All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Glutton's Rye

Glutton's Rye

Is it possible that one can bake terrible loaves, and even more terrible loaves, and yet still more awful, disgusting, ugly, almost inedible loaves, so often that one forgets what good bread is?  Just a question.  Now, is that what is happening to me?  Or is that what has happened to the rest of the world? 

It occurs to me that the fool,  the self-righteous and the insane person stand alone in their visions.  Well, so do geniuses, but they are so rare as to be discounted.  So which am I?

If it were not for the occasional loaf that I give away to a friend -- who then reports that he ate it with gratitude, or that he fed it to his family and they all liked it very much -- I should count myself among the merely silly or the sanctimonious or the mad.

Here are a few sourdough rye loaves that I've baked in bread-tins recently.  But I ate them myself, I didn't give these away!  Pious mad gluttonous fool.

1. The First two breads with Rye
The smaller of these 2 loaves is a 100% rye loaf made with sourdough and 80% hydration. 
The larger of the two loaves was also to have been 100% rye, but it actually contains a bit more sourdough starter, that I otherwise would have tossed away.  That starter is made of about 200g of whole wheat at 100% hydration, and it was a few hours past its prime, so quite sour scented.  It was not mixed with the rye but with about 100g of whole wheat.  And rather than mix that with the rye dough, I decided to use it to line the bottom of the tin, the rye dough sitting atop it.  I thought I might be able to differentiate precisely where the crumb of the two doughs mixed, but after the long overnight fermentation, I really couldn't see much of a difference.

the large

Maybe you can see a crumb difference, top to bottom.

Looking at the photos now, I think I can see a slight discolouration of the lower wheaten crumb, but that could be a trick of the light.  It really isn't discernible.  The overall taste is sour too, and you don't really delineate a difference with your tongue either.

the smaller

100% rye bread as it stales seems to add thickness to its crust

I docked both loaves with a skewer completely to the bottom before baking them, and watched them deflate before putting them in the oven.  I'm not sure that was such a great idea, but I have to admit that the crumb was more evenly baked than some other 100% rye loaves I've baked without such docking.

2. Another Rye
This next loaf was made with 400g of older whole wheat starter (100% hydration) that would otherwise be tossed.  To it, I added 200g of rye flour, and 100g of water.  Later I added 7g of salt (2% would have been 8g), and about a cup of sunflower seeds (50g).  When adding the salt I also added 50g more water, and mixed all thoroughly.

I have to admit, I held out no great hopes for this bread, made as it was from what would otherwise be some sourdough discard.

This was a small amount of dough for the tin, but I covered it and let it sit overnight in the cool house.  In the morning, it had spread out and risen well enough to give me a thin loaf.  Just before baking, I spread some old plain Kefir on the top (it had expired a week ago), and I also baked with steam.

The top of this bread was this burnished, lovely coppery colour,
like lucky pennies carried too long in a pocket

I waited until evening to slice it, and discovered the taste was wonderful, the crust superb.  I surprised myself by ignoring thoughts of dinner and gorging myself on a third of this loaf all at once, first with cheddar, then toasted with peanut butter, then a milder cheese (I think it was brie), and then I even made cinnamon toast.  At this point, I began to feel quite bloated and disgusted with myself.  But I couldn't stop eating it, it was so tasty.

I had a junkie's craving jejunum. 

This bread was surprisingly good.  I can't decide why, exactly, except I think it must be the kefir crust and the sunflower seeds I added.

Notes to Myself
  • The good bread's recipe in a nutshell:
    • 400g ww starter just past its prime @ 100% hydration
    • 200g rye flour
    • 100g water + 50g more when adding salt after a short autolyse
    • 7.0g salt
    • 50g sunflower seeds

    Method: Mix, form into a ball, place in a buttered tin, score deeply and let sit overnight. In morning, preheat oven to 450 degrees F, brush surface with expired Kefir (or thinned plain yogurt I suppose), and bake with steam for 40 minutes, turning once at 20 minutes for even baking. Remove to a rack, and let sit several hours before slicing.
  • Ever noticed how close "gluten" sounds to "glutton"?
  • "Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating us."
    • Peter De Vries, in Comfort Me with Apples
  • What's eating me?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

My latest everyday bread -- 70% ww 30% rye sourdough

Bread University
I've been making bread and reporting on it here in this blog now for about three years, give or take. Let's put that into perspective: in three years, one can go to school and earn a bachelor's degree. I suspect that there is a similar amount of info one could learn from baking bread in that time as one would get in a university getting a BA -- if one truly applied oneself and went at it full time, and built on the info learned, and didn't repeat lessons and if one wasn't forced to eat their entire way through each and every class.

