Ecological food production


June 2014

Can the bread making process be entirely restorative?

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.

The field of wheat in Devon

Planted 21st April 2014

Can the bread making process be entirely restorative? part IIII


Religious and social significance of wheat and bread

For time and memorial bread and wheat have been important across the globe, and I bet if we wandered into any village, camp, or settlement in any far off land you would be able to recognise the substance they ate as bread. Bread is significant all over the world, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition with the making of matzo (hard flat bread) at the Jewish Passover and of bread to represent the ‘host’ at the Christian Eucharist (Holy Communion). It is treated as sacred across the Muslim world where nans and flat bread are stamped and treated with reverence Shewry, P, (2014). In Egypt wheat was considered the very embodiment of resurrection, cycling from seed to ear.  Stone age people revered wheat for the same reproduction process and imbued it with mystical qualities Wheeler, J (2014).


Nutritional value of wheat and bread


Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), rice (Oryza sativa L.), and maize (Zea mays L.) provide about two-thirds of all energy in human diets, and four major cropping systems in which these cereals are grown represent the foundation of human food supply. (National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)


Despite its relatively low protein content (usually 8–15%) wheat still provides as much protein for human and livestock nutrition as the total soybean crop, estimated at about 60m tonnes per annum (calculated by Shewry, 2000).


The most widely studied source of ‘high protein’ is wild emmer (tetraploidTrturgidum var. dicoccoides) wheats from Israel.


Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutrient deficiency in the world, estimated to affect over 2 billion people (Stoltzfus and Dreyfuss, 1998 quoted in Shewry, 2000). Although many of these people live in less developed countries, it is also a significant problem in the developed world. Zinc deficiency is also widespread, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and has been estimated to account for 800 000 child deaths a year (MicronutrientInitiative, 2006 referenced in Shewry, P 2014), in addition to non-lethal effects on children and adults. Wheat and other cereals are significant sources of both of these minerals, contributing 44% of the daily intake of iron (15% in bread) and 25% of the daily intake of zinc (11% in bread) in the UK (Henderson et al., 2007 quoted in Shewry 2000). There has therefore been considerable concern over the suggestion that the mineral content of modern wheat varieties is lower than that of older varieties.


Andrew Whitley recently outlined why sourdough bread may have answers to peoples intolerance of bread. In the article he outlined a few points, the first two I think are important for me when looking at the sustainability of bread making:


“So, just to be clear, this is my position on sourdough bread and gluten intolerance:


  1. Extended fermentation with sourdough lactic acid bacteria can break down some or all of the proteins in bread dough that are toxic to people with coeliac disease and related gluten intolerance. 


  1. Many consumers have sought and found relief from symptoms such as ‘bloating’ and other gastro-intestinal complaints by switching from industrial loaves to properly fermented sourdough bread. While part of the benefit delivered by such a change may be due to the avoidance of the synthetic additives and industrial enzymes used in almost all commercial bread, research suggests an important role for sourdough bacteria and extended fermentation time in making bread more digestible.”



Through cooking we may make food taste differently, but if all major ingredients are genetically identical, there will be no diversity in the nutritional value. Since cereals are the major ingredients in most modern foodstuff, genetic diversity in cereal production may have crucial impact on human health as well Wolfe et al. (2013).


Variety is good for the human gut, but I doubt weather any of us have any other grain other than Rice, Wheat, Corn in our diet ever, this is the grain triad that directly contributes more than half of all calories consumed by humans worldwide. There are grains like teff and millet and quinoa to name just three that are nutritious, easy to grow, tolerant of drought. If we ate more varied staples we would probably be healthier (everything else being equal) 

Can bread making be entirely restorative – part III

This, as the title alludes to, is the third part of the bread making story I am on – any advice on structure, content or narrative are more than welcome.


The history of wheat


Worldwide, wheat is one of the most important food crops to mankind and is now grown on more land than any other cereal crop. Wheat is a product of a complicated history whose origins can be traced back to pre-history. There is clear sequence of hybridization events between different wild grasses these events occurred naturally and led to the combining of the AA, BB and DD genomes, culminated in the 42 chromosomes present in hexaploid bread wheat Shewry, P, (2014) Letts, J (2014). There is a range of distinct cultivated forms of wheat that have been developed through selection, from the start of agrarian farming to the examples of heritage wheats grown in the UK from the mid 1800s and the earliest introduction of the semi-dwarf habit into a UK bread wheat.


Wheat is counted among the ‘big three’ cereal crops, with over 600 million tonnes being harvested annually. For example, in 2007, the total world harvest was about 607 m tonnes compared with 652 m tonnes of rice and 785 m tonnes of maize ( However, wheat is unrivalled in its range of cultivation, from 67º N in Scandinavia and Russia to 45º S in Argentina, including elevated regions in the tropics and sub-tropics (Feldman, 1995referenced in Shewry, P). It is also unrivalled in its range of diversity and its world trade is greater than all other crops combined. It has also been used to control foreign policies (Borlaug, N, viewed April 26th 2014).


In all the stats I look at, Defra, the ONS or from the website the vision of Britain through the ages, showed that wheat has always been the 2nd biggest UK crop behind Barley, see figure 1. Regionally wheat has dominated in the east of England and in the last ten years the volume and areas of growing have changed very little – see figures 2 and 3 – I tried to get data of regional growing through the last 100 years, but couldn’t find any. Anecdotally I have been told many times that the wheat growing has predominated in the east, as it is drier. Devon, where the majority of this project is is certainly not dry. Despite the lack of online information on growing patterns of wheat in the Devon over the last 100 years I still had access to some. Holy from Transition Town Tones Totnes surveyed and interviewed local farmers and asked whether they had grown cereal or could remember cereal being grown at any point in their lifetime. The answer was a resounding No, unless it was grown for animal feed. This is still the case, there is not as single farmer growing cereal of any kind, for human consumption, in south Devon and this has been the case for 100 years or more. It is believed by most of farmers interviewed that wheat growing is unsuitable for Devon’s wet climate. So I am attempting something that hasn’t been done for at least 100 years. I wouldn’t be attempting to grow if it seamed impossible, but I know that historically there has been wheat grown in Devon, although I couldn’t find any maps to back this up. What is clear, from researching on website and from observing the style of buildings in Devon, is that there is a very strong tradition of thatching in, it’s the county in England with the most thatched roves and accounts for 17% of the total thatched buildings in the UK,  Historically the ‘devon reed’ was local straw from local wheat and barley, but now days it is water reed from Turkey, Hungry, and China that provides the material to renew thatch, Checking the archives on the website Wheat pedigree gives further proof of wheat being an important crop in Devon. They highlight ten old Devon wheat’s, I suppose you could call them landraces. Further research shows Orange Devon blue rough chaff is considered iconic bread wheat by the John Innes center, accessed online 31/5/2014. All three points allude to Devon being a region where wheat, and good wheat at that, good for thatching and good for bread making, was grown. I cannot find any evidence of the scale or of any county comparisons, but it feels right to me, especially as Britain has been warming up over the last 100 years, that Devon will be able to grow wheat of yield and quality to make the experiment economical. 





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