Most staple foods – grains, tubers, pulses – are staples partly because they’re easy to prepare. But corn and wheat, which respectively account for 20% and 15% of global calorie intake, usually undergo substantial processing before we eat them. Today corn is especially associated with highly processed foods like high-fructose corn syrup, but wheat is also inseparable from industrial manufacturing.
We don’t tend to think of store-bought bread and noodles, or even flour, as packaged convenience foods, but they save a great deal of the work of making the grain palatable. The technology for making them has gone through the same evolutionary cycle that much other machinery has: it grew from small, human-powered items in homes and small workshops, into increasingly large, high-throughput pieces of equipment requiring dedicated infrastructure. Then, in the past few decades, it shrank back down to fit into homes and small workshops once more – this time with the aid of electric motors and all the refinements and conveniences that modernity offers.
Of course, the tools that enable small scale production today are, as the work of Thomas Thwaites has shown, dependent on extremely complex supply chains and modes of manufacture. Artisanal production today is inextricable from industry – but it’s still interesting to consider what the world would look like when more and more people own the means of production.
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Planning & Strategy.
Wheat has been in the news a lot recently, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had really staggering impacts on global food systems. Geopolitical shocks to the food supply are as old as cross-border trade. I grew up in Singapore, where a similar bout of food-driven inflation took place in the late 60s (setting the stage for the oil shocks of the 70s). The issue was a rice shortage caused by political turmoil in Thailand, then as now a major exporter of the staple. Singapore’s government responded with a public service campaign (we have a lot of those) called “Eat More Wheat” – complete with cooking competitions and a wheat-based cookbook.
The campaign wasn’t a great success – rice just required less work, both to cook and to make palatable. And while flour was cheaper than rice, packaged foods of all sorts (including bread and noodles) were still something of a luxury in the Singapore of the 1960s, so the government was inundated with complaints that the supposedly cheaper diet was actually uneconomical for working class families.
Global rice prices have been stable for the past few years, but even if they weren’t (a terrifying prospect), it’s unlikely that a Western government would stage an “Eat More Rice” campaign. We justly bemoan the lack of industrial policy in the US, and it’s also notable how infrequently our government attempts to influence consumer behavior.
Making & Manufacturing.
- When you make bread, you’re trying to control the related processes of fermentation, aeration, and gluten development. All three processes are advanced by inputs of time and energy (either mechanical or thermal), and to some degree you can substitute one for the other. Shelf-stable packaged breads are nearly all made by the Chorleywood process, which kneads the dough so violently that it aerates, almost like whipping cream. This drastically reduces fermentation time, which industrial bakers like.
Before the Chorleywood process was invented in 1961, the most common method of making industrial bread in England was by aerating the dough with carbonated water – arguably substituting chemical energy for time. The Wikipedia entry on the Aerated Bread Company is well worth reading, not least for the outlandish (and frankly false) claims made about the benefits of the process.
One reason the Chorleywood process took off is that it works with low gluten English wheats, and throughout history bread technology has co-evolved with wheat and milling technology (much as construction methods and lumber mills did).
- This issue wouldn’t be complete without some videos of automated bread production lines, including this delightful video from the 2020-05-18 issue, and a burger bun line with a manipulator inspired by octopus suckers.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
My friend Vaughn Tan, an uncertainty enthusiast and wheat aficionado, shared this interlocution on wheat cultivation:
Today, most wheat intended for milling into flour is grown as a monoculture: Each wheat field is sown to a single cultivar of wheat, which is selected/bred/genetically modified for particular properties when milled into flour.
In contrast, a *population wheat* is a mix of genetically heterogeneous wheats (which can change over time) that’s sown and grown together, then harvested at the same time to be milled into flour. Population wheat flour has the properties of its variety of wheats in their relative proportions. To adjust the flour’s final properties, farmers apply selection pressure to the population (e.g. by periodically pulling out wheats with less desired properties during the growing season). This changes the type and distribution of different wheats in the population, so that the resulting flour has the desired properties even if individual wheats within it do not.