But if you were to set out to teach yourself all that could be found in any university course, you'd likely be floundering around a lot, and end up learning a whole lot of relatively useless info that is not on any curriculum -- and you might miss certain things that are considered by 'The Credentialed' to be 'necessary for well-rounded learning'. Your education would be unique, and important for you, but would be unrecognized beyond your own specialized interest. You would not be credentialed.

And that is where I find myself today. After 3 years, I know a certain amount of stuff about bread. But I'm self-taught, mostly. I have gleaned different recipes and techniques from various books, I have gained a bit of facility, and yet here I sit with no real expertise. I suppose it will always remain thus.  I shall always remain a jack, as it were.

And for me: that's okay. I have no interest in learning how to bake every kind of bread, as a real baker must. I simply set out to, still want to make bread that I want to eat.  I have never seen anything like my everyday bread for sale, anywhere.  I have to make it.

Everyday loaves
My everyday bread lately is a 70% whole wheat bread with 30% dark whole rye flour added. It is made with wild yeast in the Tartine style: 20% starter made with whole wheat at 100% hydration, 1.8-2% coarse salt, added with water after a short autolyse, to bring the whole dough to 75% hydration. It is formed not by kneading but by gentle stretching and folding over its long bulk fermentation. Then it is formed and sits another length of time before baking in a dutch oven.

I still experiment with other grains, but this recipe is my old standby, and it serves me well. I like the taste. I think it is the healthiest bread I can make and eat in a timely manner. It is whole grain. The sourdough weaves its spell. The fibre moves me.

But there is very little to blog about when you are not learning anything new. This is no university, but I also hunger to learn new things about bread and about the grain that goes into making it.

Such is my hopeless obsession.

Everyday Examples
Just for completeness, here are a few of the latest loaves I've made, using this everyday whole-wheat and rye flour recipe.

1. This one was made with a bran crust. I have been experimenting a lot with crust lately (perhaps soon I will post a blog about some of those experiments, most of them failures), and while making an everyday bread recently, I remembered Jim Lahey's book, and how he would place his dough in a basket lined with bran before placing it in a Dutch Oven to bake. I have made those breads, but it was long ago now, and I wondered again how that bran might protect the crust from getting too thick on a Tartine-style loaf. That is what I tried here.
Results: The dough was stretched and folded for the complete time, but I let it sit in the basket a bit longer than required, so these breads were slightly overproofed, and sagged slightly rather than hold their shape. The bran mostly falls off when slicing the loaf, but enough of it remained to give this crust a gentle bitter taste. I think it did protect the rest of the crust from becoming too thick. But this is still quite a dense bread.

2. Same recipe, different baskets. This time it is rice flour that lines the bannetons and gives the loaf its design. This time the yeast was at its prime, and the stretching and folding was done completely, and the proofing was not too long.

These loaves were pretty good. We ate both of them, but by the time the second was down to its heel, it was getting a bit stale. You need a sharp knife to get through the crust of these loaves when they are a week old. Toasting them and buttering them will restore the crumb to a tasty finish, but the crust likely will have to be nibbled around, unless you like a challenge. Here's the thing: I've never had one of these breads grow mouldy.

3. Same recipe, different shape. These boules sagged a bit too, but here the fault was that they didn't get the complete stretching and folding that were required. I goofed off in the middle of that method, and skipped town for a couple of hours. It shows in my bread.

The method is forgiving.  This was still a good, edible loaf. I kept one, and gave one away.


