Andrew Whitley’s keynote speech to the Real Bread Uprising
School of African & Oriental Studies, London, 12th September 2015
‘Real Bread is on the rise but what does the future hold?’
What a pleasure it is to be here among this wonderful collection of bread heads for our first major gathering since Oxford six years ago. We really mustn’t leave it that long again.
May I start by thanking Sustain for nurturing the Real Bread Campaign from its early days. We’re all indebted to Chris Young, our coordinator, for making it happen in all sorts of ways, not least in providing a seemingly endless stream of bread-related puns to keep us smiling. Seven years on and they still keep coming – spontaneous fermentation of a very particular kind.
We all owe Chris, Sustain, Kath (and before her Jeanette Longfield) so much. They have plugged away and not given up during many fruitless funding applications and rebuffs from people who might have been expected to get the argument for better bread and its importance in dealing with diet-related ill-health and making society a better place. But they’ve also kept their nerve when harassed by the big millers and bakers. There was a moment a few years ago, when, oblivious to the irony, the industrial baking lobby which is so reluctant to come clean about what it puts into its loaves, took a Freedom of Information action against the Campaign. Since we have nothing to hide, they could, of course, have found answers to all their questions by picking up the phone to Sustain. When I said to Jeanette that I hoped this attack wasn’t too unnerving, she replied with a smile: “Nothing of the sort! I love it. It shows we’re on the right track.” You know you’re in good company when your supporters are prepared to stand up for the truth and to name bullying when it rears its ugly head. So, thank you, Sustain.
Now, this gathering is The Real Bread Uprising. An uprising is usually thought of as a political act - a movement of ordinary people who share a conviction that those in power are not doing things right and should be replaced or persuaded to mend their ways. So the word is appropriate, because bread is nothing if not political – and our Campaign and its supporters certainly believe that the industrial bread system is neither healthy nor sustainable and needs replacing. We aim to fix it and we stand in a long tradition of popular movements for change animated by bread – who controls it, whether there’s enough to go round and whether it’s got what it takes to keep body and soul together.
Chris asked me to respond to his headline question for this gathering: ‘Real Bread is on the rise but what does the future hold?’ I’m not going to dwell on the disappointing tally of only one half-pun, nor on the negative hint in ‘but (what does the future hold?)’. Now, I’m no more a clairvoyant than the Chorleywood Bread Process is fit for purpose. But in the next few minutes I will try to take stock of what we’ve achieved so far, what we might do more of, or differently, and what obstacles lie in our path. I’ll mention some of the exciting Real Bread initiatives that are on the horizon and I’ll venture some thoughts about what direction we might take as a Campaign in the next few years. I hope that my remarks will be the starter for a vigorous fermentation of ideas, plans, hopes and intentions.
What we’ve achieved and why we bother
First of all, what have we achieved? Put simply, thousands of members and supporters in over 20 countries in our first seven years. If we were Jesuits, we’d say that now we’ve got them for life. And, in fact, I reckon we probably have – not in the sense of adherence to religious dogma or membership of a hierarchical system, nor (sadly) in terms of reliably renewed subscriptions, but in the sense that once you’ve had a chance to taste Real Bread and appreciate how its capacity to enliven (in the words of Robert Stapledon) can improve your life and the vitality and integrity of our communities and our wider world, you don’t easily put aside that understanding, even if you can’t always make, get or share the kind of bread that carries this wonderful potential.
Many of the people who have helped us get this far are in this room and it would take too long to name and thank them all. But, of the many initiatives, Breadmaker weeks and Sourdough Septembers, fund-raising events and so on that have spread the word and inspired people to start baking Real Bread at home or in micro, artisan or community bakeries, one or two things stand out.
The School of Artisan Food, with its Welbeck bakery and its unique (at least in the UK) one-year diploma in artisan baking, is a beacon of Real Bread production and training as well as an unstinting supporter of the Real Bread movement.
In very different circumstances, people all over the country are coming together round a table of Real Bread in projects such as Bridging the Gap and its High Rise Bakers in the Gorbals in Glasgow, celebrating diverse food traditions and building social cohesion with locals and refugees alike. In their words: “We quickly discovered that bread was a great way of connecting with people - people who couldn’t find a way in”.
Community-supported baking is almost synonymous with Real Bread – and it’s spreading like butter on warm toast. And the Campaign’s work on the therapeutic benefits of making bread with people with mental health problems or learning disabilities is a reflection of the growing contribution of Real Bread beyond the commercial sphere – not just filling bellies but soothing minds and raising a laugh into the bargain.
The background to the growing reach of Real Bread is, of course, the continued decline of the Chorleywood loaf. ‘Tough market conditions’ is how the plant bakers account for sales drops of 5% or more this year alone. They seem oddly reluctant to attribute plummeting demand to any imperfections in their basic product. ‘Giving the public what it wants’ – that standard justification for mediocre quality – seems to be running out of road as a defence of additive-laced loaves.
It’s actually Real Bread bakers who are much in demand. And they are setting new standards of quality in the dawning post-Chorleywood world. The World Bread Awards were dominated in their first two years by Campaign members, even in categories that allowed, perhaps even expected, additive-assisted entries.
