Building a home-grown grain economy
Scotland grows a lot of wheat but precious little of it is used to make bread. We rely on imports and so have little control over this staple food. It turns out that the wheat varieties in today’s bread may well have less of the nutrients needed for health than in the past. Better grain and better bread can help solve our growing health problems, so we’ve started research to find more nutritious wheats, suitable for low-impact farming. And we’re passing on the skills that turn locally-grown wheat into delicious, healthy bread.
In 2015 we raised over £6,000 to help local communities bring better bread within everyone's reach. This project is concerned with the health and nourishment of the whole community, so we’re delighted that so many people have offered to lend a hand. In the coming months we'll be supporting six groups to grow their own healthy bread, from the soil to the slice. At the same time, we'll be starting a Community Benefit Society to ensure that the vital work of improving the country's staple food is focussed on people not profit.
Scotland The Bread is one of the innovative enlightened agriculture projects in a pilot programme supported by Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA). This collaborative network of funders, social entrepreneurs, advisers and food and farming experts was founded in 2012 and its activities are coordinated by the Real Farming Trust.
Financed by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the FEA’s pilot programme supports projects that are of public interest or benefit, creating social impact or change through both their implementation and their influence. The FEA's philosophy is that a broadly-based and diverse structure for farming and marketing, which respects local differences, 'is far better equipped to “feed the world” through rapidly changing times and into the future, than the present, vast-scale, oil-dependent, corporate-owned, inflexible monocultures.’
In 2015, Scotland produced over one million tons of wheat – over seven times the amount needed to make all of the bread consumed here. Yet little, if any, of this wheat was used directly by local breadmakers. As with other commodity foods, the part of the supply that isn’t fed to animals, distilleries or cars (as 'biofuels') is bought by large milling conglomerates or aggregated by traders. Its identity is submerged and its price is distorted by speculators. Worse, the kind of grain grown is determined by the presumed needs of intensive farming and industrial bread production. To build health and food sovereignty requires better grains, less intensive processing and more connection between producers and bread eaters.
The overall nutritional density of modern wheats is lower than that of older varieties and the modern hybrids exceed their predecessors in the expression of certain proteins that are toxic to people with gluten sensitivity. Practices that are routine in intensive cereal production, such as applying nitrogen fertiliser at a late stage in the plant’s growth, have been shown to double the expression of a gliadin protein fraction that triggers an anaphylactic response in certain individuals.
There is growing interest in older grains (e.g. spelt, emmer, einkorn) and ‘heritage’ varieties which might address these problems. Patrick Shirreff farmed at Mungoswells in East Lothian at a time when local self-sufficiency in food grains, so long taken for granted, was starting to be eroded by imports of hard wheat from Russia and North America. Shirreff’s varieties may have some of the qualities of local adaptation, resilience, breadmaking quality, nutritional density and digestibility that are needed to feed healthy people in future.
Agriculture and food processing account for 18-20% of UK annual greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing the distance between field and plate, and limiting the use of fossil fuel-dependent inputs and the energy intensity of processing all make sense as part of a joined-up carbon reduction strategy.
Growing more of our own bread wheat would contribute to food sovereignty in an unpredictable global marketplace and, depending on how it is done, could bring meaningful jobs back home too.
Above all, the soaring cost – both personal and financial – of diet-related ill health in Scotland makes creative action urgent. If people, especially those on modest incomes and with limited capacity (including the old and the very young), are to be better nourished, exhortation from health authorities is not enough: there has to be an accessible and affordable supply of appropriate food.
We need ‘fair trade’ arrangements between farmers, millers and bakers to ensure equitable rewards and honest prices that also allow for the variability of the weather and thus of grain quality. Local bakeries, rooted in their communities, can supply fresh, properly fermented bread to nearby customers, conserving nutritional value without recourse to the synthetic additives that are deemed essential for long-distance loaves.
What is the project going to do?
Scotland The Bread aims to engage the creative energies of people throughout the food chain in participatory research and collective action to produce better home-grown flour and bread. We’re convening a group of interested people from all parts of the food system, from plant breeders to public health nutritionists. We’ve started on the ground by bulking up very small samples of old Scottish wheats to see what contribution they might make to developing new crosses, mixtures or landraces. We want to engage the best breeders and build on modern research, learning, for instance, from recent work in Nordic countries with similar climatic challenges to Scotland’s.
As new candidate varieties appear we will define, with broad participation, new standards for the nutritional density and digestibility of Scottish breadmaking wheat, including the transmission of these characteristics through the milling and baking stages. Other grains that Scotland grows well – barley, oats and rye – will be part of the mix.
And when the flour starts flowing, we will help develop new trading structures that address the social and environmental irresponsibility of globalisation. Perhaps if we each knew who it is in our locality who grows the grain, mills the flour and kneads the dough that becomes our daily bread, we’d be better nourished - in every sense.
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