A slice of life: the politics of bread

The world is subject to a global food system that could feed the world but doesn’t. Climate change is progressing at a worrying rate. The warming planet and lack of food security are two of the world’s most pressing problems, affecting everyone from subsistence farmers in central Africa to those in leafy city suburbs.

My name is Isabel Pasch, and I’m a bakery owner and a scientist. I grew up in Germany, a country that loves bread – we have over 350 different types, and I love to be able to share some of these with my customers at  Bread and Butter Bakery. The place of bread in society can’t be denied. A food so vital to man that it’s referred to in the Bible as the ‘body of the Lord’, and gives rise to customs, superstitions and sayings. We encourage people to “use their loaf”, work is their “bread and butter”, and we pay them in “dough”.  The ancient Egyptians’ word for bread, “aish”, also meant “life”, but much to my distress modern commercial bread is far-removed from the nutritional powerhouse that sustained our ancestors. The changes to bread provide a living example of the effects of Big Food on the global food system, and on our climate. Join me as we look at some of the issues around food security and climate change, from man’s earliest agricultural efforts through to the might of corporate giants that control much of the world’s food supply. 

I call this bread politics.

About half the world’s population is malnourished. In developed parts of the world, malnutrition is the result of overfeeding with poor quality food, while in developing nations part of the population is underfed. How can the world suffer from obesity and starvation at the same time? This problem of food security, compounded by climate change, is truly a wicked problem, and one you’ll already be aware of. It may be wicked, but it’s not unbeatable, and I’m going to tell you about some of the things you can do to help battle climate change and support a fair food system that nourishes all.

Over the next few posts, we’ll travel through time to examine how bread has developed from a simple, wholesome product that was crucial in the development of civilisation to its role as a pawn in the politics of food. The production and distribution of much of the world’s food is controlled by big business with more interest in profit than nutrition or the environment, and you’ll see how this is contributing to climate change and affecting global food security. You’ll also see how small changes you can make in your own home, both environmentally and economically, can help turn the tide.

We’ll start right at the beginning, travelling back to a time when our ancestors foraged for food, including the wild grains growing in the ancient world.  Not too long ago archaeologists in Ethiopia found human bones together with a large concave stone and an accompanying grinding stone. Stuck inside the grinding stone they found fossilised sorghum – a grain still grown and eaten in large parts of Africa –  dating back almost 100,000 years. While this might upset Paleo-diet followers, since it dates firmly back into the palaeolithic area, it shows that humans were eating grains while still being hunter-gatherers. It’s thought man first began farming at least 10,000 years ago, his diet based largely on the complex carbohydrates within the grains he harvested. Harnessing the stored energy in grain allowed our ancestors to leave their nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life, settling in communities and developing agricultural, industrial and economic systems. 

A clay tablet from the Sumer civilization contains information about barley and wheat.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gift, 1988, 1988.433.2, http://www.metmuseum.org

While the birth of agriculture in the west most likely happened in Ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Iran), the Ancient Egyptians based their entire wealth on the cultivation of wheat, and whether by choice or by chance, they might also have discovered the sourdough fermentation process. Fermented food was easier to digest and store and the natural yeasts and bacteria that cover the surface of grains, when mixed with water, gave bread its open texture and added flavour. Sourdough fermentation improved what most likely had been a flat disc of baked dough into a voluminous, tasty and more nutritious loaf with good keeping properties. This way of leavening bread spread across Europe, and then the world, with nearly every culture including bread of some type as part of their local food history. Bread was central to daily life, and the foundation of a meal for much of Western civilisation, with close to 80% of people’s daily calories coming from bread. It’s from these very humble beginnings that my beloved sourdough comes.

The science of sourdough is both simple and complex, and we’ll look at this along with the effect of fermented food on the gut. The benefits of a diet high in natural, organic food are clear, and organic farming practices not only benefit your health but the environment too. Agriculture – known to be a huge part of the climate change problem – has the potential to become a key part of the solution. We’ll also take a look at how, from small beginnings, you can make changes to your life and your environment, while also finding a place at your table for sourdough bread – the staff of life.


4 thoughts

  1. Hi Isa – loving this website and blog as it covers issues I am also passionate about!

    You may be interested to know that over the last week or so a series of hui have taken place in Christchurch, Auckland and today in Wellington for Kore Hiakai “zero hunger”. These gatherings of community organisations were looking at the wicked problem you touch on above – indeed even to the extent of describing it as “wicked” (you are truly aligned!) – but mainly focussed on those in NZ who are going hungry even as food waste balloons. What started this conversation was a realisation that, whilst done for compassionate reasons, giving out food parcels seemed to be creating dependency and was extending rather than solving the problem. You may like to check out the facebook book page and get involved – I really noticed we were missing the voice of business people in that room:


    I have also learnt that I have been talking about the “stuff of life” all my life and it is actually “staff”! And I am a native English speaker. I expect to learn lots more from your blog and will tune in with interest.


  2. Pingback: Big Food

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