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Fruit and vegetables link our hungry bodies to the world of plants. Yet many of us have little understanding of the farming industry and the impact that bringing crops to our plates has on the planet. In this episode, JC Niala untangles the knots of these global food systems and focuses on a grain that is central to many of our diets: wheat.

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Photograph of an ochre-toned photogram. The light-sensitive emulsion has been roughly spread onto the textured watercolour paper, leaving brush marks around the edge. In the centre of the ochre colour of the emulsion is the white silhouette of a cluster of oat plants showing their stalks, leaves and oat spikelets.
Farmland. © Faye Heller for Wellcome Collection.
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Professor of Archaeological Science Martin Jones shares how our early ancestors began to cultivate crops, and why crops may have begun to cultivate us too.

Author and environmental activist George Monbiot sheds light on the impacts and fragility of the modern farming industry, its implications for our global food networks, and the changes that need to happen to make it more sustainable.

We meet Iain Tolhurst, a farmer in Oxfordshire whose organic agricultural methods may provide a potential solution to how we might better manage our farmland.

Audio transcript

JC Niala (00:05): Farming is in crisis. All over the world, farmers are finding it impossible to grow the crops in the way that their elders grew. And here in the UK, farms are being abandoned at an astonishing rate because they are becoming unviable, and at the same time the price of food is going through the roof. And that’s even before we start looking at the impact modern farming is having on the environment. Seems to me that food is literally costing the earth.

It is disheartening to hear what farmers say, who are trying very hard to feed us and make a decent living are up against – and I wonder, does it have to be like this? Fruits and veg are the clearest relationship that we have to plants: we eat them to live. If we can send people to the moon, then surely we ought to be able to feed ourselves?

In the first episode we saw how the garden can be a space for public healing and reckoning with the past. In this episode, we pan out, travelling out of the city to look at where our food is grown – the farmland.

My African heritage is Luo, and we have practised a mixed economy for millennia. What that means for us is that it is normal to combine different ways of life. We are pastoralists, develop industry, and also farm land. So when I was a kid, there were school holidays that saw me and my siblings tending to coffee and maize on the family farm. And when I was in university, my friends got jobs in cafés and shops while I worked on potato farms in Scotland.

Farming has always been and always will be part of my life. There’s something liberating about growing your own food. The idea that you will always be able to provide something for your family and for your community to eat: it’s powerful. And it started me thinking about what growing food means. It’s something that knits you into your community. So really, farms are about people.

Despite that, we don’t really think about them that much. We might romanticise the image of the farmer in lambing season, but we don’t really think about the big industrial farms that supply our supermarkets. But the more you start to dig into the idea of the farm, it’s not long before you realise why. It’s hugely complex. The farm is where an enormous network of global interests converge.

So in this episode we tease out the ways the farmland speaks to the health of the planet and our own nutrition. We look at how we co-evolved with one plant in particular, wheat. And we think about how, if we are going to tackle global hunger, we first need to look at what’s underneath our feet.

George Monbiot (03:17): Edible plants give us almost everything we eat. In fact, eventually everything we eat, because all our calories derive either directly from plants or indirectly from plants.

JC Niala (03:28): From the start of human evolution, plants we eat have been part of our story. We’ve evolved with them and they’ve evolved to make use of us.

Martin Jones (03:38): Not only are the humans more dependent on those particular plants to survive, but those plants have become dependent on the humans to complete their reproductive cycle. So it’s a co-evolutionary dependence. And that’s what we describe as the beginnings of agriculture.

JC Niala (04:00): Professor Martin Jones is a professor of archaeological science at the University of Cambridge. He studies ancient plants to understand how our early ancestors began to cultivate crops. He has a lovely, gentle way of unpacking complicated histories in simple terms. He brings together botany, archaeology and evolution to make sense of early agriculture.

Martin Jones (04:24): Throughout our evolution, we’ve eaten from a variety of things, both in the woodland and in the grassland. And one of the key things in the grassland is these grains of nourishing food.

JC Niala (04:37): So for a long time before we started farming, we were making use of these grasslands and eating a vast range of these small hard seeds. But even though these grains were rich in protein and nutrients, they were tough and weren’t edible straight off the bat.

Martin Jones (04:54): If you look at our close relatives, like the chimps and the bonobos and other apes, they don’t eat grain. That’s not how they live – a lot of them eat fruits and leaves. But these hard grains are not what they eat. And so in the evolutionary perspective, we haven’t inherited a lot of digestive traits that are geared up towards eating grains.

