February 08, 2012

Beer and Solidarity

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The photograph shows John Gorzynski and his vegetables before a hurricane devastated his family's farm last Autumn. Nestled in a valley of the Catskills, Gorzynski Ornery Farm is where John, a longtime advocate for organic agriculture and small-scale growers, has been farming for over 20 years.

To raise support for Gorzynski, last week's Farm & Beer Expo at Brooklyn Brewery, the latest in a series of hurricane relief events, brought together select craft brewers who focus on the use of local ingredients.

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An enchanting array of small-scale brewers had names like Wandering Star, Sierra Nevada, Tundra, Lagunitas, Peak Organic, Ommegang, White Birch Brewing, and Empire Brewing. The latter seemed to be run by goths.

Last week's crowd included the collaborative Shoe Town to Brew Town, a design and ecology platform whose idea is that small resource-sharing breweries can be a centerpiece of a regional economic development. For that to happen, craft brewers, green building engineers, and microbial scientists, need to collaborate - hence the platform.

The message from last week's event seems to be that if brewing wastes can enrich food chains, the craft brewing community can also be a source of solidarity for small farmers in trouble.

The event's organiser, Jimmy Carbone (on the left in the photo above) co-creator of The Good Beer Seal, also has a weekly radio show Beer Sessions Radio

Photos by Juren David.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:12 PM

December 11, 2011

From Milk To Superfoods: Supping With The Devil?

I'd be surprised if many readers of this blog work for the fracking industry. Those charming people spend a lot on lobbying and public relations, sure - but their main aim in life is to remain obscure.

But food and drink? The branding, the packaging, the communications, the stores, the promotions, the trade shows, the hotels, the restaurants? Would I be wrong to guess that 75% of us have worked for a global food enterprise, directly or indirectly, at some point? I know I have: an industry talk here, a futures workshop there, a couple of healthcare events…

But two new publications this week have left me sick to the stomach. I just don't think it's defensible any more to turn a blind eye to the social and ecological crimes Big Food is committing, in other parts of the world, so that you and I can eat what we damn well feel like.

When it comes to the food business, I've been having my cake, and eating it, since 1995. That was when Vandana Shiva spoke at Doors of Perception 3 about the hidden but devastating ecological and social costs of global industrial agriculture. That was a wake-up call.

Food figured prominently in 2000, too, when we did Doors East in Ahmedabad We learned, then, that for eighty million women in India, who own or look after one or two cows, milk is their only livelihood.

It should not have been a surprise last week, then, to read a grim report entitled The great milk robbery: How corporations are stealing livelihoods and a vital source of nutrition from the poor

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[Left: Colombia's jarreadores (Photo: Aurelio Suárez Montoya) Right: mobile milk delivery in Kenya]

In a long and scrupulously documented report, an NGO called Grain confirms the importance of so-called 'people's milk' to the livelihoods and health of hundreds of millions of poor people in the global South - from small-scale farmers and pastoralists, to local cheesemakers and fresh milk vendors. They nearly all supply safe, nutritious and affordable milk at a mainly local scale.

The report chronicles in distressing detail the global push by Big Dairy corporations such as Nestlé, PepsiCo and Cargill to colonise this entire milk flow. Instead of fresh, high-quality milk produced and supplied in the most sustainable ways by small scale farmers, Big Dairy's strategy is to replace their local milk with powdered and processed milk; produce it on highly polluting mega farms; sell it in excessive packaging; display it in wildly over-chilled stores; and, after all that, charge at least double the cost of 'peoples milk'.

A continued shift to large-scale farms would be an environmental and public health catastrophe. Big Dairy's farms guzzle enormous quantities of water, often at the expense of local communities that depend on the same sources. Their mega-farms also require a lot of land – not just for their cows to live on, but to produce their feed.

They also produce massive amounts of waste. An industrial farm with 2,000 cows produces as much waste as a small city.

We know the Big Dairy push is an existential threat to the South because it already happened in the North. The US lost 88 percent of its dairy farms between 1970 and 2006, while the original nine countries of the EU lost 70 percent between 1975 and 1995. Since then, land-grabs and market manipulation have accelerated - accompanied, along the way, by profoundly misguided programmes to impose a high-cost, high-tevch 'green revolution' on Africa's farmers.

