So why, when we are teaching people how to bake does each class start with a handful of soil?
BALM is about systems change. It starts with understanding the soil.
We educate students about the importance of embracing dietary diversity and making more environmentally friendly food choices. By choosing to consume minimally processed foods, we can promote better health, support small farms, and empower patients to reduce environmental footprint.
Ultra processed foods, typically produced through unsustainable practices, putting unnecessary strain on our environment. We often find that they are the main sources of calories for many people and when we explain how they harm the environment and our health and pint out that they are composed of a handful of commodity crops people begin to understand that they offer little nutritional value. They start to make the connections and see how UPF in their diet contribute to health issues. We reconnect people using BALM and teach how minimally processed foods, made from a diverse range of plants, animals, and fungi, can contribute to better health and well-being.
Ultimately, the goal is to inspire behavioural change - to encourage and empower people, not just to bake bread but also to make conscious decisions about their food, considering its impact on their health and the planet. By understanding the issues around UPFs and their production, students are better equipped to make informed, responsible choices.
BALM protocol starts with The Soil Microbiome
The connection between soil and bread might not be immediately apparent, but upon closer examination, the link becomes evident, and it’s all about the microbes. Most of our courses include some information about fermentation – after all, we teach people to ferment their bread and about the gut microbiome. The common thread here is microbes and microbial equality.
Microbes are essential in every part of the bread-making process. They exist in the soil where our wheat is grown, in the starter used to leaven our bread, and in our gut where the bread is digested. In each of these environments, microbes play a crucial role. Healthy soil is full of a diverse community of microbes – bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and others – that help plants grow. They assist in nutrient cycling, decomposing organic matter into nutrients that plants can absorb. Microbes also improve soil structure, promoting water movement and root growth. They can even help plants resist pests and diseases. When we care for the health of our soil, we are nurturing these microbial communities, which in turn leads to healthier, more nutritious crops.
In the Starter: The magic of sourdough bread-making lies in the starter, a fermented mixture of flour and water that’s teeming with beneficial yeasts and bacteria. These microbes are responsible for the fermentation process that leavens the bread, creating the distinctive sourdough flavor and improving the bread’s digestibility.
In the Gut: Once the bread is consumed, the work of microbes continues in our gut. Our gut microbiota – the vast community of microbes living in our digestive tract – aids in the digestion of food, modulation of the immune system, and production of essential vitamins. A diet rich in diverse, fiber-filled foods like whole grain sourdough bread can help nourish and diversify our gut microbiota, contributing to overall health.
Understanding the role of microbes in baking and beyond can empower people to view their food differently. It allows us to see bread not just as a product but as a part of a larger ecosystem that starts in the soil and ends in our gut. It helps us appreciate the interconnectedness of our food systems and our health, and underscores the importance of nurturing our soil, our sourdough starters, and our own bodies. In this way, baking bread becomes an act of environmental stewardship, self-care, and community health, all rolled into one. That’s the power and beauty of Baking as Lifestyle Medicine (BALM).
Baking is a Way to Challenge Power Structures: A diverse group of activists can challenge entrenched power structures more effectively. Different individuals or groups may experience oppression in different ways, and understanding diversity is freedom and choice and we empower our students people with knowledge so they can challenge systemic injustice.
Our Botanical Blend Flour is about Social Justice: Embracing diversity in activism is a reflection of the principles of equality and social justice that most activist movements stand for. It demonstrates a commitment to a society where everyone, regardless of their background or identity, has an equal opportunity to participate, influence, and benefit.
Why, when we are about equality do we teach people about organic principles when organic so more expensive?
Well, we try to minimise agrochemicals on our bread. We understand that we ca’t all be 100% organic, and we try to work with regenerative agriculture whenever possible. We know that organic farming practices are more costly but we also know that they also perform significantly better against a range of other soil health indicators, like an abundance of soil microbes.Even with ploughing in use on most organic farms, organically farmed soils are found to have 21 per cent more (on average) soil organic matter than non-organic soils. This was also the case in another very complete study analysing twenty-five years of scientific work that compared microbial communities’ abundance and activities in organically and conventionally managed systems. Organic systems across the globe were included, and on average they were farmed for sixteen years after converting from conventional farming (using only green manure, nitrogen fixation and organic inputs as the underlying management practices). Overall, the study identified that long-term organic farming enhanced soil microbial abundance and activity – ‘all likely linked to key soil functions such as nutrient cycling and soil structure formation’.
