Monday, March 14, 2011

what is "Kamut"?

I hear about Kamut all the time. I am asked almost weekly if I grow Kamut. The answer to that question is always "no" and that is because I am not allowed to grow Kamut. Kamut is a registered name of an ancient variety of wheat called Khorasan Wheat. I can grow Khorasan...not Kamut. That is unless I purchase the Kamut seed from Kamut International (if they allowed me). Anyways, I thought I would write a piece as there is a bit of misinformation about this grain. The nutritional qualities and the historical context of Kamut (Khorasan Wheat) is correct and what you read about it is all true. It is a wonderfully nutritious heritage variety of grain...it is truly ancient and there are many legends about it's modern origin including one that tells of how this wheat was found viable in the tombs of Egyptian Pharoahs. 


The problem with this particular wheat variety lies in its name. You see the term "Kamut" is a registered name that was patented by Bob Quinn who is the founder of Kamut International. The term Kamut has been used for this variety of wheat for decades, but it is only a common name for the wheat that should properly be known by its varietal name Khorasan or Triticum turanicum (also known as T. turgidum subsp.turanicum). 

On the Wikipedia page it states "Kamut International uses the KAMUT trademark to protect and preserve the ancient grain variety khorasan. The grain differs from modern day varieties because it has not been modified through modern breeding practices or genetic modification. Any khorasan that is sold using “KAMUT” (i.e. as KAMUT brand wheat) must meet specific qualifications to ensure purity, variety preservation and quality.[6]"
This appears to be a direct quote from the company's website.

Well woosh! Am I ever glad that Bob came along to preserve and protect this variety of ancient wheat. Of course, their extensive efforts in registering the common name had nothing to do whatsoever with licencing fees from farmers who wish to grow and sell Kamut. Well, perhaps their efforts to control Kamut production are benevolent. I can't pretend to know what their intentions are but there are other organizations that protect and promote the production of other heritage varieties of grains and livestock without patenting the name and deriving money from their propagation and marketing. I suspect that is because none of those other varieties are as popular as Kamut. On the other hand, it is just as likely that Khorasan wheat would not have become as popular without the marketing efforts of Kamut International. I like what this company is doing, I just don't necessarily agree with attempts to register and control the propagation of seed...if that is what is being attempted.

The reasons given for the trademark of the name Kamut on the company website are legitimate and it is unmistakable that the registration of the name was granted because of the company's apparent dedication to specific grain quality and purity.

Wheats were at one time commonly cross bred through design and accident; and subsequent varieties were selected by farmers right out of the field for various qualities. I still do this on a regular basis. If I happen to see a few particular heads of grain out in a field that grow heavier, or shorter, or quicker or redder or whatever, I will pick them and save them for future propagation. One day, these heads may very well grow into a new variety that works best on my farm and climate conditions or for specific baking qualities. Every modern variety of grain has been cross bred from ancient varieties at some point in their development.
"Only by the use of a trademark can customers be guaranteed that products produced with KAMUT Khorasan contain the pure ancient variety...". (quote from Kamut International)

It may be correct for the company to assure consumers that it is a pure strain from when it was obtained by Bob from a farmer in Fort Benton MT. That farmer supposedly received the seed from his airman son in 1949 when the son was stationed in Egypt. It was grown from 1949 until Bob "remembered" it in 1977. From 1949 till the mid 60's it was grown locally and was apparently sold in a 1964 county fair as "King Tut's Wheat". At that point it was supposedly forgotten. 
Unless the Ft. Benton farmer was completely meticulous about his harvesting, propagation, storage records and procedures and that Bob actually obtained this seed directly from the original farmer (which Kamut's website doesn't say) I doubt that it is pure. I am sure that it is true that it does contain the ancient variety's genes, but by 1977 there is some degree of probability that several other, more modern, varieties had been introduced also. 


So, it is an interesting grain variety...probably the most interesting! From it's ancient origins to it's modern conundrum of large corporations and copyright laws. If you choose to purchase Kamut from Kamut International or Khorasan from your local, organic farmer the choice is yours and it is a good one either way. 

4 comments:

  1. Whoah - I had no idea, thanks for the education. I've seen the name everywhere, but remained ignorant beyond that.

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  2. I just had a very pleasant conversation with Trevor from Kamut International. We had a great conversation and he wished to clarify a few points about the article. As I told Trevor, I certainly appreciate the fact that Kamut International promoted this grain variety to the status it currently enjoys. Without them, it would still languish in obscurity. However, I continue to struggle with any efforts whatsoever to control seeds. Through Kamut's promotional efforts, Kamut is now the common name of Khorasan Wheat whether I like it or not and I am still controlled as to my ability to grow Kamut. I have invited Kamut International to comment and I gave my word to post their comments unedited. I hope Trevor will post here. It continues to be a very interesting topic of conversation.

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  3. As John mentioned previously I contacted him to explain our program directly and to clear up a couple items. He suggested that I post them here, so here I am. I am appreciative of John’s open and honest comments and will just comment on the few items I feel need some clarification.

    1) Anyone is able to purchase KAMUT Brand wheat seed from our customers, contractors or even at your local natural foods store to grow yourself. However, if it is not grown and produced under licensed contract through our program then it cannot be called KAMUT wheat since then it is really just khorasan wheat.

    2) The KAMUT trademark is not a patent. In fact as I mentioned before, anyone can grow the variety, the difference is how the grain is grown and processed that determines if it can be called KAMUT Brand (khorasan) wheat or simply khorasan wheat. In fact, we are very much opposed to genetic modification of crops and opposed to the idea of a company claiming ownership over life. Over 20 years ago, my family discovered this grain had some pretty amazing properties including a sweet nutty taste, great nutrition, and the ability to be eaten by many with modern wheat sensitivities. They wanted to preserve this variety the way it was so the trademark “KAMUT” (which is a dead word coming from the ancient Egyptian language) was created to market the khorasan we grow and sell with certain guarantees such as preservation of the original variety from hybridization or other modifications, high quality and purity standards and always grown certified organic.

    3. We do not charge our farmers any kind of licensing fee. In fact we practice as much as possible “fair trade” principles with our growers with the goal to provide a crop that organic farmers can grow to make a fair and sustainable income from their land. (If our organic farmers can’t make a living, we won’t have organic food, period.) We also try to develop relationships as much as possible with our growers such as by inviting them to a “Grower Appreciation Dinner” each January for a steak dinner, awards for best crop quality and information sessions to update them on what is happening.

    So, I’m thinking I’ve gone on too much already, but I hope this attempt to clarify a few things about our program is useful. John, thanks for the invite to do so and I'd be happy to answer any other questions. Trevor.

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  4. Thanks for your viewpoint Trevor. Hope you guys have a good growing season in 2011!

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