Instead of new hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, family farmers in West Africa said they want to use local seeds, avoid spending precious cash on chemicals and most importantly to direct public agricultural research to meet their needs.

] Where agriculture was born - and is now dying

My sense of quease was further exacerbated last week by reading Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring by Rami Zurayk.

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Zurayk, a senior Lebanese agronomist, was not surprised by the Arab Spring. He's been charting the collapse of traditional agricultural livelihoods in the Middle East since the late 1980s - latterly in his blog Land and People. That project grew out of a mobile agricultural clinic designed to help small producers rebuild the livlihoods that their enemy's assaults had shattered.

Zurayk explains that although the Arab Spring may well have been enabled in part by social media, its roots go much deeper.

The middle east is where agriculture first emerged, 10,000 years ago. The most important crops and animal species originated there. Yet today, middle eastern countries are the world's largest importers of food. More than 50 percent of the calories eaten in Lebanon are imported. In Iraq it's worse. In the 1950s, Iraq was self-sufficient in agricultural production; by 2002 she relied on imports for 80-100 percent of many staples.

What went wrong? Can things be fixed?

At one level, when Zurayk explains the between food and farming and the geopolitics of the region, prospects there look grim. Local food production is perceived by enemies of the small farmers to be a form of opposition to their military-territorial objectives. This explains the systematic bulldozing of olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old, in the West Bank and Gaza.

Neo-liberal economic policies have also had catastrophic impacts. Large scale export-oriented agriculture - promoted by global corporations, banks, and many development agencies as the 'road to growth' - has been a boon to local elites. In Lebanon today fifty percent of the farmland is owned by just 3.5 percent of the farmers - usually absentee landlords.

This export-scale agriculture involves the systematic abuse of agrochemicals. Industrial-scale monocultures have caused tremendous damage to biodiversity and to the fertility of the soil itself.

Industrial agriculture is also a major cause of social dislocation. Poor rural people are first displaced from their land; they then do marginalized work in contract farming; when that becomes unsurvivable, they are driven out of farming altogether into the 'misery belts' that surround most cities. There, as patterns of production and consumption have changed, obesity and malnutrition have become widespread among the poorer social classes – the majority of the Arab people..

The pattern is repeated in other African ex-colonies, too, such as Egypt, and Kenya - wherever, in fact, a country is 'opened up' to 'modernisation and development'.

] India steps back

As in the middle east, so too in India, farming and food retail are about more than trade. They are the very stuff of culture and ecology, of food security, of identity and of livelihood.

In 2007, we focused the whole of Doors 9, in Delhi, on food systems. We were told, then, that 29 percent of school-age children in Delhi are classified as obese; that the sugar content of their diet has risen 40 percent during the last 50 years; that its fat content had risen by 20 percent.

Powerful forces were already pushing India to speed up this industrialisation of food and the corporatisation of retail. The informal sector did not sell branded products - so big business did not like them, we were told. The construction lobby and landowners could not tolerate vendors' occupation of commercially viable urban space, for which they pay no rent. Delhi's municipal authorities wanted food sales off the streets as part of a 'clean-up' ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

Large multinational retailers like Wal-Mart, TESCO, Carrefour, and Metro have been trying to expand into India for years - sometimes in partnership, always as teachers, with local business houses such as Reliance, the Tatas, Reliance Industries, Aditya Birla. The grand strategy is to offer cheaper food to price-conscious middle-class Indians.

Last week, India suspended plans to 'open' its $450 billion supermarket sector to foreign firms such as Wal-Mart. The Financial Times complained that this retail 'liberalization… would have improved the functioning of its supply chain". Prior to its suspension, the Economist had praised law for "opening up its underdeveloped and fragmented retail market". A Tesco spokesman said the move was a "missed opportunity for customers".

The language used by the the business press and the management consultants is soporific and reassuring: 'Liberalization' 'Opening up' 'Opportunity'

The realities that these words hide are evil, pure and simple.

] State-of-the-art sustainability

These words are also profoundly old-fashioned.

