“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” ― Henry David Thoreau, 1854
Back in the mists of time, the price of cabbage! was a childhood refrain. I hazily recall it as a dig at adults, especially those from beyond the pale, given to a tut tutting, head shaking, what’s the world coming to disposition, the price of cabbage! being a proxy for all of its inflationary woes. It was the seventies after all, and the grownups mostly talked about inflation. What’s new!
I constantly reflect on the price of bread; mine and everyone else’s. By everyone else I mean bakers both artisanal and industrial, chi-chi grocers in swanky neighbourhoods, discount retailers in the barrio, late night convenience joints, petrol stations, and anywhere else bread is sold. By bread I mean anything recognisable as bread in appearance, nutritional value and taste, though I appreciate that there are many bread products out there that will struggle to meet two of these criteria. The wise food thinker Michael Pollan might classify these as ‘bread like substances’, but in the eyes of current laws around food standards and definitions, however flawed, they nonetheless conform to the characteristics of the thing we consensually call bread.
But what do I mean by price? The amount of money, that bread in your pocket that you are happy to exchange for actual bread, that’s a given. But when it comes to food, we are all thinking anew about the costs hidden within the sticker price – the carbon it took to produce it, the health consequences for the people who eat it, and the welfare of the people who make it. That’s going to make life quite messy, and at odds with a global food system that works hard to create the illusion of simplicity. How we will navigate this complex food landscape as consumers is up for grabs, but concepts like True Cost Accounting, which look beyond a company’s financial performance to the holistic human and environmental impacts of what it does up and down the supply chain, are things we should really start demanding. As a baker, I too must navigate this vast food nebula, and am attracted to Leah Hager Cohen when she states in Glass, Paper, Beans: Revolutions on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things, “every commodity, beneath the mantle of its price tag, is a hieroglyph ripe for deciphering, a riddle whose solution lies in the story of the worker who made it and the conditions under which it was made.”
Bread has many such riddles, not least its unenviable status as a Giffen good, which, you of course remember from the leaving cert past paper, is a low-income, staple product for which, paradoxically, demand increases as the price goes up. Granted, Giffen was a Victorian, and the social stratification of bread back then was obvious, unlike today, where there is a loaf to suit every price point, every aspiration, every rung on the precarious social ladder from the 99% at the bottom to the 1% at the top. Of course the top .1%, the super elite, gave up bread years ago, the stupid gobshites.
But old habits die hard, and when economists and other members of the commentariat invoke bread as an economic proxy, they are not talking about blow-ins like me with my beloved sourdough. They are referring to the functional stuff. The people’s bread, the ubiquitous sliced pan, industrially produced in their thousands around the clock then despatched by the truckload to every remote corner of the four green fields. The sliced pan might be the ultimate convenience food. Like Ed Sheeran songs, you are never far from one, whether you want it or not. As with politicians in a debate being tested on their common touch with the tricky question about the price of a litre of milk, I invite you now to reflect on the current average price for our ‘control’ loaf, the 800gm white sliced pan.
Whatever number you’ve come up, you will undoubtedly have factored the current megapolyomnicrisis into your computations. Soaring input costs like energy and transport, shortages in everything from labour to fertiliser, the war in Ukraine and its impact on commodity wheat prices, stuff that makes your head spin and puts the 1970s price of cabbage! in the ha’penny place. On average, bread prices across the Eurozone have risen 18% in the last year. Some citizens are shouldering extraordinary burdens, like Lithuanians and Hungarians, now paying 33% and 66% more for their loaves.
Our bread loving economist would tell us that the price of a loaf is very sensitive to political and economic fluctuations beyond its control. The wheat that makes all those sliced pans is a globally traded commodity, and together Russia and Ukraine produce around 25% of global wheat exports. We’d be forgiven for assuming that makes them the world’s largest producer, but that would be China, harvesting a whopping 136 million tonnes last year. That’s a lot of wheat, but still not enough for the world’s most populous country, and China is also the world’s third largest grain importer. Increasingly, China is buying the extra wheat it needs from Russia, a small but illuminating footnote to Xi Jinping’s non-committal position on Putin’s belligerence towards Ukraine.
Wherever the great game of geopolitics and war has unfolded, bread has had a part to play, often forcing the state to step in to secure supplies and control prices. Hungry citizens have a tendency to rise up against their oppressors. In the Roman empire, wheat, and later bread, was the world’s first unit of social welfare with up to 200,000 citizens, the plebs frumentaria, receiving subsidised bread courtesy of Emperor Augustus, who in his largesse also threw in the odd circus. Your ration was called a ‘dole’, a word that has proved very durable.
Closer to home, Henry III’s Assize of Bread & Ale entered the mediaeval statute books in 1266, and stayed there for another 500 years. It might be one of the world’s first pieces of consumer protection legislation, regulating the price, weight and quality of locally sold bread. It standardised the exact weight of a bushel of wheat, a unit of measurement which (like the equally archaic oil by the barrel) is still in use. Also, to prevent unscrupulous bakers skimping on the weight of individual loaves, the assize required them to bake extra for any shortfall, hence the 13th loaf in a ‘baker’s dozen’.
More recently, some 3,000 Irish farmers are to receive financial support from the government’s 2023 tillage incentive scheme, a set of inducements to grow more cereal crops like wheat, oats, rye, barley and maize to mitigate the risks to food supply as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. These appear to have been greeted favourably, unlike the authoritarian tillage measures imposed by De Valera’s government during The Emergency which were all stick, no carrot.
Supply shocks, inflationary crises, force majeure, pestilence, drought, acts of god, all have conspired throughout history to thwart the supply of cheap bread that society demands, and a century from now, assuming we are still here, historians will plot our current angst into the long continuum of bread as human fuel. What they’ll be eating is anyone’s guess, but taking their long view, they might argue that today’s hyper industrialised sliced pan was a direct descendant of Panis Quadratus, the bread baked by slaves in the hundreds of communal ovens dotted across ancient Rome.
Meanwhile, back in the mundane present at the baked goods aisle, here’s the answer to the political banana skin. Last January just before the war, you could pick up an 800gm sliced pan in the German discounter down our way for 79 cents. That’s so ludicrously cheap it’s impressive, a finished product that costs less than the organic flour that goes into one of my loaves, and that’s before I spend 48 hours mixing, proofing, shaping it by hand, firing up the fridge to cold ferment it and the oven to bake it, then putting it in a bag so you can take it home. The same sliced pan today will set you back 99 cents, a 20% increase consistent with the figures cited earlier. The price of a sourdough loaf from me has remained constant over the same period at €5, and I’m in no doubt that in the grand scheme of things, it is less profitable than that supermarket loaf. My intended destination in this contribution was to contextualise that price differential between the ‘cheap’ bread made in factories and the ‘expensive’ bread made in my home bakery, but as always with this simplest of foods, the answers can be evasive, for me at least. I will reflect on that in the hope I’ll be asked back here before too long with a view, however utopian, on how we get to the promised land of better bread that everyone that wants it can afford. That is the fervent desire of the bakers I know.
Bread Man Walking is Gerry Godley’s microbakery serving sourdough, brioche and pastries to Dublin 8 and nearby every Saturday from 12 to 3pm. Pre-order by DM @bread_man_walking
Words: Gerry Godley
Feature Image: Gerry Godley of Bread Man Walking at his home bakery in Rialto, mixing and preparing Sour Dough Loaves, Foccacia, and Various Sweet and Savoury Buns, dividing, shaping, stitching of the bread dough.
Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times