Notes to Myself
  • You're not as smart as you think you are.  You'll always be a rank beginner.  Bread will always be smarter.
  • Credentials?  We don't need no stinkin' credentials.  Who credentialed the first human to ferment bread?  Who will credential the last? 
  • If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    -The baker isn't doing it. 
    If I am only for myself, what am I?
    -This is the latest challenge, opening myself to fulfill other people's needs, without abandoning my own needs.
    If not now, when?
    -Now is good: but the danger, Hillel, is in acting before one is truly ready.  Look what happened to all those who styled themselves messiah.  The answer must be 'when G-d wills it' -- of course, we won't know that until we step forward and try.
    (apologies to Hillel, this is not an accurate quotation of his, merely the way I always remember it)
  • Sure, a BA is often 4 yrs, but you get the summers off.  I ate bread all summer too.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Adding Corn flour to WW Sourdough

Here's another experimental sourdough loaf.  This has 30% corn flour,  70% whole wheat.  I really liked the 30 percent rye loaves I made this way for the Easter weekend, they turned out quite nice.  And the loaves I made with barley, quinoa and oat flour recently suggested to me that there might be other grains I could try too.  "As a supplemental grain for my sourdough wheat bread, why not try some corn flour?", I thought.

Why Corn?
To be honest: generally I steer clear of corn as a grain -- for lots of reasons, but primarily because we can never be sure any more whether the corn we eat is genetically modified, here in North America.   Let's face it, the jury is still out on GMO (Genetically Modified Objects) in our food.  I don't really want to be anyone's guinea pig.  I may not be able to stop GMO from entering our food supply, but I can do my best to try to not eat it myself (at least, until it is proven safe, and I don't think we've reached that plateau).  The wiki on genetically modified food suggests that a lot of our corn grown in North America is now genetically modified (whether in Canada it is as high as the US rates reported or not, I don't know.  I bet it is at least that high -- currently 86% -- if not higher here).  Mostly it appears that the GMO used in corn is designed to thwart some pests.  There may also be some resistance to herbicide.  That can't be bad for humans, can it?  Can it?  I  can't answer that.  And I doubt that there is a single person on the planet who can, with absolute certainty.  Genetic programming is such a fledgling industry, we really don't have a clue yet what we are doing, let alone the ultimate effects it will have.* 

But there are other reasons why I avoid corn.  One reason I can think of, is because it sickens me to learn what has happened to corn in the interest of profit and often at the expense of health.  In an essay I just read by Ursula K. LeGuin, she described how "Capitalism As We Know It" works by requiring endless expansion, "like the American waistline."  As an example for how this can be accomplished, she cited Michael Pollan's research on corn in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and put it rather succinctly:

When you’ve grown enough corn to fill every reasonable demand, you create unreasonable demands—artificial needs. So, having induced the government to declare corn-fed beef to be the standard, you feed corn to cattle, who cannot digest corn, tormenting and poisoning them in the process. And you use the fats and sweets of corn byproducts to make an ever more bewildering array of soft drinks and fast foods, addicting people to a fattening yet inadequate, even damaging, diet in the process. And you can’t stop the processes, because if you did profits might get “listless,” or even “flat.”

Here's another reason.  Ever since I watched the video by Dr. Robert Lustig on the dangers of fructose I've been trying to avoid corn fructose.  There is far too much corn fructose in our processed foods, and I have tried to be diligent about avoiding it.  So mostly, for me, that meant corn is out. 

And yet, humans have been eating corn (not our corn, but an ancestor of our corn) for thousands of years here in the Americas.  Corn is not in itself inherently evil.  It is a grain that can provide sustenance, and still has many good qualities to offer us.  It contains starch (lots of amylose, amylopectin, and the important resistant starches), it contains protein, it contains dietary fiber and fats.  And depending on the corn variety, and the amount of processing of the grain, it contains the expected carotenoids (mainly lutein, which has anti-tumor properties, and zeaxanthin, said also to prevent macular degeneration; but also xanthophyl, which gives corn its yellow colour, an antioxidant), anthocyanins, and phenolic compounds (like ferulic acid, which prevents colon cancer and slows aging: high levels of this compound alone sets corn apart from other grains, and makes corn's antioxidant properties higher than all other grains).  How much remains in corn flour of these good properties after milling, processing, and baking is unknown.