A comprehensive meta-analysis examining 394 research papers, which focused on pesticides and their health effects on invertebrates in soil, found that in 71 per cent of the cases studied, synthetic sprays, when applied to the soil, harm earthworms, ants, beetles, and ground-nesting bees. Pesticides and climate change are also killing off beneficial soil microorganisms – a handful of soil contains about 10–100 million of them. It is their excretions that act as the binding agents for soil particles, which can increase aggregate stability, water infiltration and water-holding power. Beyond soil formation, Naylor and team explain in two fascinating papers how the soil microbiome and (underappreciated) subsoils play crucial roles in soil health – that is, influencing the fertility of the soil, plant growth and stress tolerance, nutrient turnover and carbon storage.
By farming organically, the amount of carbon that can be stored in the UK’s arable and horticultural soil area every year is comparable to the emissions that would be saved by taking nearly a million cars off the road.
Agrobiodiversity and Tilling
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are heavily manufactured products that contain little or no whole foods and are derived from a handful of commodity crops. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, on the other hand, are composed of a variety of natural foods (plants, animals, fungi) in their natural state. According to the FAO, we have 6,000 plants available for cultivation of food worldwide, yet in 2017, 66 per cent of what we grew was based on just nine crops (sugarcane, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava). An ongoing Brazilian study examining over 7,000 supermarket UPF products in Brazil shows how UPFs are displacing variety in our diets, as their main ingredients came from only five sources: sugarcane, corn, soy, milk and wheat (27.7 per cent). We need whole foods in our diets in order to be healthy.
Whereas minimally processed foods are often produced on small farms in environmentally benign ways, our modern food system relies more on unsustainable industrial crop production practices (agrochemicals, high-yield crops and intensive farming that requires machines) and strains resources – lots of land, water and energy are used to maximise the amount of food we can produce and make it easy to transport.
Intensive farming relies on the loosening or turning of the soil through ploughing (overturning the top layer of soil) and tilling (where soil is cut with blades and broken up into smaller pieces). No-till is the least intensive form of tillage, as it only requires seeds to be slipped into the ground where it has been sliced with discs (rather than overturned), while conventional tillage is the most intensive form of tillage. Tillage is sometimes used in organic farms to control weeds, but frequent tillage has been shown to destroy soil structure and lead to carbon loss in the soil. However, there is growing interest in organic strategies that reduce tillage. Studies on organic systems show that minimal tillage, like shallow non-inversion tillage (‘vertical tillage’ or ‘strip-tillage’), can boost both yields and soil carbon storage, with significantly higher earthworm populations and better weed control.
Improving soil health and productivity through cultivation are being studied in an ongoing five-year project – the Allerton project – at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s 320-hectare heavy-soil demonstration farm in Leicestershire, and at a similar light-land farm in Kent. In partnership with two agrochemical companies, a conventional plough-based system is being trialled alongside min-cultivation and no-till (direct-drilling) across a rotation of crops (barley, oilseed rape, wheat, beans and wheat). So far, findings show an increase in biodiversity (a doubling in the number of birds seen in the direct-drilling systems, and more earthworms in the soils). Soil GHGE have dropped by 16–17 per cent at both sites and the overall carbon footprint has dropped by about 10 per cent. There’s also been a 50–65 per cent drop in fuel usage in the direct-drilling system through using less fuel for tillage.
Healthy Soils are Like a Sponge
The most practical and cost-effective way to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere is through living plants and soils – Earth’s soils store three times as much carbon as plants and the atmosphere. In their 2018 Policy Briefing, the Soil Association stated that roughly 9.8 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in UK soils, making these soils an indispensable resource to reduce GHGE and curb climate change. In fact, they point to a stat from The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that 89 per cent of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving soil carbon levels. But when poorly managed, soils can turn ‘from a store to a source of emissions’. Farmers and landowners can capture tons of carbon per acre in soil by boosting soil health: keeping the ground covered year-round, minimising soil disturbance (including tillage and compaction), increasing plant or crop diversity and using organic products are just some of the ways this can be done.
