Glencore is also one of the largest farm operators in the world. And yet, according to The Guardian, it has a considerable record of environmental fines and worker fatalities at its operations. But what of its contributions to the countries where it is based, other than its products and jobs? Well, it paid only two million dollars of taxes and royalties on the billion dollars of European-based revenues it garnered in 2010. Go figure that.

While there have been allegations by reputable journalists that Glencore sometimes profiteers off hunger and famine, I have no way to judge whether such scattered reports are true, let alone systemic. But what I do worry about is a world grain market that has put far too many eggs—or wheat kernels– in one basket.

Why I farm several heritage grains, forty-five varieties of historic fruits and nuts, and dozens of more heirloom vegetables is because of my belief that diversity truly matters. I value food biodiversity, structural diversity in agricultural industries, and functional microbial diversity in the soil. The lack of diversity in our grain markets makes us all vulnerable to pestilence, plague and price-fixing, but these stresses differentially affect the poor. That’s why the over-consolidation in any agricultural industry is a food justice issue, just as monoculture in any agricultural landscape is.

The dozen acres of White Sonora wheat and Chapalote corn I grow with my friends Duncan and Susan are hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the three hundred thousand acres that Glencore manages for its crops. But I am but one of many farmers who are now reviving heritage grains in our local foodsheds, and getting them to artisanal millers, bakers, brewers and chefs who no longer want to treat our rich agricultural patrimony of grains merely as commodities. There’s my friend Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina, who now engages over a hundred Southern farmers in providing exquisite grits, rice and wheat to a thousand restaurants and homes in “Corn Bread Nation.”  There’s Amber Lambke of Skowhegan Maine, recently featured in the Smithsonian article, “Amber Wave.”  Amber and her collaborator Michael Scholz have organized annual Kneading Conferences and turned the old Skowhegan jail into a locally-owned grain mill. There are my Arizona neighbors in the Gila River Indian Community, Ramona and Terry Button, who grow durum wheat on Gila River Indian Community lands. And like their Ramona Farms, the San Xavier Co-op and Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona also grow heirloom grains for their own families, low-income neighbors and community events.

None of the heritage grain growers I know position themselves as little Davids, as if they are out to slay the Goliath-like cereal commodity corporations of the world. Instead, what they are offering to us is taste, texture, nutrition and hope that can deeply change our relationship to food. It may simply be that Glencore’s subsidiaries cannot truly give us what we want, what we value, and what may make the world a better place. Alternatively, it may be that Glencore’s head of sustainability, Michael Fahrbach, ultimately fathoms that sustainability and diversity must inevitably go hand and hand, and begins to move the corporation onto a less perilous path. Write him. Encourage him. And in the meantime, find some artisanally-milled flour from some heritage grains, bake with it, eat it with friends, giving thanks for any daily bread that has been grown caringly and equitably.

Gary Paul Nabhan is author of the newly-released book, Desert Terroir, available from the University of Texas Press. Utne Reader honored him this last year as one of twelve visionaries changing the world for the better.

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