JC Niala (05:18): So why did we start eating these grains in the first place? They were hard to digest, they weren’t tasty, and they require a lot of effort to process. Why did we bother?

Martin Jones (05:28) What we’ve got to remember is we’re not the only species around, and especially in the early days of human life, we were competing with other species. So let’s go back to that African savanna and look at those swathes of grasses. Also amongst those swathes of grasses are great meaty animals around. You can ask, “Why didn’t we eat them rather than these grains?” Because the fast-running animals got there first.

Behind us in the woodlands are these beautiful fruits in the trees. And you can ask, “Well, why didn’t we just eat fruits and so forth?” Well, the more agile primates were higher up in the tree getting them first. So if you ask what evolutionary advantage do we have to compete with those? What we can clearly see is, for one reason or another, we’ve invested a lot in this enormous brain. And what can this brain do? It can plan to do complicated things like cooking.

JC Niala (06:33) But there was a trade-off.

Martin Jones (06:35) To evolve this big brain, our whole gut has shrunk and got less effective, which is why we’re the only species that needs cooking. We actually need digestion outside the body because we sacrificed our gut to grow this big brain. But the advantage of growing this big brain is that we can be very inventive and change our mind. We are the species that can change our mind about what we eat.

JC Niala (07:04): So there we are on the savanna, hundreds of thousands of years ago, growing all these different species of grass to feed ourselves. One of the handy things about grains is that it is possible to store them. This allowed us to feed more people and plan further into the future.

Martin Jones (07:20): One of the big changes is that prior to agriculture, the food quest involved moving around a lot. One of the things that focusing on plants like wheat is it became expedient to stay put in one place, and put a lot of investment in particular plots of land. And with sedentism comes a whole series of other things.

It affects the fitness or the need for fitness of the human body. Absolutely critically, it puts a lot of people together in the same place for a long time – and that’s great for the things that feed on humans, i.e. diseases. A whole series of bacterial diseases, such as tuberculosis – we start seeing more evidence of them in farming communities.

George Monbiot (08:23): What seems to have happened is that, locally, our diets have become more diverse, whereas globally they have become less diverse.

JC Niala (8:32): Thinking about farmland can be a bit like trying to untangle a knot in a ball of wool. The more you try and untangle it, the more complicated it seems. Farming is in the middle of that knot. Once you start to try to tease out one thread, you realise it’s all connected into a big ball of global interests which prioritise growth and capital.

George Monbiot has been an environmental campaigner for 37 years. It’s so easy to see why. He has a sort of infectious energy when he speaks – you can tell he’s really immersed in this stuff.

George Monbiot (09:07): Wheat is one of the four grain crops on which we’ve become hyper-dependent. These four crops, which are wheat, rice, soy and maize, which produce the majority of our calories, have been reduced down to just a handful of varieties that the great majority of our calories in each case come from.

JC Niala (9:32): In his latest book, he looks at how modern farming methods are affecting our health and the health of the planet.

George Monbiot (09:38): In a very short amount of time, we’ve moved from a situation where virtually every valley had its own diet – which reflected the peculiarities of its agronomy but also local cultures and tastes – to a situation where the majority of us are eating more or less exactly the same thing provided by the same corporations in the same packaging, maybe with different words on the packaging, but it’s fundamentally the same.

JC Niala (10:07): And this has a real impact on our health.

George Monbiot (10:09): The wider the variety of stuff you eat, the more likely you are to get all the minerals and the vitamins and the fibre and the other components of the healthy diet that you need.

JC Niala (10:20): It blows my mind that the types of foods we developed culturally perfectly match our nutritional needs. So there are legumes that are rich in some essential proteins but then low in others, and cereals that are the opposite, but you put the two together, and you get a nutritionally complete meal. Like in Mexico, people eat bean stews with corn tortillas; in the Middle East, flatbreads with hummus; and in my Luo culture we combine beans and maize.

But the standardisation of diet and farming has big implications for broader health of our ecosystem.

George Monbiot (10:53): We’ve shifted as a global population towards a global standard diet being produced by a global standard farm, with global standard seeds and chemicals and machinery and cultivation techniques. And while that’s been very successful in producing a lot of calories, it hasn’t been so successful in producing a global food system which is stable, sustainable, and which meets all our diverse food needs. It’s also highly susceptible to environmental shocks.

