This article was written by Campaign co-founder Andrew Whitley of Bread Matters in the run up to our launch in November 2008.
Bread consumption has declined by half per person since 1960. If this were merely a consequence of affluence and the broadening of the national diet, there would be no problem. But for those who replace bread with foods high in saturated fats and refined sugars, the consequence may be seen in the ongoing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease. Nutritional advice is that cereals, especially whole grains, should be a key component of a balanced diet.
The evidence is also accumulating that changes in wheat varieties, milling methods and baking technology may have made industrial bread less than palatable, possibly even indigestible, for significant numbers of people. More and more and people say they avoid bread because it makes them feel unwell. They need, as does the rest of society, bread made with proper attention to digestibility and nutritional quality.
A handful of industrial bakers and the in-store supermarket bakeries now account for about 95% of all bread sold. Artisan bakers are beginning to re-emerge, but they face the same challenges as all smaller producers. The lattice-work of infrastructure and skills that supported local production and milling of healthier grains has all but gone. Those people who do still use local millers and locally-grown grain rarely market this effectively. Their customers have forgotten the benefits.
Something must be done to restore bread to its role, if not as the staff of life, then as an important food valued for its innate qualities and not mere convenience.
In addition, using grain to make bread has become a matter of increasing political and ecological importance over recent years. Should we use our grain to feed animals (themselves a major source of greenhouse gases) or to convert into biofuels for cars and trucks? Or should we use grain to feed people? Which path we choose could mean the difference between a healthy and sustainable future and continuing to prop up resource-hungry unsustainable food production, and distribution systems that contribute to pollution and climate change.
Industrial bakers have responded to public health concerns by developing breads with added fibre and selected micronutrients such as calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and selenium. They have even removed the crusts to encourage children to eat up their bread. But there are problems with the ‘fortification’ of bread. For one thing, synthetic supplements may not have the efficacy claimed on the bottle. But more importantly, fortification is based on a medication model of feeding, whereby bread is the carrier for whatever cocktail of added nutrients scientific authority from time to time decrees. Never mind that the bread itself is progressively less vital: there is good business in nutritional supplements and healthier-sounding breads ‘add value’.
There is an alternative: bread made with simple ingredients, no additives or ‘processing aids’ (the undeclared enzymes widely used in industrial baking) and appropriately fermented for flavour, digestibility and nutritional quality. This can be called Real Bread because it contains only what most people would regard as food and it is made with simple processes that rely on integrity, patience and skill, not sleight of hand.
Industrial bakers account for about 95% of the market, so there is an enormous dearth of the skills required to make bread without additives or automation. The less petroleum-dependent society of the future may be one where the production of our daily bread takes place closer to home, or even at home. This will need a creative blend of craft and technology, deployed at a human scale. Artisan bakeries are reappearing in modern formats and, thanks to the domestic bread machine, more people have tried making their own at home. Just as small bakeries can be part of the fabric of a vibrant community, so baking at home can be an important assertion of dietary autonomy whose end result - Real Bread - may be ‘the pledge of peace and happiness in the labourer’s dwelling’, in the words of one of the first Real Bread campaigners William Cobbett. And if, as seems likely, the carbon cost of a loaf of bread made at home is less than that of the supermarket offering, the public urge to do its bit for the planet might have a tasty additional outlet.
In short, we need better bread for healthier, happier people. Many people feel this need and are ready to join a movement to make it happen.