After carbon enters the soil (in the form of organic material from soil fauna and flora), it can be stockpiled in the soil for decades, centuries or even millennia. Topsoil is used to grow 95 per cent of our food, and it is disappearing ten times faster than it is being replaced. The NRCS claims it takes 500 years to create an inch of fertile topsoil, and this can be destroyed in minutes by careless human actions.
Eventually, soil organic carbon (SOC) – the main component of soil organic matter (SOM) – can be released as CO2 or CH4 emitted back into the atmosphere from eroded soil material or as dissolved organic carbon (DOC) washed into rivers and oceans.
A collaborative cutting-edge study between Northeastern University and The Organic Center put out the evidence: organic agriculture keeps more carbon in soils and out of the atmosphere. The study analysed 659 organic soil samples from thirty-nine US states, along with 728 conventional soil samples from all forty-eight contiguous states. The findings showed the organic soils were healthier – they contained 44 per cent more humic substances, 13 per cent more SOM and had 26 per cent more potential for long-term carbon storage than soils from non-organic farms. Healthy soils act as carbon sinks by drawing carbon down into the soil to store it.
New research in the UK shows that zero-tillage could help fight climate change by reducing GHGE while also increasing soil carbon sequestration. The results of the data collected from thirty-one UK-based farms in this academic study show a 30 per cent reduction in net global warming potential after ten years of zero-till farming. One hundred and sixty sites (eighty pairs) from commercially managed fields were sampled about one to two months after sowing cereals; each pair comprised one conventionally tilled field and one zero-tilled field. The authors say that zero-till not only reduced costs and labour for farmers while simultaneously improving soil quality (more microbial biomass and earthworm activity as well as preventing soil erosion) but that CO2 mitigation can also be added to the list of benefits – ‘a “win–win” situation’.
Soils with high SOM content (which gives it that characteristic rich, dark colour) have more nutrients for crops and retention of water, which enhances soil fertility and leads to a more vigorous, abundant and resilient crop production. SOC improves soil structure, too, meaning better drainage and less degradation.
One sign of land degradation is the loss of soil organic matter (SOM). The FAO reports that a third of the world’s soil is already moderately to highly degraded due to decades of industrial farming. This threatens global food security while increasing carbon emissions. Soil degradation has slowly become one of the biggest agricultural problems we face, so we must change the way we farm our food.
Healthy soils that are rich in organic matter are more resilient because they can absorb excess water – storing 18–20 times their weight in water – which protects farmlands from droughts and floods (two of the most devastating consequences of the climate crisis). By disturbing the top layer of soil, small pores present in the soil structure that are responsible for the uptake of water are also destroyed. Battered and compacted soils that are devoid of moisture, nutrients and organic matter (bacteria and fungi) become more vulnerable; they are more at risk during floods and also put a strain on water supplies when soils dry up in the heat and become thirsty. Min-till or no-till systems help in slowing soil organic residue decomposition, giving better protection against erosion.
Resilience Equals Profit
Increased demand to produce more crops (as ingredients for UPFs, for example) has resulted in the expansion of the land area for farming and a reliance on irrigation and fertilisation, but they come at a cost – a degradation of our soils and waters. We know that SOM plays an important role in soil health, but it also impacts crop production because healthy soil with richer concentrations of SOM helps provide hardier crops with stronger foundations (structure). Resilient crops can deal better with environmental stresses due to better water-holding capacity and lead to more sustainable systems that produce higher, more consistent yields and greater long-term profitability. In fact, research has proven that an increase of one ton of SOC can increase wheat crop yields by 27 kilograms per hectare.
With most of the world’s breadbaskets headed to drier conditions with climate change, water is a dear resource. According to findings from Woodwell Climate Research Center, the probability of crop failure is much higher in water-scarce sections of global breadbasket nations. Researchers predict that crop yield failures will be four and a half times higher in the next eight years, and by 2050, it could increase to twenty-five times the current rates. And with water-dependent crops like wheat, there could be a crop failure every year, for example in water-stressed areas of India where up to 97 per cent of wheat crops grow.