With 12 million outlets, India has the largest density of small shops in the world. Her so-called 'unorganized' retail sector, with its infrastructure of bazaars, mandis and haats, has evolved over centuries into an ecology of 40 million traders, shopkeepers, hawkers and vendors, together with 650 million farmers.

This amazing ecology is labour-intensive, low entropy, low-cost, decentralized, self-organizing, highly efficient - in a word: resilient.

In sustainability terms, India's legacy farming, food and retail systems are state-of-the-art. And it's this ecology that 'organized retail' wants to sweep away.

The corporate take-over of retail is often justified in terms of efficiency. Corporate boosters argue that 40 per cent of horticulture produce in India is wasted. In the informal sector, the opposite is the case: fruit and vegetables that go bad are eaten by cows, or are composted. This recycling of organic matter is only possible in a highly decentralized system. The global giants are the real wasters. Globalised retail is responsible for the waste of 50 percent of food - not the small farmers and retailers.

Another argument is that farmers will get better prices in a more 'efficient' system. Yeah, sure. Nowhere in the world is there evidence that corporations like Walmart and Tesco have increased returns to indigenous subsistence farmers. Their entire business model is based on industrialising production, buying at extremely low prices, and undercutting small retailers and street vendors.

Says Vandana Shiva: "the Walmart model is a model for genocide. A retail monopoly, by buying below the cost of production, and by robbing them of other markets through destroying other alternatives, will destroy farmers". In the past decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. For Shiva, this is a direct result of agricultural modernization, including the introduction of genetically modified crops.

] Superfoods

A couple of months back I heard a woman from Pepsico talk about her company's big push into 'superfoods'. Pepsico will work every angle hard to persuade people to pay premiums of at least 25% on their 'super' eats. This has got to mean a *heap* of new work for designers.

But, after reading this week's reports, I've got to say something: for me, given what I know now, working for these guys would be like supping with the devil. During the past years of step-by-step incremental change, of being reasonable, of being grown-up, the situation on the ground - for millions of vulnerable people, and untold vulnerable ecosystems - has gotten steadily worse.

What, you will fairly ask, are you supposed to do with this statement? I don't know. It's a dilemma, not a problem to be solved.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:45 PM

November 02, 2011

Turn-key food hives

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Hanging out with health system innovators in recent times I've been struck by two interesting things. The first is that the buzz in the investor community about health apps is palpable. To feed the hunger, a new incubator called Rock Health, positioning itself as "the seed accelerator for health startups", promises to "power the next generation of the digital health ecosystem" and bring together "the brightest minds in technology and healthcare".

All this would be great were were it not for the second thing I've learned: there's almost no contact between the health apps crowd and the food system crowd. And this is weird.

The need for a whole systems approach is urgent. In the US, one in five children aged 6 to 11 is now obese. Each one of them risks heart disease and diabetes in later life. Industrialised food is one of the major causes of these childrens' sickness. If more of them had access to better and affordable food, fewer people would get diabetes and heart disease - and many of the hot new diabetes-monitoring iPhone apps would not be needed.

Why is this nightmare happening? Well, between 1995 and 2010, North American taxpayers spent over $260 billion on subsidies of junk food ingredients compared to $262 million - *one thousand times less* - subsidising apples [which is pretty much the only fresh food to get a subsidy at all].

Where's the app to fix that?

Of course it's hard. Maybe it'll take a saint to figure out how to be a whole-systems, whole-food entrepreneur. But in the absence of such a saint, we probably need to call these things sickness apps, not health apps.

Thankfully there's a lot of service innovation - if less investor frenzy - in the local food system space.

A new kind of community supported agriculture [CSA] project has been launched in Paris, for example.

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“La Ruche Qui Dit Oui” ("The hive that says yes!" or LRDQ) is a business model and web platform that enables anyone to set up a fair trade organic food distribution and supply network - and make a sustainable social business out of it at the same time.

Compared to traditional community supported agriculture [CSA] schemes, LRDQ enable consumers to choose the products they want to receive rather than be sent a box full of produce chosen by the farmers.