A well-designed population comprising mostly pre-1900s wheats will be more resilient and adaptable than a monoculture of modern (post-1900s) wheat, because it is diverse at more levels and in more ways: A well-designed population has component wheats that are more likely to be *individually* genetically diverse and thus phenotypically plastic and responsive, and the population *as a whole* has more freedom to respond by changing the relative prevalence of component wheats.
A responsive population is more likely to adapt well to its growing environment, and so will require lower inputs to grow. John Letts — a population wheat researcher and farmer in the UK, and instigator of the Heritage Grain Trust — tells me that his population wheats can be grown with almost no inputs of water, fungicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. The upshot: Instead of failing in a suboptimal growing environment, a population wheat is likely to adapt to its specific environment by changing in composition and expression. The flour milled from it will change over time, but even in poor harvest conditions there will be flour – as opposed to an unharvestable monoculture wheat field.
The population approach to wheat agriculture is a form of evolutionary design, and has much in common with the design principles of successful APIs, platforms, and ecosystems: We should design open-ended systems, which adapt over time to emergent uses.
That said, we also know how to adjust batch variation in flour production. Industrial millers blend from different sources and harvests to increase consistency, and also use additives (diastatic barley malt is the most common) to smooth out batch variation and replace some of the enzymes lost in the pursuit of industrial scale. Farmers and millers who work with population wheats could also use these techniques, though the non-interventionist philosophies they often espouse might deter them from doing so.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Commercial baking has made at least two great contributions to modern logistics: the plastic bakery tray and the modern sheet pan. The former was first introduced in 1965 and is notable for its specialization and sturdiness, and for the way in which it allows soft, fragile baked goods to be modularized into industrial picking lines. Sheet pans have been around in one form or another for 4000 years, and are incredibly versatile; when I worked at Formlabs, we used sheet pans and their constant companion, bakery racks, to organize sample prints.
- Today, it’s relatively easy to buy flour from a small mill – something that could fit in a couple of square meters and be a reasonable investment for a mom-and-pop scale business. These mills pass grain once between a pair of stone burrs, whereas industrial mills pass grain through a series of steel rollers, sieving between sets to grade and isolate different parts of the grain.
- Simply Bread is a startup selling a home oven that’s almost identical in function to commercial bread ovens (which were already scaled for pretty small businesses, but not quite as small as a single person operating in a home). On the Prepared’s Members’ Slack, Stijn, the CTO, describes the goal as “‘Airbnb for baking’ – a combination of work-from-home, gig economy, artisan and local food production and community building. We provide the oven you need to scale (and make money) with artisan fresh bread baking and a software platform to find and manage customer relations, buy ingredients. And building a large virtual, distributed bakery along the way.” Bakeries today are a combination of concentrated and distributed operations – what happens if the industry tips more towards being distributed?
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Flour inspection is often visual. Bakers and buyers will carefully observe a flour sample, using its appearance to understand what it will be like to process and how the finished product will look and taste. To ensure they’re getting an accurate picture, they will often use a technique called “slicking,” in which a flat spatula (called a “flour slick;” it looks more or less like a drywall knife but costs much more) is used to flatten the surface of a pile of flour. You can see the process in this video of a Swedish flatbread factory. On the Prepared’s Members’ Slack, Chris explains that, a “flattened, smooth surface reveals the color and composition (bran content, fineness of grind) better because it’s not obscured by the shading effect of clumping.”
- The FDA Guide to Inspections of Grain Product Manufacturers reads like it was written in the wild west. Among the items an inspector might need are a grain bomb, a boot trier, and the above-mentioned flour slick. It also contains numerous warnings about avoiding sparks, which can cause dramatic (and catastrophic) explosions.
- A list of flour testing methods, focused on what one might call the practical qualities of flour – how it behaves in baking – as opposed to chemical analysis. I have to wonder whether the extreme stresses of lab testing, like the dough stretching tests shown in this video, actually reflect how the flours feel and behave in the home baker’s bowl.
Baking is commonly said to relieve stress, but I submit for your consideration another form of wheat-based stress relief: Threshing the grains from cut wheat by beating it with a long wooden flail.
p.s. - We should be better friends, especially if you’re involved in the global food supply chain, but even if you’re not! Coffee’s on me.
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