In a recent global meta-analysis of fifty-five studies, scanning for data on both SOC and corn and wheat yields, researchers found that increases in SOC up to about 2 per cent translate, on average, to yield gains among these staple crops. We also learn from the authors that roughly two-thirds of the world’s cultivated corn and wheat fields currently have SOC contents of less than 2 per cent.
Highlighting an eighteen-year experiment in Kenya showing the benefits of long-term fertiliser and organic input management on corn yields, an older paper by Lal from Ohio State University looking at soil sequestration impacts and food security illustrates the vicious cycle of depletion in SOM, a decline in crop yield, food insecurity, and soil and environmental degradation. The author informs us that cereal yields have been stagnant there since the early seventies, at only one ton per hectare each year. Lal goes on to suggest that if we can break the cycle – by improving soil fertility through enhancement of SOM using sustainable agricultural technologies for water and nutrient management (for example no-till, composts and mulching, cover crops, water harvesting, agroforestry and judicious use of chemicals) – we can ‘break the tyranny of hunger’.
In general, the less we mess with our soils, the more resilient they are, with a greater concentration of organic matter, an important buffer against climate change. There is good news: overworked and damaged soils can be revived through the addition and management of SOM and regenerative farming practices to make them productive and stable again.
Fossil Fuels are Hard to Quit
Fuelling the Food System
Modern intensive agriculture is deeply reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels, and a sustainable food system cannot rely almost entirely on one finite energy source – an energy source that generates immense levels of pollution during its production, distribution and use.
Oil refined for gasoline and diesel is essential to run farm equipment – tractors, vehicles, combines and other machinery used to plant, till, apply treatments, harvest, dry grain and transport crops and seeds. This machinery, in turn, releases carbon dioxide from its exhausts, adding to GHGE. The manufacturing of fertilisers and pesticides used in conventional systems depends on fossil fuels, too – most pesticides are petroleum-based, and commercial fertilisers (primarily sourced from Russia) are based on ammonia produced from natural gas.
A forty-year ongoing research trial run by the Rodale Institute has proven that organic farms use forty-five per cent less energy compared to conventional ones, while still maintaining or exceeding yields after a five-year transition period (even producing yields up to forty per cent higher during droughts). As the longest-running agronomic experiment comparing organic and conventional cropping systems in the US, researchers have been able to show the ability of regenerative organic agriculture to be both less reliant on fossil fuel inputs and a significant carbon sink – releasing forty per cent fewer carbon emissions – through a reduced-tillage system incorporating intensive cover crops and crop rotation.
Outside the farm, food processors depend on gasoline-based delivery of fresh or preserved food. There’s also oil-based reliance when it comes to the production and transport of food additives, packaging and shipment of food, and consumers who drive to shop.
High global energy prices could lead to food insecurity around the world. The cost of diesel fuel has soared, with US prices at the pump rising 70 per cent in the past year to more than $5.50 a gallon. Rising input costs in turn could impact next season’s harvest, leading to elevated food prices in the longer run.
Reducing reliance on carbon-based fuels is essential in preventing the worst impacts of climate change. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2020 found that a vast majority of Americans – 79 per cent, in fact – prioritise developing alternative energy sources over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas.
As the third-largest oil producer after the United States and Saudi Arabia, Europe relies on Russian gas (about 40 per cent) and petrol for a large amount of its energy. According to the IEA, that translates to 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil and 1.2 million bpd of oil products. As such a huge player in the energy sector, WFP informs us in their recent report on the food security implications of the Ukraine conflict that expected price hikes resulting from sanctions on Russian oil and gas could jeopardise access to food for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are already suffering super-high inflation. Reliance on Russia or any country could mean starving the world of food and fuel.
As we’ve previously learned, land use and farm stages of the supply chain account for most food-related emissions, but transport still accounts for almost 10 per cent of emissions (even in the largest product categories like beef production, it’s nearly 1 per cent of emissions). This means that eating locally would only have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food’s carbon footprint. Air travel is an exception, but few goods are air-freighted, and they are mostly perishable fruit and vegetables.