JC Niala (11:31): The reason for this is that when seeds and systems get standardised, they are all susceptible to the same thing. Traditional African farmers know this, so when they grow a grain like sorghum, for example, they will use several varieties on one farm, which means if one variety succumbs to a particular pest, the rest of the crop will survive. But because standardised grains such as commercial wheat are all one variety, if a pest comes along, the entire crop will fail.

Every link in the food chain is like this when it is standardised – it is efficient when it works, but  it’s also fragile and susceptible to shocks.

George Monbiot (12:06): There are real dangers that this food chain could snap, and that shocks could be transmitted right across it, causing very similar crises to the global financial crisis that we saw in 2008. As soon as you get any major disruption, like a giant ship wedged across the Suez Canal, or Russia invading Ukraine, very quickly that can spiral into massive issues as shelves empty.

JC Niala (12:39): Food is political. Both what you choose to eat and how nations ensure supply. I mean, look at what’s happening with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: those two countries together produce around a quarter of the world’s wheat, and we can see what it is doing to global wheat supplies. And we don’t need to look far back into history to see what happens when there’s a bread shortage – civil unrest and uprising. And closer to home, there’s mass poverty, which has created a situation where access to food is no longer a certainty.

George Monbiot (13:10): This country suffers from profound inequality in one of the richest nations on earth, of millions of people having to use food banks or they will starve, which is quite an extraordinary and shocking thing. One of the things that we see here is a large number of people who are simultaneously obese and undernourished. It’s a really shocking situation. And the reason is fundamentally that a healthy diet will cost you five times as much as one that’s merely adequate in terms of calories.

JC Niala (13:42): The bottom line is there is an important balance between how much we are eating and what we are eating.

George Monbiot (13:48): We’ve got a massive global nutrient deficiency issue already, with billions of people now deficient in minerals such as zinc and iron, which is going to get a lot worse because of global heating. And the reason for that is that both higher temperatures and more CO2 makes plants grow faster. And if they grow faster, they absorb fewer minerals during their growth. And so the mineral content of the foods we eat is already beginning to fall, and is forecast to fall much faster as the century goes on. It’s been described by one food scientist as an existential crisis.

JC Niala (14:30): It’s a bleak picture, but George Monbiot says there is a solution. And it’s beneath our feet.

George Monbiot (14:40): I think one of the fastest-moving topics in all the biological sciences is soil ecology. Soil is a biological structure. It’s like a coral reef: it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the organisms which have built it and continue to build it every day. And when those organisms die out, if we wipe them out, the soil structure collapses, and then the soil doesn’t stay on the land; it can be very easily swept away by wind or by rain, because it’s only the structure which keeps it there.

JC Niala (15:12): There’s a lot going on down there. It turns out plants are maintaining the soil structure by doing a deal with the creatures and the bacteria that live in the soil. The plant gives them the sugars, and the bacteria deliver certain minerals to the plant that it can’t get by itself. There’s a whole complicated conversation going on between the plant, the fungi and the bacteria living there.

Iain Tolhurst (15:35): We know almost nothing about what goes on in soil. It’s still a new science; it’s only really started to become an interest to farmers in the last ten years. They were not interested at all, apart from a few of us crazy organic farmers. Nobody was interested in soil life until very recently.

JC Niala (15:52): Iain Tolhurst, like so many organic farmers I know – is curious and a great experimenter. He’s so close to the land he’s rarely away from it – I think he only took three days off last year.

Iain Tolhurst (16:05): *Tapping flint together* That’s the sound of our soil. This is flint. We have lots of flint, because you can see it everywhere – the ground is littered in flint. This is why it’s a low-grade soil. You can’t really deal with this: you can’t take it away. It stays here, and you can see how sharp this is. Very sharp, does a lot of damage to equipment.

JC Niala (16:22): We talk a lot about our big brains, but how we treat our farmlands shows us how we are all kinds of stupid. You’d think we’d have figured out how to be productive without destroying the things that keep us alive. But we haven’t, not yet.

But there are some exceptions – Iain, or Tolly, as he’s known, doesn’t come from a farming background, and that meant he saw things with fresh eyes. In his 20s he worked on a conventional farm and saw the way intensive farming was exhausting the land. When he arrived 35 years ago at what is now Tolhurst Organic to start his own farm, the soil was almost completely barren.

Iain Tolhurst (16:59): It’s much more able to produce really good crops, which is something it couldn’t do when we came here 35 years ago – it wasn’t in position to grow anything much at all at that point.

