This article first appeared in January 2017 in The Scots Magazine
By Nick Drainey
At the kitchen table of a Borders farmhouse a quiet revolution is underway. Dressed in slacks and an open-necked shirt, Andrew Whitley, one of the chief protagonists, does not look like someone who wants to change the world but he believes it is possible, through a simple loaf of bread.
Mr Whitley is espousing the benefits of the Scotland the Bread project which aims to take old varieties of wheat which have been ignored for centuries, grow them organically and create loaves which are more nutritious than anything to be found on supermarket shelves.
He says: “We are looking for the most nutritious grains that will grow in this climate and the best starting point is to look for the grains that once upon a time did grow in this climate and were developed by Scottish farmers for Scottish millers and bakers.”
For the last three years Mr Whitley has been researching and bringing “heritage” specimens from seed banks across the world, including Russia, the US, France, Scandinavia and the UK. He then grows these seeds, many not used for decades but kept in case they become useful again, with the purpose of discovering the most nutritious grains that can be grown in Scotland.
“We are bringing grains home from strange parts of the world where they have lain in gene banks – notably in Russia where there were two samples, the only known samples, of grain from Patrick Shirreff.”
In the 19th century, Patrick Shirreff, who farmed near Drem in East Lothian, discovered wheat growing by the side of his land and took samples across the world. Mr Whitley adds: “He was the premiere plant farmer and breeder in the middle of the 19th century and it is probable that some of his varieties went over to Northern Europe as part of the incredible degree of exchange in seeds in those days.”
Scotland the Bread is now using a network of growers across Scotland, including himself, farmers and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to plant the seeds he has found and see which can grow best in Scottish conditions. Once harvested, they are sent to laboratories to be tested for their nutritional qualities.
The project is now looking for more funding to allow it to develop a network of local flour and bread production across Scotland. Mr Whitley, one of seven directors of Scotland the Bread, says this would provide healthier loaves which he believes could be “part of the glue that holds communities together”.
Mr Whitley questions the need for imported modern varieties of wheat which he says are based around intensive chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides. As well as having to be fortified with minerals, the modern varieties also cause health problems, Mr Whitley says: “To give you an example of how it can all go wrong due to the law of unintended consequences: there are more of the protein epitopes that are known to trigger celiac and similar responses in modern varieties than older ones.
“Heritage is healthier, it is more mineral dense, particularly in the case of iron and zinc – there are 2 billion people who don’t get enough iron and zinc in their diet and that is not just in the third world, there some population groups in the UK.
“There is every reason to look at particularly older grains to give us more of what we need from our food and doing so in a way which is less dependent, and I would argue should be completely independent, of fossil fuel derived chemical inputs.
“If we continue to rely on those we are hitching our wagon to the fossil fuel industry which we know we have to break free from.”
Mr Whitley wants to see a rethink of the “entire system” of wheat growing in Scotland, where farmers are rewarded for the nutritional quality of grain which can be used for bread production. This would allow wheat to be grown locally and then milled before being baked at local bakers.
“In Scotland we have a stark example of the dysfunctionality of the cereal growing system,” he says. “It grows a million tonnes of wheat but virtually none is used for making bread – it would only take about 150,000 of wheat to feed the entire Scottish population with all the bread it eats at the moment and yet we don’t seem to be able to do that. Farmers are being asked to grow varieties of wheat for other purposes; they are going into distilling, animal feed, starch production and increasingly to biofuels.”