In answer to "Why?" add corn to bread, I simply shrugged and ended with the question "Why not?"  And there were reasons why not (I've just listed them), but apparently they were not enough to stop me from experimenting with the number one grain on the planet.

So I decided to try some corn flour in this loaf, not for any great and noble reason, or because I believed in the health benefits of corn, but because I found a tiny bag of corn flour at the Arva Flour mill.  I generally trust the products of this nearby old mill; I buy most of my flour there. So even though there is no guarantee that it is GMO free, I decided on a whim to give this corn flour a try.  It looked so interesting.  An extremely fine flour -- and so yellow it reminded me of the nice yolk of our backyard chicken eggs. 

Yellow cornflour.  This shot doesn't do it justice.  Think marigold-bright yellow.
See how it clumps a bit?  Reminds me of scrambled eggs.

I am getting my whole wheat starter to float, if I time it right.
I suppose that means, following Tartine's instructions, I've got maximum yeast for my leaven.

It was while making the bread, that I became very curious about fructose again.  If corn has fructose, don't all other grains also have it?  I wanted to know, and set off to learn something.

Wheat has something like fructose
It turns out that there are people out there with fructose metabolism difficulties, and/or fructose absorption problems.   And many of these people do better on gluten free diets.  This is not because they are sensitive to the gluten, though.  Instead, they cannot metabolize wheat's fructans (a fructose-like polymer that wheat uses to store its energy, the way corn uses fructose).  Wheat fructans are called Graminan.  When these chained carbohydrates are not absorbed for the benefit of the human who eats it, they pass through to the large bowel, where the bacteria derive great benefit from consuming it.  And so while the bacteria have a party, the human host experiences symptoms like:
  • bloating
  • gas
  • abdominal discomfort
  • tenderness
  • soreness
  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • depression

There may be a few fixes before you have to try a total wheat embargo.  Sometimes it helps, believe it or not, to eat some glucose (not sucrose, that just contains more fructose) at the same time as the fructans.  For some reason, the glucose metabolizes easily and actually helps the fructans metabolize.  But then again, watch Lustig's video and ask yourself whether you really want to metabolize the fructans.

There seems to be a proper ratio of fructose/fructans to the amount of fiber one ingests.  In other words, our body can tolerate ingesting fructose in small amounts, so long as it also consumes a lot of fiber.  This is why Dr. Lustig wrote in his video, "When G-d made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote," and he said "wherever there's fructose in nature, there's way more fiber."

In other words, if you are gassy when you eat wheat breads, try whole wheat breads.  And I'm not talking here about store-bought whole wheat bread: make it yourself so you know it is 100% whole wheat and nothing but the whole grain.  Because a store-bought bread may say "100% whole wheat" but it only contains some 100% whole wheat: it likely contains other wheat products too (not to mention all the dough enhancers and additives and sugars that modern industrial extrusion baking loves).  Beware the starchiest loaves.  Go for the fiber.  Make it yourself.  That's if you have these symptoms, and still want bread.

Personally, I think that long fermentation periods will help too.  I'm talking about sourdough.  This will have something to do with correcting the balance of good vs bad bacteria in your gut.  This will have something to do with prebiotics and probiotics, of which we've all heard so much recently.  I can't cite studies though.  A lot of work still needs to be done.

So here's a disclaimer.  I don't know.  I don't know the health risks of eating any grain.  I try to research it a bit, but like anyone else I'm just getting by, living hand to mouth, and trying to make sense of it all, in this big, beautiful, strange and familiar, ugly world.

This mostly whole-wheat-some-cornflour-bread was baked with steam on a stone for 20 minutes, then turned and left another 20 minutes at 450 degrees F.  In other words, a normal Tartine-method loaf, except I baked it on a stone.

This bread is a trifle over-baked (is that because corn has fructose and caused a more significant Maillard reaction, I wondered?).  But beyond the crust that got too hard and dark, the bread stales quickly too.  And even beyond that: the interior crumb hasn't got a particularly good taste.  It is not moist.