In his unique understanding of maritime systems and of system change, one of my best friends, Captain Arjen van der Veen, started the Fairtransport movement with two colleagues in 2007. Using just wind and water, Tres Hombres, a thirty-two-metre brigantine – a pirate ship – is crewed by a group of dissident environmentalists who transport fair-trade cargo around the world with zero carbon emissions, completing a circle that started with zero-carbon chocolate (tree to bar) and paying fair prices to the farmers. We transported and moved 50,000 bars of hand-labelled and hand-dated chocolate from Grenada and shipped them back to Europe, where we were met with an army of environmentalists who delivered the chocolate to shops by bicycle. This was a game-changer for me.
Arjen had recognised that the transportation system is so deeply and fundamentally flawed that it was allowing huge tankers to belt out filthy, dirty crude oil with no regulation, creating more environmental damage than all the SUVs in Europe. Today, his work is an example of the existing possibilities for alternative shipping methods worldwide.
All processes in the supply chain after the food leaves the farm – processing, transport, retail and packaging – still account for an 18 per cent share of total emissions created by food production, even if not as hefty as those related to the farm itself (livestock, land use or cultivation).
We know that UPFs are now prevalent in diets worldwide, and as a result, their single-use packaging – the largest source of plastic production – in which products are brought from the market to home is very likely to generate massive plastic pollution. According to an assessment released by the UN Environment Programme last year, nearly 40 per cent of all plastics produced worldwide are used for food packaging – which includes low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bread bags. In fact, globally, we are now producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with a million plastic bags being tossed into the rubbish every minute. The UNEP also says pollution in oceans and other bodies of water is projected to double by 2030.
In terms of food distribution, packaging is the biggest emissions offender, accounting for at least 5.4 per cent of food system emissions – more than transportation or other supply-chain factors. Nearly all plastic is made from the by-products of fossil fuel extraction, and sourcing fossil fuels from the ground means that local environments are destroyed, streams and groundwater are depleted or polluted, and air becomes contaminated. Potential oil spills and offshore fracking destroy marine wildlife, and when fossil gas is extracted and transmitted in pipelines, it leaks and damages our climate.
Plastics also have climate impacts: the US plastics industry produces 232 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Plastic pollution is an issue that requires system change on a global scale, just like climate change — the amount of plastic produced is linked to the demand for and production of oil and gas. If we can move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy and a healthy climate, we also encourage a transition away from producing wasteful single-use plastics.
Apart from the damage to our environment, there are harmful effects of plastics on human health. A thought-provoking review of the literature on microplastics (plastic debris about the size of a linseed) determined that every part of the environment is contaminated with microplastics, including our food chain. We learn from this research that the US population consumes 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles every year. This is based on data collected from twenty-six studies evaluating the microplastics in just 15 per cent of daily American diets, consisting of foods like seafood, alcohol, honey, sugar, salt, and bottled and tap water – some of these being our bread ingredients. Not only do microplastics come from contaminated foods and pose a hazard to human health, but they can also affect soil density and porosity, affecting water dynamics and soil aggregation, as well as disrupting the nutrient cycle. The authors go on to inform us that plastic fragments can migrate to lower layers of soil through farming practices like ploughing. Another study the authors point to identifies that crop cultivation itself (the creation of the root system and the collection of crops), dry weather (the formation of cracks through which plastics move deeper) and the movement of soil organisms also integrate microplastics into the soil.
Research has established that exposure to phthalates – the toxins found in many plastic food containers – has serious health implications. In a longitudinal cohort study looking at data from participants in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001–2010 (who provided urine samples to be tested for phthalates) and linked to all causes of death through 2015, researchers found that phthalates increased the risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality — attributable to over 90,000 deaths per year.
Due to the environmental and human health effects of nondegradable plastic packaging, many companies are reducing plastic production, increasing recycling, and using more sustainable food packaging. According to a survey run by Trivium Packaging, it turns out that consumers are more ‘environmentally aware’ than ever before, and nearly three-quarters of them are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.