What we are witnessing is the gradual de-commoditisation of bread, the reversing of a 250-year old process, where bread had to be kept cheap in order to absolve the new factory employers of paying more than just above starvation wages. Cheap grain was sourced from ‘low-cost’ producers in Russia, India, Argentina and then the USA and Canada undercutting domestic farmers and forcing them to grow for yield rather than baking quality. Roller mills could rapidly refine the imported hard wheats, making a white flour with depleted mineral content the cheapest ingredient for bakers and so condemning poorer people to a diet in which the only affordable bread was also the least nutritious and often the most adulterated. No change there, then.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that the Campaign isn’t doing too badly, living up to its own vision – that if we make bread properly it will be “better for you, your community and the environment”.
What needs to be done
However, much remains to be done and there are several obstacles in our way. Despite Chris’ best endeavours, we haven’t gained the political traction that we hoped for and need. We’ve argued for honest labelling of all the additives and processing aids that go into bread and we’ve submitted cogent reasons for a new approach to mandatory fortification of white flour. We’ve had a couple of small successes with the Advertising Standards Authority in challenging inaccurate and misleading statements by supermarkets. But, inexplicably, the ASA didn’t agree with Chris’ impeccably-argued dismantling of Hovis’ preposterous slogan that the loaves bearing their brand today are “as good as they have always been”.
More worrying is the appearance of pseudough or sourfaux – loaves claiming to be ‘sourdough’ that are in fact no more than ordinary, additive-laden loaves with a bit of dried sourdough powder added. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the threat posed by this cynical opportunism is that it may undermine trust in genuine sourdough. Thousands of people have discovered that they can enjoy long-fermented bread without the bloating and digestive discomfort that they associate with industrial loaves. If they pick up a cheaper offering claiming to be ‘sourdough’ in which no prolonged fermentation of lactic acid bacteria has occurred, they may conclude – wrongly, of course – that sourdough isn’t the answer for them after all.
What we need and are campaigning for is an Honest Crust Act which would define key processes like sourdough and regulate labelling to prevent misinformation and worse. But to have any hope of getting such regulation, we need even more research into the beneficial effects of long fermentation, specifically with sourdough. And we need to be sure that any claims that we make for the healthiness of real bread in general and sourdough in particular are supported by good evidence.
Meanwhile, we risk falling foul of existing regulations ourselves. The new Food Information for Consumers rules require bakers (for the first time) to include in their ingredient declarations the synthetic fortificants – calcium, iron and two B vitamins – that have, by law, been added to all non-wholemeal UK flour since 1953. If you use white flour, organic or non-organic, you are (whether you like it or not) including additives in your bread. Where does that leave our definition of real bread as bread made without additives?
I would suggest that our response to this should be to challenge the whole basis of fortification. We need farmers to grow wheat varieties and millers to adapt their methods so that the innate mineral and vitamin content of light flours would exceed the current minimum requirements – and would improve as time went on.
Exciting things happening
Moves are afoot to address the decline in nutrient density that is seen in modern varieties of wheat, as in many other foods. Our own Scotland The Bread project is seeking out local heritage and relevant foreign wheats that are mineral rich and adapted to growing conditions in the North. And we want to make them the basis of a revitalised Scottish bread supply that is healthy, equitable, locally controlled and sustainable. We hope to work closely with grain research projects such as Brockwell Bake Association in England and the Welsh Grain Forum.
As with bread, so with the grain that goes into it: we are trying to shift some deeply embedded practices and some powerful vested interests. It is, for example, a surprising fact that information about the nutritional character and digestibility of grain is only available on official lists in respect of varieties intended for animal, not human, use.
Hopes and expectations
During the course of today we will all be thinking about how the Real Bread Campaign should develop. Should it, for example, major on media and policy initiatives, or should it be organising workshops, perhaps, or helping get more therapeutic baking initiatives off the ground? Resources are always limited, so any proposals need to consider how they might be funded.
The Campaign has always tried to balance its critique of industrial commodity loaves with practical initiatives to make better bread available to everyone, as of right. I don’t want to pre-empt any ideas that may emerge during the day. But I have a few general suggestions for things we can all do to encourage others to join our uprising.
We can all pass on the stories about what real bread can do for you, your community and the living world, true stories, not Hovis-type nostalgia.
We can share our conviction that real bread making is meaningful work, bringing the satisfaction of doing a job from start to finish, where each day’s dough is a new attempt at perfection, or at least a ‘personal best’, and certainly to be preferred to machine-extruded uniformity. And because work like this brings benefits beyond price, we can challenge simplistic notions of ‘productivity’ (which is a rather narrow measure of financial effectiveness) by calling for ‘more jobs per loaf’.
We are not, in conclusion, campaigning for some wishy-washy ideal, an imagined perfect future of better bread for all. You here are the embodiment of positive change, getting up early and staying up late to bake as you do, finding places and opportunities to share bread and so turn strangers into companions, learning about the science of nutrition and applying it honestly without short cuts or secret adulteration, showing others how to make good bread - in sum, making that change real - convinced, as we are, that changed loaves lead to changed lives.
May the uprising prevail!