I believe all these effects have to do with corn's starch crystallizing at a different rate than wheat, along with its much different viscosity when water is added.

This bread is going to be difficult to eat.  Compared to other sourdough breads I've made recently this one just isn't up to snuff.

I think I will continue to avoid corn as a bread ingredient, in general.  Unless I'm making tortillas or roti or something unleavened.

Notes to Myself
  • I remain amazed that corn is the number one grain on the planet. And mostly it is because of these dangerous practices that Pollan reports and LeGuin repeats. Wheat remains the second grain in terms of production volume, and first in terms of direct human consumption, and I still maintain wheat is the most interesting, for its unique properties in baking bread.   And its exorphins, of course. 

    But there are problems with wheat too, and lobbyists on both sides, for and against wheat's consumption.  Consumers are hearing a lot about the negatives, these days.  I simply ask, "if you take away wheat, whose interest does that serve?  The people producing and marketing corn?"  And vice versa.

    I know that there are interests afoot in the world to do for wheat what the corporations did to corn.  It is not all about feeding the world, it is also about profit. 

    It all bears watching closely.
  • If someone suspects they have fructose intolerance, they can ask for a hydrogen breath test to confirm their malabsorption.
  • In any study done on grain, always ask yourself "Who Benefits?"  It is always difficult because it is hidden, but follow the money. 
  • * Of course, we can say the same thing (we don't know what we are doing) for virtually everything we eat: proponents of the paleolithic diet and raw diets tell us that bread is not good for us, and 10 000 years of archaeology show the damage in our bones.  I don't think they have necessarily proved their point, though.  Grains built civilization, which allowed many changes in lifestyle, including allowing the less-than-strongest, with other gifts, to survive.  But how long does one have to run a test before one gets accurate results?  Is civilization itself just such an experiment?
  • I'll admit it (and with my family occasionally reading this blog, how could I deny it and have any credibility?): sometimes when I eat a lot of bread (and when do I not eat a lot of bread?) I get gassy occasionally.  But I also eat a lot of fiber in that bread (and lots in my fruits and vegetables), far more than most other people who don't insist on whole grains in their bread, I'd wager.  The fiber moves things along rather quickly.  So my gut bacteria don't often get the chance to feast long enough to cause the bloating and discomfort reported by people with fructose malapsorption.

    And of course, I will often make a joke when I toot.  I simply laugh and give the vegetarian's answer to farting: "Yes, of course I fart, but my farts don't stink!"

    Farts are such a happy noise.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Some 30-70 rye breads for Easter

Some 30-70 rye breads

I mixed up two 30%-70% sourdough rye/wheat doughs in the Tartine style for this Easter holiday weekend.

1. Herbed Rye
The first couple of breads, I just tossed in an indeterminate amount of Italian herbs .  It was a mixture that we had kicking around in our cupboards -- sort of like an Herbs de Provence, but made with Italian herbs, unnamed -- although I bet Oregano is one of the unnamed herbs (I think I recognize the scent).

2. Beanwater Rye
The other dough made a couple of 30/70 rye breads whose only difference was that instead of herbs I used some left-over water from the second soaking of some dutch brown beans.  The water was tea-brown, and I got it from the refrigerator, so the water was ice-cold when I began to use it.  It would take the wild yeast a bit of time to wake up, at this temperature.  But the flour immediately felt different using this bean-water: it felt softer, but tighter.  Difficult to explain.  This bread would almost certainly turn out much different than the other, I figured.


I made these for the Easter weekend, which unfortunately I had to work (somebody had to, and I had the Christmas season off).  I figured I'd need some bread to carry me through this 3-day stretch while my family met around the table and ate their large meals without me.

My family even had to make the traditional Easter loaf without me.  It wasn't whole grain of course -- but they did a much better job of it than the one I made a couple of years ago.  That disaster made my 'top ten' list for awful loaves of 2010.  I had a slice of this year's loaf that they made, and it was good. 

But I'll stick to my sourdough, whole grain loaves, thank you very much.  It just fulfills me; I prefer it; it tastes better; I feel better after eating it; and my research tells me it is far healthier. 

