Last week between 8 May to 14 May was the ‘Open week of bakehouses’ in Berlin and Brandenburg. Thirteen organic bakehouses invited people to look ‘behind the scenes’. They all share an emphasis on artisanry, regionality and transparence. According to ‘Baecker-Innung’, an association of independent master artisans, there are 140 artisan bakeries in Berlin, out of which fourteen are organic.
When I moved to Berlin, I was frankly amazed by the ubiquity of bakehouses on every main street. There are the typical big bakery chains such as Thoben, Brot & Broetchen, Backwerk, Le Crobag, Ditsch etc but also numerous independent and small bakeries. Compared to my experiences in other European countries, German bakehouses offer an enormous variety of bread, pastries and cakes at such affordable prices which make it tempting to buy. However, a closer look on their listed ingredients often reveal a long list that include preservatives, thickeners, emulsifiers, food colouring, sugar and sodium.
A tour through one of the organic bakehouses in Neukoelln, Vollkornbaeckerei Mehlwurm shows that there are still bakeries that emphasise on the art of bread-making with no food additives. It is also run as a part collective where every worker earns the same wage, regardless of what work they are doing. They have two grinders in-house that grind rye and wheat grains every day. The bran and germ of a kernel contain most of the nutrients, vitamins, fibers and minerals whereas a lot of processed flour bought in supermarkets have the bran and germ removed to extend shelf life. Unmilled grains also contain natural oils that start to oxidize once ground so it is always best to use freshly ground flour as soon as possible as the nutrients diminish the longer it is left. The flour is then kneaded by a machine with water, yeast (and/or baking ferment or sourdough) and then further prepared by the artisan bakers, put into a fermenting room and then baked in the oven. The bread is then sold directly to the customer on the same day or the next day at the counter less than twenty footsteps away.
Another small, organic bakery is Die Backstube Vollkornbaeckerei near Kottbusser Tor. It is also run as a collective where the workers own and run the company. In the Backstube, 13 or 14 members are in charge of the bakery. In the midst of global corporate trade and food regime, some organic bakeries follow a model of self-determination and self-government. On a late afternoon, two workers are busy shaping some pastries while another one is busy calculating and mixing ingredients for three kneaders at the same time. Since their mill only grinds whole grain, they also order their refined bio-certified flour.
Why is organic better than industrial food? In industrial farming, crops are grown in monocultures on wide areas owned by multinational companies, therefore not only destroying wildlife habitat and biodiversity but also taking away land for local people to farm (and also making it illegal due to land ownership and laws). Monocultures create an imbalance in the soil life and environment and thus certain insects, bugs and weeds start to thrive. Pesticides are being used which not only get rid off the ‘pest’ but also poison the surrounding wildlife and workers who are exposed to these toxic substances. Nowadays many crops are genetically modified to grow quicker, to have a brighter, appealing appearance or even be seedless. Because of poor and depleted soils, chemical fertilisers are used, which are washed into our rivers and seas and seep into our groundwater. And since there is a demand for constant availability at every season, food is grown in greenhouses, stored in freezer warehouses or shipped world-wide which uses a lot of energy. And if you wonder why conventional food is still so cheap compared to all the effort that goes into it, you can guess that the people working under non-existing human and worker’s rights are hit the hardest, not only being denied a fair wage but also the possibility to farm for their subsistence.
With organic products, you minimise some of the negative effects of big-scale agricultural farming at least. The food is also healthier as it contains more antioxidants and less pesticide residues. Organic farm practices are better for soil health and less polluting compared to industrial farming. But with the rising demand for organic products, the importance for many health-conscious customers is placed on quality food, whereas workers conditions, rights and ethics are often of the least interest. Big organic shops already dominate the organic market and are ethically often not so dissimilar to their counterpart. Last summer I was working on a trial on an organic Demeter-approved farm where the soil had a healthy, crumbly texture but the people working on it were Asian migrants who worked 10-12 hours out in the fields and often worked overtime to fulfill short notice deliveries. But they appeared not to mind to work longer as their pay was low and they were not informed of any rights and laws and also did not speak the language.
Die Backstube organised an informative talk on food sovereignty and community supported agriculture (‘Ernaehrungssouveranitaet und solidarische Landwirtschaft’). The motto was ‘Bio has to be political again’. As one of the few bakeries, where organic baking is a political act, they are part of a support network of small collectives who focus on community, cooperation, food sovereignty and farming. There were many insights, for example how big organic shops are exerting their power in the market to determine prices and production with little concern to the farmers, harvest and land. Die Backstube works closely with farmers and if a farm had an average or bad harvest, they would still buy and make the best out of it, whereas big companies prioritise high quality and would import it from abroad. In small-scale farming, one can build a relationship to the animals and land and be aware of the environment, but it is harder to keep up with the demands for big organic supermarkets. One of the speakers, a supplier for the Backstube, also supports and works closely with Syrian local farmers and collectives, where even the act of making bread and growing food has become a dangerous endeavour and targeted by al-Assad.
Germany has the longest tradition in organic farming and marketing for health products and is now one of the biggest organic markets in the world (source: FAO). The movement for organic and natural food stores emerged 25-30 years ago as a criticism of industrial society and conventional grocery trade. If we remind ourselves of that, perhaps we can include food sovereignty and solidarity to the farmer's and worker's rights to our list of concerns when it comes to the purchase of food and other products.
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