The True Cost of Better Bread

By Andrew Whitley, co-founder and honorary chair of Scotland The Bread 

In the autumn of 2017, Balcaskie Farms sowed five varieties of Scotland The Bread winter wheat and rye on some of their newly-converted organic acres. So began an experiment – to see whether it was possible to grow nutrient-dense breadmaking grain in Scotland. Why bother, when the farming establishment (and the government) said it was impossible? Because some of us were puzzled by the fact that Scotland was growing nigh on a million tons of wheat on some of its best land and yet using almost none of it for bread. Meanwhile, it was an open secret that the diet of many people in Scotland (particularly those on low incomes) was among the worst in Europe. The poor nutritional quality of a staple like bread must have something to do with it, surely? 

We wanted to challenge the complacent disregard for public health (and climate heating and biodiversity loss) in Scotland’s ‘food system’. So we needed to measure the key nutrients in our grains to make sure they were above average and getting better. It seemed obvious that if we all ate fewer slices of more nutritious bread, it would be better for our belts, our budgets and the biosphere. We would also need to mill the grain into flour without removing precious nutrients from it. And we’d need to spread the word that only by fermenting the dough properly (and not adulterating it with additives and enzyme ‘processing aids’) could we expect it to deliver on flavour, digestibility and nutrition.

We set up Scotland The Bread as a community benefit society and a charity, to work for the common good. It is one of our stated principles that everyone (farmer, miller, baker and citizen) should be paid, or charged, a fair price. This means doing ‘true cost accounting’, where the real costs of negatives – such as pollution from fertiliser or pesticide use or from the health effects of ultra-processing of grain into white flour – are paid for, and the real benefits of nutritious food are charged for, in the price of bread at the checkout.  

As things stand, ‘commodity’ (large scale) grain producers don’t pay for any of the negative environmental, personal health or social effects of their product. If they had to, the price of our organic flour (which generates no such ill effects) might seem less of a barrier.

Five years ago, without knowing what a fair price was to get lower-yielding, non-standard, long-strawed wheat grown on a farm geared up for commodity production, we started out paying roughly twice per tonne what Balcaskie was then getting for its commodity grains. The price of the latter is set by markets that are controlled by people and organisations with a great deal of money – and no interest in feeding people well and equitably round the world. That price, as everyone knows, has been massively distorted by the war in Ukraine and other global dislocations. The current price for wheat is now about the same as what we have been paying from the start. 

At the same time we are, as you would expect, sticking to our fair trade remit. After effectively subsidising production of our grain for several years, Balcaskie has now worked out the real cost, which is about two-thirds more than we have been paying. This is, rightly, what we must now pay for our grain. Although the reasons for the rise are very different from the geopolitical turbulence in commodity markets, the effect is similar: we must increase our flour prices and have done so.

We think that better flour and bread should be available to everyone by right. Pending the radical changes in our economy that would reduce income equality, we’ve developed an urgent community response. Through our Solidarity Bag system you can provide a bag of flour (and the skills and encouragement to make it into good bread) for a community food hub, bakery or family.

This is the sharing economy in action and it’s a world away from commodity markets and ‘cheap food’. Please lend a hand if you can.

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