I liked both of these 30/70 loaves.  There was a mild scent of the herbed bread, but it was more noticeable when you bit into it.  It tasted like a normal rye, the herbs just made it more interesting. 

I loved the dark slash on these loaves

Nice tight crumb

These breads made with water left over from soaking beans turned out nice and did not stale quickly

A bit holier than the other bread. 
Gee this is blurry.  Got to get a new camera.

The bread made with bean-water did not stale, it stayed moist a long long time.  I loved both of these loaves, which is obvious since I return to them again and again.

Notes to Myself
  • At Easter, when I bake bread, I'm singing the late Stan Roger's great song, The Mary Ellen Carter (a song about raising a valuable sunken ship against all odds and despite all naysayers):

    Rise again
    Rise again;
    Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end
    No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend
    Like the Mary Ellen Carter, Rise Again!
  • Some nay-sayers will turn up their noses when you toss handfuls of dubious herbs into a bread.  Let them!  They don't have to eat it if they don't want to.  Their loss.
  • I sent one of the beanwater loaves home with my son when he left town after the long weekend.  Hopefully he will report that the loaf did not go completely stale before he could get through it, otherwise what I've written about it here will have to be amended.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Another WW and Spelt Loaf as I consider Wheat Futures


Yet Another WW and Spelt Loaf

Nothing to say about this loaf except that it staled quickly.  I gave one away, and worked my way through the other, but it staled before I could finish it.  It had to be the spelt that caused this effect.
One of the loaves flopped when I flipped it out of the banneton into the dutch oven, and I ham-handedly moved it to a nicer position -- hence the funny looking loaf with the notch in it.  It still had some nice oven spring despite the roughness with which it hit the oven.

Since I haven't much else to say about the rather ordinary speltish loaf, let's use this blog space to discuss something that's been happening in the Canadian Grain landscape.

Glencore Headquarters

Canadian Grain Handling

Canadian grain handling has hit the news again recently with Glecore's acquisition bid of Viterra in a 6.2 billion dollar deal that will once again change the way Canada produces and sells wheat. 

As of this blog posting, this deal has to find approval with the Canadian government: Glencore is a Swiss Company, and Viterra is Canadian/prairies-based, and Canada's government has to at least pretend that they are not just selling the farm, to keep credulity with their constituents.  But since it comes fast on the heals of the government's own plans to scrap the Canadian Wheat Board (which I wrote about in this blog), there is likely going to be no government opposition.  Particularly since Glencore has been careful in their bid, including selling off bits and pieces of Viterra to make it appear more acceptable to the Canadian regulators.  Glencore will keep the parts of the business -- the assets that move the grain.  And especially there will likely be no problems found with the deal because a U.S. firm has been hired by our government to determine whether the deal is beneficial for Canada.  Huh.  Well, we all know that the U.S. grain producers have long been complaining that our Canadian Wheat Board was violating free trade by 'dumping' durum wheat on U.S. markets.  It very nearly started a food fight across the border, according to the 2001 report, The Grain Industry in Canada.

Could it be that our Canadian government, with its conservative ideals and backroom dealings, has agreed in principle with the U.S. position?  Is there something else besides the best interests of Canada behind the demolition of the Canadian Wheat Board and its takeover by Glencore?

Glencore spokespersons have frankly said it is using the deal to shoehorn its way into the North American grain market.  It is a strategic move that will see them make further acquisitions in the U.S. in the not-too-distant future.  So don't get too smug yet, you U.S. grain producers.  Be prepared to soon be owned by Glencore.

These players in the Viterra/Glencore deal are Commodity Traders and corporations and governments, but the effects of all of this trickle down to the way farmers produce grain and how we each buy bread.  And despite the namelessness of the corporations, I want to put a face to it: who is making these decisions for us?

This deal is rather small potatoes for Glencore, which wikipedia states is currently the largest commodities trader on the planet (moving significant amounts of zinc, copper, grain and oil).  More recently, a larger mining deal in the EU with the attempted acquisition of mining giant Xstrata at 90 billion dollars drew media attention for similar reasons: Glencore is consolidating its monopoly position on all sorts of commodities.

