Monday October 09, 2017

Bread: salvation or damnation?

Bread: The Rise and Fall 1:00

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

Bread is a simple food and a staple item across the world. The influence of bread touches every aspect of life: art, religion, politics, health, wealth, poverty. Bread is life. But for some, it represents a wrong turn in our species' evolution. Through conversation with bakers, religious leaders, historians and bread aficionados, producer Veronica Simmonds asks whether bread has led us to salvation or damnation in her documentary, Bread: The Rise and Fall. **This episode originally aired April 14, 2017.

Bread - Veronica Simmonds

CBC producer Veronica Simmonds (CBC)

In many ways the story of bread is the story of civilization as we know it. Roughly 10,000 years ago we shifted from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers. We started harvesting grains and eventually made bread. Eating bread provided the necessary carbohydrates to help mothers feed their babies which in turn expanded the human population. Farming cereals also gave rise to political systems as well as to leisure time which allowed us to create art and form religions. The rise of agriculture has shaped the world.

This is one way to tell the story of the spread of civilization, but in my research I also spoke with experts who believe grain production was the worst mistake in human history and has led to environmental devastation and social disparity. Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization describes agriculture's impact saying, "It is so intertwined with humanity that it is humanity in some way."

The question is whether we are better off because we have bread. According to Manning, "All of agriculture depends on suppressing biodiversity and the consequences of that ripple through almost every single thing we do...If we look at environmental impact on all corners of the earth, including global warming by the way, it is a result of agriculture."

And yet, bread is the basis of so much cultural richness. In Catholicism, bread is the Body of Christ, for Jews bread is symbolic of what is important in life, what is essential. In Islam bread is a gift from God. People all over the world are nourished by breads in myriad forms. It has been fought over in the streets but it has also been baked lovingly by a mother for a child. This most simple table item holds within it all the complexity of life.

Bread: The rise and fall collage

Bakers bring bread to life at Banjara Indian Cuisine and Blackbird Baking Co. (Veronica Simmonds/CBC)

Guests in this episode:

  • Janet Flammang is a professor emeritus at Santa Clara University in the Department of Political Science.

  • Fr. Damian MacPherson, is Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

  • Imam Habeeb Alli is an Imam, a chaplain, and author writing on the topics of Islam, Guyana and poetry.

  • Ofer Bar Yosef is a professor emeritus at Harvard University's Department of Archaeology.

  • Steven Kaplan is a professor emeritus of European History at the Department of History at Cornell University.

  • Zenji Nio is an author and inspirational chaplain for Olympians. He is also head of the Kannon Initiative for Compassion.

Further reading:

  • Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning, North Point Press, 2005.

  • Good Bread Is Back, Steven Kaplan, Duke University Press Books, 2006
  • The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, Janet Flammang, University of Illinois Press, 2009. 

**This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.