Ideas

The Rise and Fall of Bread: a simple staple with a complex legacy

Bread is a simple food and a staple item across the world. 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, IDEAS contributor Veronica Simmonds asks whether bread has led us to salvation or damnation.

The story of bread is ... a love story, a war story, a story of injustice and a story of divine providence

Bread is a simple food and a staple item across the world. Bread is life. But for some, it represents a wrong turn in our species' evolution. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

**This episode originally aired April 14, 2017.

Google searches asking for tips on how to bake bread or make sourdough starters have hit an all time high when COVID-19 sent the world into isolation.

It's no wonder. Bread is simple: a combination of flour, water, yeast — and time. People yearn for comfort in crisis, and what's more satisfying than kneading dough and smelling fresh bread in the house?

Bread is a staple item around the world that touches every aspect of life: art, religion, politics, health, wealth, poverty. 

Simply put: Bread is life.

"Bread teaches us civility. Bread teaches us democracy. Bread teaches us who we are," says Veronica Simmonds in her documentary, Bread: The Rise and Fall.

A young girl leaves after receiving free bread from the municipality outside a bakery during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in Kabul on April 29, 2020. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

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. 
 
The rise of agriculture has shaped the world. Farming cereals also gave rise to political systems as well as to leisure time which allowed us to create art and form religions. 
 
Eating bread provided the necessary carbohydrates to help mothers feed their babies which in turn expanded the human population.
 
 "This is what shaped the world of today and caused the increase in population. Bread is the one that allows the wealth of today to feed many more people than before," says Ofer Bar Yosef, a professor emeritus at Harvard University's Department of Archaeology. Yosef now lives in Israel, in the place from which all three Abrahamic faiths emerged, and where humans first started making bread

Against the grain

But not everyone celebrates what humanity gained cultivating grain. Scientist Jared Diamond believed agriculture was "our greatest blunder." He wrote that the advent of agriculture was "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race."

Journalist Richard Manning agrees and says the cultivation of agriculture has led to environmental devastation and social disparity.
 
"All of agriculture depends on suppressing biodiversity and the consequences of that ripple through almost every single thing we do. So agriculture is at this point — almost always has been really — humanity's largest footprint on the planet," says Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.

Bread: The Rise and Fall 1:00

Manning hasn't eaten bread in five years. He lives in the mountains of Montana and is a writer covering environmental issues. He describes agriculture's impact as "so intertwined with humanity that it is humanity in some way."

"Domestication of grain really is civilization. Before that, people were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small bands, tribes, so forth. And the idea of cities and living together in clusters is really not possible until agriculture became possible so we can't really talk about civilization and grains separately. They are the same thing."

'Bread is the great leveller'

So bread gave rise to civilization and civilization brought oppression, starvation, war, tyranny — all the worst impulses of humanity. But that's not all that civilization is, according to Zenji Nio, head of the Kannon Initiative for Compassion.

"Civilization has its problems and yes, it has its dark side. But it is true that with darkness we can be instruments of light and stars shine brightest against the dark sky. So you've got to look at the good in bread," Nio points out.

"Is it perfect? Nothing is. It's messy, but everything that is beautiful is messy — diamonds in the rough.

Nio who is considered a custodian of the Buddha and is the author of the Buddhist bible believes that civilization is a test and has brought out the best in humanity. 

" Bread is the great leveller. And that's a very important thing. Bread is a symbol of equality."

'The story of bread is every story. It's a love story and a war story. A story of injustice and a story of divine providence. It is life. And life is ugly and bloody, brutish and short, but it is also soft, loving, open, warm,' says Veronica Simmonds in her documentary, Bread: The Rise and Fall. (Keystone/Getty Images)

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.
  • Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein is co-rabbi of Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, NY as well as co-founder of the Bread and Torah Project.
  • Ofer Bar Yosef is a professor emeritus at Harvard University's Department of Archaeology.
  • Richard Manning is an environmental author and journalist.
  • 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 Veronica Simmonds with Nicola Luksic.

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