As a public food anthropologist, my work tries to interpret and communicate what makes us eat what we do—emotionally, environmentally, culturally, ethically and, economically. I like to work with city planners, policy makers, architects, schools, universities and community groups—they do not all like to work with me. For some, focusing on the ethical and environmental issues that surround how we feed ourselves is uncomfortable and challenging.
Millie Rahn, an American Foodways writer says, “We eat what we are”.
Are we fair, thoughtful, committed and responsible? Or are we greedy, selfish, careless and lazy? What are we as individuals? What are the institutions that run our country? What are the world leaders? What is the dominating factor of food production and consumption? Economics. This has been the case ever since the birth of food systems. Over ten thousand years ago the first farmers living in the Fertile Crescent—an area that includes modern day Egypt—used irrigated land to grow and trade the first commodified food—domesticated naked wheat. They knew that wheat berries were storable, transportable and, highly desirable as future food. These three factors made them a valuable exchange for labour and merchandise. Wheat was a currency. The land on which it was cultivated grew power and control. Anthropologist Van der Ploeg describes modern farmers as ploughing the land with one eye of the furrow the other on the bank balance. Farming has always been tempted to be this way.
Wheat, made edible in bread, established the commodification of all food. It largely supplanted the nomadic way Homo sapiens had been gathering and sharing food—as hunter gathers. So, our food fate sealed because wheat farming as an existence spurred on the keeping of livestock and growing supplementary crops such as flax and potatoes. In turn, there was a need to stay put to tend the land and so settle in one place. Busy growing a variety of crops to eat and exchange, the population size increased dramatically as the biological clock shifted to allow less time between children. It was easier to raise children when not always on the hunter-gatherer move. More mouths to feed and so more farming needed ad infinitum. Ultimately finding land to grow ever more food was vital. The search for new wheat lands was the reason the Ancient Romans invaded Britain. They introduced the increasingly global dominance of wheat to the native Celt cereal diet of millet, barley and oats.
The autocatalytic results of our ancestors’ fear of starvation sit on our plates today. Described by anthropologist and writer Jared Diamond, our food history is one of brash action and neglectful redress. Fittingly—by looking back in time at the first food item that was sold, the complex networks of all food systems today, defined by speed, uniformity and cheapness—and greed, madness and poor health, are illustrated in a loaf of wheat bread. The de-commodification of bread with its ten-thousand-year sales lineage, might offer a post capitalist economic model for all food. Making dough, looking further than a cheap loaf looks to a post-capitalist economy.
I worked alongside ten independent on-site British bakeries for the past six years. I studied and discussed their challenges and opportunities with them. I saw resourcefulness and their values of community, ecology and human health. Their social economic vision gave me great inspiration and hope. The economics of a loaf as part of a long industrial bread chain defers ecological and societal costs to future generations—so the 50 pence loaf in fact costs a lot more. The price of a loaf using True Cost Accounting instead takes responsibility for “the true cost of food” says Patrick Holden founder and chief executive of Sustain. There are the hidden costs in all cheap food. Visible in the state of the environment, finite resources, human health, community well-being and in the proper remuneration for food producers. http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/true-cost-food/ accessed 2017
But, can a loaf uncouple itself from its ten-thousand-year economic trajectory that has experienced a twentieth century mechanised acceleration? The commodified bread chain of farmer-miller-baker-consumer is not a new model. It started with the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs ruling over their peasant farmers and millers. Maybe the demand for bread made it too appealing an opportunity to make money at every stage. So, what if this demand powered social wealth instead of financial? It would provide a very significant improvement for human well-being, motivated by values that honour and, cultivate, productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability. The de-commodification might be equally gradual. We could be at the start. But, with a new and more considered aim, not money but well-being. A food transformation to develop and nurture a food economy. An economy able to thrive on core values such as stewardship of the environment, guardianship within communities, and a healthy life for citizens. A value led model of living and eating. I see bread as a catalyst to a value led food economy. One that has the potential to reimagine sustainable food planning. As a food staple, bread has a daily impact on millions of people and so can convincingly demonstrate an alternative and viable blueprint to planning communities, to look towards food democracy.
Food providence, the use of heritage grain grown organically, green energy to power milling, baking and transportation, the closing of energy loops, social reproduction of sustainable food skills and reducing waste are some typical features of the individualistic bakers I have studied since 2012. Short wheat replaced tall heritage wheat in the late nineteenth century. It is easier and quicker to harvest. Yet two issues surround that change. Firstly, there is less shade cast by short wheat and so insects thrive better—and thus have caused an increase in the use of pesticides. Secondly, there is less straw for thatching or animal feed and bedding—hence more manufactured building materials, animal feed and bedding (which use additional finite resources of land, water and labour) need to be produced. Looking further than a cheap loaf means being wise at growing crops. Making them useful for more than one reason. Crops are resource hungry, so it makes sense to utilise their multi-functionality and pest resistance by growing heritage and mixed grains.
The Austrian artist and architect Hundewasser believed that humans should tread lightly on the earth and be a ‘good guest of nature’. His architectural work demonstrated creativity and originality that was unconventional and pro nature and human individuality. His philosophy chimes well with many of the craft bakers I observed and talked with. Bakers such as Nancy Main, Ravi Moriandy, Martin Clarke, Ben McKinnon or Liz Wilson. These first- generation British bakers are largely self-taught and make a livelihood in ways in which are an alternative to conventional independent high street bakeries. Each one an entrepreneur not motivated by financial revenue but social wealth and ecological stewardship. A solidarity of a virtual and physical community of bakers—who are increasingly linking up with small-scale farmers and millers—has grown from the ‘bottom up’ in many countries. Their prominent values are the social reproduction of sustainable food skills, encouraging a healthier population, achieving greater carbon neutrality, nurturing closer communities, diversifying cereal breeds, reimagining livelihood models, using less packaging and reducing food waste.
I believe bread and all those who are involved in the small-scale production, processing and, sharing of this food staple are a coherent and powerful sustainable food model. A blueprint for planners and policy makers to celebrate and develop further the actions needed to de-commodify food. Making dough, looking further than a cheap loaf.