JC Niala (17:08): Tolly did something many thought was impossible: he raised food production and the fertility of his land without using any fertiliser or manure. A huge part of his success was due to how he looked after the soil.

Iain Tolhurst (17:23): Soil health is really critical to everything we do. Soil health gives us healthy plants; we have no pest-disease problems at all on the farm, other than pigeons. We don’t have any disease in crops at all; they’re all very healthy. And that’s because the soil is in good health.

So healthy soil produces healthy plants which can resist disease and pests. And also healthy plants produce healthy food, which is good for people to eat. And some of them would be quite problematic in terms of pests and disease problems. Most people really struggle with all the cabbage family, because of primarily pest problems. We’ve got great ways of managing that through biological means.

JC Niala (18:01): Tolly uses methods that are well known by subsistence farmers across Africa and Asia. A key one is green manure. This is when you grow things alongside each other that are mutually beneficial. For example, if you grow legumes on the same land as other crops, they specifically increase the nitrogen in the soil, making it more nutritious for other crops like vegetables.

And when the green manure is combined with crop rotation and other soil-generating techniques, the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem improves.

Iain Tolhurst (18:30): If you look behind you, so you’ve got a beautiful hedgerow full of a mixed species of different trees. And you can hear birds singing there, lots of insect activity. There’s a nightingale in the background there. You only get nightingales in places with very high levels of biodiversity because they live on insects. They are here as a result of the way we manage this farm.

JC Niala (18:52): Tolly plays around with lots of different methods to get his yields up. Using woodchip to help the soil retain moisture, and plants trees to prevent soil erosion, and he’s getting incredible results – so you’d think it would be a popular model.

But these sorts of systems aren’t promoted globally because they’re not easy to monetise. They sit outside the global food chain, which promotes the use of fertilisers, pesticides and standardised seeds. A global system which is in the process of decimating the soil.

Iain Tolhurst (19:22) If we don’t look after the soil, which we haven’t been for a long time, we are not just under threat of losing our production of food, we will lose our production: it will not be possible to produce food without soil. And that is something that means a big, radical change in the way farms operate.

JC Niala (19:49): Farmland is a cultural space as well as an ecological one. The choices we make about our food are not just about calories and nutrients – they’re deeply cultural and that affects what gets cultivated and also how it is grown.

Martin Jones (20:03): In the last 2,000 years, a number of cultures have decided there is one plant that’s really important to us and this is at the heart of our food. We don’t feel we’ve eaten unless it’s centred around that plant and it’s part of our identity, how we think of ourselves. So in South Asia that may be rice, in East Asia that may be millet, in Europe and West Asia it’s wheat.

JC Niala (20:32): One grain was a particular success story in Europe.

Martin Jones (20:35): For domesticated wheat, it’s probably the plant with the greatest biomass on the whole planet – in that big chunks of the map – wheat over the last 2,000 years has adopted a central place in the diet.

JC Niala (20:51): And our relationship with wheat and bread goes back a long way – and like with the garden, bread has a strong link with Christianity.

Martin Jones (20:58): The Bible gives us a very good example of how an East Mediterranean community viewed bread as the stuff of life. And in the biblical story, you could see very clearly how bread can become a metaphor for the soul and for the body.

And it’s quite interesting to look at the English word ‘company’, which actually means com panis, which means “this bread”. So the word ‘company’ actually alludes to the breaking of bread.

JC Niala (21:28): Myth and stories travel with people around the world and have the power to change how they live. Wheat, which is commonly used to make bread, accompanied early Christian settlers to America and in some places caused great destruction.

Martin Jones (21:42): Part and parcel of being Christian settlers in North America was wheat. When the Europeans went to North America, there were existing grains. In some of the places that the European settlers were going, they’d been growing American corn or maize for thousands of years. But the settlers’ crop had to be wheat because wheat was part of their culture. In the end, one has to say they were successful, that cultural persistence paid off and North America has been transformed into an incredibly productive wheatbelt.

JC Niala (22:24): It’s true the wheatbelt has been productive, but even though it has been good for the US, it’s had a terrible effect on people in certain parts of Africa. Usually, when we think of food aid, we tend to think of starving people. But it’s not the only time food aid is sent to the African continent or other parts of the world.

Countries like the US also donate food as part of development projects in times when there’s no war and there’s no famine. Often they send their surplus food, like wheat. This food aid then ends up being sold cheaply and distorts the local markets. Local farmers selling their traditional grains can’t compete with this cheap wheat and go out of business.

