Bread is something we often take for granted – but it’s not a staple devoid of contention. As this year’s Real Bread Week ends, it provides an opportunity to focus on the humble loaf and what it means to us economically, environmentally and culturally.
Culturally, bread is a cornerstone of our society. I love good bread and I’m not alone. There’s a reason why supermarkets allegedly pump the smell of freshly baked bread into some stores to entice customers in. There are also good reasons why independent bakeries are cherished in local communities.
But as the Real Bread Campaign highlights, these small bakeries are only a small part of the sector. Instead, most of the industry revolves around additive-containing sliced bread. Economically, the UK bakery sector is significant, although manufacturing power is concentrated in a few hands – or, in most cases, machines. The Federation of Bakers notes that the three main manufacturers – Allied Bakeries, Warburtons and Hovis – account for nearly three in every four slices of wrapped sliced bread sold in the UK. Meanwhile, the sandwich industry in the UK is a multibillion-pound sector.
Who has power, and how they use it, matters. It can influence the environmental impact of bread, which varies greatly depending on how it’s produced. Researchers claim the biggest single factor for bread’s carbon footprint is the use of fertilisers to grow wheat (accounting for 43% of greenhouse gas emissions). There are also biodiversity impacts and arguments for heritage grains over monocropping modern wheat varieties.
The real horror story environmentally, though, is surely how much bread is thrown away. According to Wrap, this is a third less than in 2007. Welcome progress, but every day in UK homes, we still throw away around 20 million whole slices of bread.
In many ways, small bakeries are the lifeblood of our communities. If we want to build community food resilience, we could do worse than starting by supporting a good small bakery in every village and town. I’d love to see more of the likes of Scotland the Bread, a member-owned community benefit society involving people in the benefits of biodiverse flour and artisan bread.
Cherish good bread. With Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world, in the spotlight, let’s break bread together and support one another in a time of need.