What does bread mean to us in the UK today?

Bread and Wheat are intrinsically linked. Wheat is inedible until its either processed into bread or sprouted, and bread has only three essential ingredients; flour, of which wheat is the most commonly used ingredient, water and salt.

The industry surrounding bread in the UK – which is Europe’s 3rd largest producer – is industrialised and beyond the farm gate very concentrated. Almost all the 28k farmers growing wheat in the UK are intensive.

Baking bread is a £3 billion industry. 80% is produced in bread factories, with a further 17% baked in in-store bakeries. Just 3% is traditional baked. This represents the classic dichotomy of industrial v’s hand made, beauty v’s ugliness. The UK is so far behind the rest of Europe in craft bakeries three compared to 90 in Italy Sharpe et al, (2013) the next worst is Netherlands at 21. I would refute these figures of 2006, as I have contacted at least 30. There is no definition of craft bakery given. I would describe them as any person or persons who make bread by hand, have a slow ferment and distribute locally.

Although sales of organic bread rose 21% between 1998 to 2003 to £75 million, in the UK we still love buy our bread through chain retailers, yet another monoculture industrial system. More than 76% of bread sold in the UK is white (28% of it pre-sliced) Sharpe et al, (2013) This is despite consumers expressing worry over the nutritional content Sharpe et al, (2013) maybe its that classic research bias of saying one thing, more virtuous than the thing you are actually doing, just because someone is asking you.

In Britain today 80% of the bread we consume is made with the Chorleywood process. Back in 1960’s our national loaf was transformed, out went the social, slow, rich in texture bread of our grandparents. Replaced by a quick, economic, cold, and fully mechanised loaf that we buy today. It appeals to all the lowest common denominators of taste – this is a metaphor for the way western capitalism has sucked up our time and delivered us an insipid life. It is white and light and stays soft for days and is cheap. For increasing numbers of people, however, it is also inedible, Whitely, A (2011) UK farmers currently apply 250–300 kg N ha−1 in order to achieve the 13% protein content required for the Chorleywood Bread making Process

Sharpe et al, (2013) raise a point that is a constant resonating thought, can bread have terrior? Just like wine? Why not, they are both fermented products, as long as we don’t use industrial processes or man maid yeasts. In their report they say that people don’t care about where the wheat that made their bread comes from, they see bread as a commodity. They want consistency. I hear this constantly when we talk to farmers and consumers alike. I am not sure where this consistent, commoditized, everything at all times attitude has come from, well at least I find it hard to separate; chemical company, corporate retailer, consumer.  There is hope in the report from one piece of market research:

“However, there was some sense that this might change, in the light of a perceived growth of interest in provenance and local sourcing, presenting an opportunity for farmers to add value to their product: Every farmer in the UK is within 50 miles of consumers and can store almost his total production on farm. This gives UK farmers a great opportunity to differentiate themselves to customers (Merchant)” Sharpe et al, (2013)

There is no doubt that the nutritional value, adaptability and high yields of wheat have contributed to its success, but these alone are not sufficient to account for its current dominance over much of the temperate world. The key characteristic which has given it an advantage over other temperate crops is the unique properties of doughs formed from wheat flours, which allow it to be processed into a range of breads and other baked products (including cakes and biscuits), pasta and noodles, and other processed foods. These properties depend on the structures and interactions of the grain storage proteins, which together form the ‘gluten’ protein fraction.

Bread making; growing wheat, harvesting, processing into flour, adding water to it, fermenting this mixture, leaving it to develop (giving it time), stretching and working the mixture a little, adding salt, giving a little more time to it, working it a little more, heating the oven – to an inadequate temperature if you have a conventional oven – maybe a little more working and then cutting, putting the mix in the oven, spraying a little water (to aid the crust formation) and then letting the yeast or cultures, flour, salt, and water, do its thing. This is bread making to me. This takes time, emotion, and intuition; it flies in the face of quantity, competition, and domination, assertive tendencies that Fritjof Capra assimilates with masculine power in modern society. It kicks flour in the face of the Chorelywood process ‘bread maker’.

Up to now we have looked at the physical a spiritual importance of both bread and flour, I think you’ll agree they both represent, in the current food system, essential elements. The next three sections; breeding of plants and wheat, agriculture in the UK, and food security, deal with the some of the thoughts around why monocultures have been allowed to dominate in the wheat growing industry.