So this in turn creates a long-term dependency on imported foods like wheat, which are also of poorer nutritional value. The local population then becomes more vulnerable to famine, and if one occurs, more food aid is sent and the cycle repeats.

When food gets produced on a global scale, the focus shifts to the ways of producing it that make it efficient and make lots of money, but it never takes into account what is best for the health of the land and the people who live on it. So what can we do?

Iain Tolhurst (23:38): We need to look at land in a completely different way. We need to think about farms in a completely different way. And we need to think about farms as being real custodians of the environment. In terms of looking after biodiversity, in terms of increasing tree cover and rewilding, all that has to be part of agriculture.

George Monbiot (23:58): We have to use land carefully; we have to recognise that our use of land is one of the top environmental issues of all, because every hectare of land we use for an extractive industry – and farming is by far in a way the biggest in terms of land use – is land that can’t be used for a wild ecosystem, for a rainforest, or a savanna or a wetland. I think we have to be more strategic than we are at the moment, because otherwise we are in danger of losing everything.

JC Niala (24:34): It makes me think back to my ancestors and their mixed economy. Luo peoples expanded down the Nile from southern Egypt to Lake Victoria in a journey that took hundreds of years. At specific times of the year, they herded their grazing animals like pastoralists, then there were also periods where they cultivated the rich wetland soils. Other times, they developed a fishing industry and in this way the soil was not exhausted, as it had an opportunity to regenerate. This way of life was badly disrupted by what Luo historians call “the European intrusion”.

It is of course impossible to turn back the clock on our so-called development - but there’s some hope.

Iain Tolhurst (25:20): I think one of the great hopes which has materialised in literally just the last decade is the realisation that soil is actually quite important all of a sudden. You know, farmers have become aware of that because they’ve become aware of how fragile it is and how very short term the future for soil is if we carry on the present trajectory.

George Monbiot (25:41) : We’ve got a Mars rover programme we’re spending billions of dollars on, right? But wouldn’t it be nice to discover a bit more about the surface of our own planet? If farmers are to farm well, they need much more knowledge about what’s happening in the soil. One of the components of this is this thing I call the Earth rover programme. But eventually, what we want to be able to do is to create a package so cheap and easy that any small farmer anywhere in the world can basically use it to see what’s going on under their feet. And to have a much more precise relationship with the soil than so far has been possible.

Iain Tolhurst (26:28): You know, we can’t carry on any longer; it has to stop. We cannot carry on as we are. The whole system is seriously close to collapse. If we’re going to really get to the bottom of this, and it needs to be done pretty soon, we don’t have a lot of time left. You know, once the environmental system collapses, it’s going to take a lot to put it back again. If we can get it before it collapses, then we’ve got a chance, but we are close to that collapse in many parts of the world.

JC Niala (26:56): We are at a point of crisis, but plants are still offering us a better future if we act now. One of the things we can do is think at different scales. Food systems get more fragile the larger they are, so the movements that think more locally – like Tolhurst Organic – are on to something.

It also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. We’ve seen we co-evolve with the soils and foods that grow around us. The thing is, there is enough food around to feed everyone. It’s the systems that manage the food that have caused the current crisis. As well as making the system smaller, we also need systems that allow different ways of working with the land and farming.

Small-scale farmers around the world are doing this already with their tinkering and experimenting and developing systems that work. We just don’t hear from them because they are too busy getting on with it. I spoke to several farmers for this episode who said they didn’t have the time to be interviewed. They reminded me of the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré who, when he won two Grammys in the mid 1990s, didn’t turn up to the awards ceremony in the US because he had too much to do – on his farm.

In our next episode, we look at our relationship with woodlands through the lens of conservation, indigenous ways of being and psychoactive plants.

Thanks to all our contributors: Martin Jones, George Monbiot and Iain Tolhurst. If you’d like to dig deeper into the ideas we’ve covered here, go to the Wellcome Collection website, where you can also find a transcription of this episode. And if you’re in London, head to the ‘Rooted Beings’ exhibition, which is on until the end of August 2022.

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection. The producers are Alannah Chance and Mae-Li Evans. Our music and sound design is by Alice Boyd. And I’m JC Niala.


Presented by JC Niala
Lead producer Alannah Chance
Produced by Mae-Li Evans
Music and sound design by Alice Boyd

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection.