Friday, July 13, 2007

From Wasted-Food to Biofuel.

I have read that in the UK we produce just 60% of our own food, the rest being imported. Now this raises an obvious uncertainty over security of food supplies in the Oil-Dearth era that is at hand, and is further an Achilles-heel that might be compounded were we to turn-over significant areas of arable land to growing crops for biofuel production. However, I hadn't realised how much of that home-grown food actually goes to waste, about one third of it, which would suggest that our current agricultural holdings and production do really add-up to nearly the amount we consume, it's just that we are highly wasteful in how it is used.

An organisation called National Charity Fare Share is now working to redistribute quality surplus food rather than simply letting it be thrown away (e.g. to homeless people), and it involves eight Fare Share schemes across the country and 250 local charities. More than 100 companies are cooperating in the programme by donating to it food that, although still within its sell-by date, could not be distributed in time to meet it on supermarket shelves. Legislation is quite stringent about these matters and sell/use-by dates tend to err well on the side of caution.

Anthony Worrall Thompson, a celebrity chef, said that people were too quick to throw food out. "There's nothing wrong with mouldy cheese - just cut the mould off," he said on the subject. "That's what it's all about - it's just bacteria." He also said it was good sense to use "leftovers", and I quite agree, as interesting culinary concoctions can often be assembled from them. In a wave of nostalgia he recalled, "I remember the old days, when you got a big joint on Sunday. You'd have it cold on Monday, cottage pie (beef) or shepherd's pie (lamb, obviously) on Tuesday, curry on Wednesday and so it would go on until you got a bit of fish on Friday." I don't recall us having a large enough joint to go on until Thursday (Tuesday, maybe), and curry hadn't yet arrived in either South Wales or the West Country where I spent my formative years, but I take his point.

Limited refrigeration at one time meant that it was necessary to be inventive with food and how to reuse it. True, in 1960's South Wales my family didn't have a fridge, but supplies were ordered from local shops every couple of days, and milk, cheese, butter etc. were put by the back door in winter and in a bucket of cold water in sumer. Most homes had a "pantry" then, a cold cupboard open to the outside and with a gauze over the window to keep insects out, in which meat, cheese etc. were stored. Now, we tend to rely on constantly available refrigerated food, including two-for-one offers which often mean that most of that second "freebie" ends-up on a landfill site somewhere. As supplies of electricity become more expensive and probably unreliable when we start to run-out of the means to produce it, those methods that rely less on electrical refrigeration-systems will be used again.

Close to seven million tonnes of food is wasted as part of manufacturing processes and nine million tonnes more of "out of date" or "damaged" (that might just be the packaging) food waste is produced by supermarkets. Many European countries collect food waste separately, which is then sent for composting. I recall that as a child, food from meals served at school was collected into enormous bins at the end of the canteen to be taken away and fed to pigs on local farms. Since much of this was produced locally in the first place, it was I guess a form of recycling, and part of a localised economy.

Attempts to reduce the amount of rubbish going to landfill sites are hampered by the sheer volume of wasted food among its contents. There are also rigidly enforced rules for example to ensure that any catering waste that contains meat must be destroyed to prevent livestock (pigs?) and wild birds from coming into contact with it. However, Defra are reconsidering some of these regulations according to new evidence that the health risk is actually quite low. Since there is now an EU directive that bio-degradable waste should not be thrown among landfill, it would make sense to have separate food collections as a handful of local authorities have done, e.g. Harrow and Enfield, but far more widely. Home composting and the use of the resulting fertiliser for kitchen-gardens would probably be best of all. Now this is action at a really local level, as will be increasingly necessary when our extensive transportation network begins to fail under the burden of huge oil prices.

On a final note, I mention a new proposal to recycle food-waste into biofuels, by means of a plant that can convert unwanted food such as ready meals, fast food, sandwiches, pizzas etc. and the packaging associated with it into biofuel - specifically, methane for electricity production. The proposed operator is called EnCycle and it has applied for planning permission to build and run a centre in North East Lincolnshire, they say in view of good transport links to food producers in the North East Midlands area, where manufacturers and processors are mainly concentrated. Certainly, there is a considerable localisation of food production etc. there, for the simple reason that the goods can be moved thence across the country, but I wonder, ultimately how effective will it be when transportation costs soar and the necessary infrastructure is compromised?

Actions at the local level, will ultimately prove far more effective than those which though seemingly laudable, depend on extensive networks of supermarkets and cheap transportation. Local food production will always be more efficient and will surely help "redress" that figure of 60% home-grown production toward one approaching full sustenance. Though not immediately cheaper perhaps, in the longer run it will be the only option.

Related Reading.
(1) "Saving food from going to waste," by Laim Allen, BBC News:
(3) (This refers to urban agriculture, and is relevant to the whole issue of food production at the local level).
(4) (A site that deals with local food production in


Anonymous said...

A site that deals with local food production in Canada:

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks very much! That's most helpful! Chris.

Anonymous said...

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Dongtan was presented at the United Nations World Urban Forum by China as an example of an eco-city, and is the first of up to four such cities to be designed and built in China by Arup, a global design and engineering company. The cities are planned to be ecologically friendly, with zero-greenhouse-emission transit and complete self-sufficiency in water and energy, together with the use of zero energy building principles. However, the planned ecological footprint for each citizen in Dongtan is currently 2.2 hectares[1], higher than the 1.9 hectares that is theoretically sustainable on a global scale.

Dongtan proposes to have only green transport movements along its coastline. People will arrive at the coast and leave their cars behind, traveling along the shore as pedestrians, cyclists or on sustainable public transport vehicles.

Steven Finnegan, a British Environmental architect is working on the project.