Glencore wants to appear to be an open book, but who knows?  The organization seems to advance men who have competed at the top of their field in various athletic sports: men with distinct competitive edge are favoured.  They are a high-risk, high-return company, unafraid to enter into areas that are political hot-potatoes.

Glencore can trace its origin to Marc Rich, who was implicated in illegal oil dealings with Iran during the hostage crisis (he bought oil from Iran and sold it to U.S. companies despite the embargo, and even sold oil to Iran's enemy Israel).  Rich fled the U.S. to avoid a charge of tax evasion, but was pardoned by departing president Bill Clinton, after Rich's wife made sizable donations to the president's library fund and to the Democratic party.

Chris Mahoney is the current director of agricultural products at Glencore and has directed this strategic buy, and answers the questions that the media has put to Glencore.  But the real money is above him: Simon Murray is the "non-executive chairman of the board".  He sits on a lot of boards, has his fingers in many pies, but the real strategist for Glencore's growth appears to be the current CEO Ivan Glasenberg, a billionaire many times over who has invested a lot of his own money in Glencore shares.

Why do I care about the high rollers buying and selling grain commodities?  Because it affects me.  I never really had any say in the Canadian Wheat Board before: but its position statement on genetically modified grains was pretty clear. 

Grain producers liked the promise of genetically modified grains, but they were cautious: they wanted the market to decide, they wanted to go ahead only when there was widespread consumer acceptance of the GMO produce.  And there hasn't been widespread consumer acceptance.

How unscrupulous are the leaders of Glencore?  What position will Glencore take to genetically modified grain entering our Canadian food supply?  Will the bottom line be the only guide?  Will they side with the producers who were cautious, or with the seed-suppliers who want to go ahead with GMO grain at top speed?  With a global marketplace at their disposal, they can pretty much afford to dictate terms to the highest bidder.

The CWB and its members were watching what was happening with GMO cotton, and soybeans, and canola.  No one seems to care about cotton since we don't eat it.  So far, soybeans seem to have slid under the radar of most consumers; canola has lost a few European markets, but not too many other markets seem to have taken notice.  But the wheat producers are correct to be cautious.  There is a growing movement to reject Genetically Modified Objects (GMO) in our food, here in North America, even as biotechnologists want to get to it, and climate conditions are worsening.

Exponential profit

Most of us who read it in our youth will certainly remember the wonderful story told by George Gamow in his book "1-2-3-Infinity" about the vizier who supposedly invented the game of chess.  This made his king so happy, the ruler agreed to grant the vizier a reward.  The vizier asked for a single grain to be put on the first square of the chessboard, two grains on the second, four grains on the the third, and thereafter double the amount of grain on each square.  The king thought he was getting off lightly when he agreed to the request.  But he didn't accurately compute what it would cost him: by the time you get to 64 squares, the total number of grains is more than the entire world's wheat production for two thousand years.

Now let's put that story in non-mythic, modern day economic terms.  Let's say you are Glasenberg and own a lot of Glencore shares, and Glencore gets a cut of a few partial cents for every grain on the planet, from now until the sun burns the earth to cinders -- when seed is purchased, when seed is grown, when seed is harvested and transported, and when seed is sold.  How long before you have enough money to own pretty much everything? 

My own feeling is that those at the top are interested only in profit, and this will translate, in the trickle-down effect, to poorer quality, and less control for those of us at the bottom of the food chain. 
I can almost hear the commodity traders talking with the seed producers:
"Health?  We will give that only a token nod, since we don't necessarily want to kill off our customers right away.  But hey: the cigarette companies have been getting away with that for years, why not us grain suppliers?"
We are all stakeholders.  Unfortunately, we aren't all shareholders. 

And those who represent our small, quiet independent voices -- our elected officials -- have decided we do not have anything worthwhile to say.

Wheat futures will be decided without us.

Notes to Myself
  • Although it was written in 2008, have a look at what peak oil writer Chris Nelder wrote about the volatility and profit of wheat futures.  You might get an idea of how the world could be held hostage to the supply of grain.