On April 10th 2017, Zero Carbon: Making it Happen, a cultural launch of the Centre for Alternative Technology’s landmark report Zero Carbon Britain, took place at London’s National Theatre. Participants told Stories from the Future, imagining our food system thirty years on, as if we were living within environmental limits.
There were also stories from real-life projects which demonstrate how we can overcome barriers to change in innovative ways. Scotland The Bread was one example. Here is what co-founders Andrew Whitley and Veronica Burke said in their five-minute slot.
Let me tell you a bread time story.
Scotland grows about one million tons of wheat a year. What proportion of that is needed to make all the bread eaten by Scotland’s 5 million or so people? About 15% or 150,000 tonnes. How much of this million is actually used directly to make Scotland’s bread? Virtually none – probably less than 250 tonnes.
The wheat grown in Scotland goes to animal feed, alcohol, bioethanol to feed cars – anything but bread. The country imports virtually all its bread wheat from far afield. It makes no sense. 60% of cereal farmers lost money in 2015 despite sweating our natural assets by drenching the land in fertilisers (it takes about 8 tonnes of natural gas to make a ton of nitrogen fertiliser).To cap it all, wheat produced in this way is less nutrient dense and digestible than ever. So, we are variously stuffed and starved (in Raj Patel’s memorable phrase). Waistlines and food banks are growing. Food democracy and carbon reduction are little more than distant dreams.
Scotland The Bread is addressing this challenge, one loaf at a time, by growing the most nutritious wheat and baking it properly close to home. The aim is a bread supply that is healthy, equitable, low carbon and locally-controlled. This is a joint effort – a community benefit society that links agronomists, farmers, millers, bakers, public health nutritionists and citizens in participatory action research. We’ve bulked up rare 19th century wheat varieties and are bringing on modern landraces that thrive under low-input agro-ecological husbandry. A new deal for citizens will see farmers rewarded for the number of people they nourish per hectare, not the tonnes they produce. It’s vital that the new grains are properly fermented into real bread so that their goodness reaches us, the bread eaters, not just intact but transformed. Our cry of ‘more jobs per loaf’ doesn’t just question exploitative notions of productivity: it puts money on the likelihood of a healthy society being one where everyone can see where their food comes from.
Can this really be scaled? Where are the 4 million loaves a week that Scotland eats going to come from? To be sure, supply and demand need to develop in sync. But it makes no more sense to assume the irrelevance of our project in the greater scheme of things than to ridicule a sourdough baker for not having enough starter to make more bread. It’s all about the process. A starter is refreshed by an infusion of new resources (flour and water) that provide both energy and microbiological diversity. Fermentation gives the mixture the power to make many loaves, with a little bit kept back to continue the process. Scaling up from small beginnings to have real impact is not just possible but essential because it respects the ecological requirements of balance and mutuality. Mere linear replication by enlargement or multiplication to make things fit for a corporate system that has amply demonstrated its problem with limits and its reluctance to decarbonise – if that’s what scaling up often implies – is a dead end. Making it happen for good and all means always starting from small beginnings and keeping things the right size. In this, scaling up by skilling up is a fruitful approach – as Veronica explains.
Here’s a couple of examples of what the International Futures Forum would call ‘pockets of the future in the present’.
The first is our Soil To Slice citizen science project that supports local communities to grow and bake their own healthy bread throughout a season of sowing, tending, harvesting, threshing, milling and baking.
Last year, a plot of our heritage wheats grew on a community plot in an Edinburgh housing estate, opposite a busy bus stop and two supermarkets. The growers are already baking bread from the flour in their community café, part of their work to replace reliance on food banks with access to sufficient food with dignity.
The second is our Baking For Community training and development work. One group we have been working with as they build a community baking enterprise is the High Rise Bakers in Gorbals, Glasgow. They are providing a wholewheat loaf at a fair price to neighbours in the few remaining high rise blocks – and to the local state nursery school, where all the children now eat it for breakfast.
These bakers are never going to make thousands of loaves, transport their products around the country or produce anything as ‘cheap’ as ‘white sliced’ loaf from a supermarket. That isn’t their purpose.
Growing grain on this scale in urban plots isn’t going to create a viable supply of flour for any community. However, it’s worth remembering that a plot of eight by ten metres can produce enough wheat to make bread for one person for a full year. And bear in mind, too, that we only need to train one in twenty of the currently-unemployed people in Scotland to have enough bakers in community-scale bakeries bringing real bread within reach of every citizen.
At least as important as the statistics are the abundant possibilities and questions that spring up when we are invited to re-imagine the way we ‘do’ bread.
The possibilities include: a micro-bakery to feed a school, a clinic, a prison, a care home; a community being able to share its breadmaking skills and varied cultural traditions, creating more real jobs in meaningful work as it does so; a local authority or NHS Trust giving nourishing bread a central place in its public procurement…
And the questions we become able to ask include,
‘What if WE had the best food that we could possibly grow and make – in OUR community?’
These sudden outbursts of common sense, of food democracy in action, are scaling up. They are entirely viable for the changing realities we face.
They can’t be crushed or co-opted. They’re probably already unstoppable.
Scotland The Bread is a Community Benefit Society owned by its members. Join us – and help make it happen.