La Ruche is the brainchild of Guilhem Cheron, an industrial designer and chef. He drew on expertise gained during fifteen years in the design industry to develop new ways for people to develop better relationships with the farmers their food came from. With the motto “Manger mieux, manger juste” (“Eat Better, Eat Fair”) La Ruche cuts out traditional food system intermediaries - but also supports local hives on practical matters to do with information, logistics and other issues.

Anyone can start her or his own “hive”. They look for local food producers to work with, and recruit neighbours, friends, and family into their hive. The ideal number seems to be 30-50 people. Among the nearly 150 hives established to date, the average La Ruche member lives in the city, uses social networks regularly, has a full time job, and has an average age of 29.

Once the hive is up-and-running, producers offer their product at a desired price, and hive members place their orders. The producer receives exactly the price asked for, but the consumer pays 20% more than that. Of this, 10% goes to the leader or administrator of the community ruche; 7% to La Ruche HQ; 3% for taxes and bank fees.

Although most of the day-to-day interaction - such as contacting new suppliers, distributing the offer of products, aggregating offers - is internet-based, a social element is integral to the scheme. Delivery and distribution of orders happens one day per week at a convenient location; there, hive members get together to distribute the produce.

Guillem and his team are constantly looking for ways to make the system responsive to everyday needs. For example, if a whole cheese is too big for a single family, how can quarters and halves be supplied in a way that works for both sides of the exchange?

“I didn’t invent anything new" Guillem told Ortiz, "I just merged different ideas into a service that worked better for the people involved. We've designed a tool that can make the distribution and exchange process ten times faster, and easier, and be more appealing, than existing systems. An important aspect has been to create a a social enterprise model rather than just a voluntary organisation, such as the AMAPs.

At the moment, the La Ruche is only available in France. But this type of web-enabled direct distribution has huge potential on a global scale.

Third world coffee farmers, for example, receive a paltry 10 per cent, at best, of the eventual retail price. Along with the negative effect this has had on living conditions, the drive for increased output has had a knock-on effect on the environment as well, with mono-cropping and sun grown coffee now the norm.

La Ruche is one among a bunch of new online marketplaces to be springing up. In France, a new conference of food platform developers called Techfoodtook place in Paris this summer. And In the US, too, several such projects were documented at the website Food + Tech Connect when it posed the question: How Can Information & Technology Be Used To Hack The Food System?

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Farmigo, for example, consumers to find, select, and receive fresh food from local farms and producers that are delivered direct to convenient pick-up locations. Farmigo charges a 2% transaction fee for food sold through the system. This is paid by the producer and does not impact the price shown to consumers.

] Face time before transaction time

Online platforms like La Ruche and Farmigo are terrific development - but it's an exaggeration to claim, as Farmigo does, that they are "providing an alternative food system". In systems-speak, they're providing the technical bit of a social-technical system which is a much bigger and more complex thing than a web platform.

For one thing, many otherwise passionate and reform-minded farmers, and other food system actors, are wary. “We just prefer real face to face time,” a meat processor told FoodTech Connect. “We do our processing by hand.”

Transparency, it emerges again and again, is not only a technical feature. Even when people are keen to try innovative approaches, a lot of trust-building face-to-face time is needed to set a new food system.

David Barrie, who led our urban farming project in Middlesbrough as part of Dott 07, had at least 50 face to face meetings before the first carrot was even planted. "That critical early period involved a lot of networking meetings with people in local government" David recalls; "I had to identify and connect with people responsible for many different services in the town - and then get them to take responsibility for supporting different strands of work in the urban farming project itself".

We also discovered during Dot07 that many lessons we were learning for the first time had been common currency for 20 years in other parts of the world.

In the developing south, for example, the complex social-ecological networks of urban agriculture have been studied since three early 1990s.

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Such books as Agriculture in Urban Planning or Agropolis are filled with case studies from Argentina, Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, France, Togo, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

NOTE Material in this story about La Ruche Qui Dit Oui is taken from on the masters thesis of Natalie Ortiz: "A New Sustainable Designer: A Case Study of Collaborative Services and Creative Communities". For a copy of her thesis please contact natyort [at] gmail dot com

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Posted by John Thackara at 09:53 AM

September 30, 2011

Carrot City: Design's New Shtick

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A splendid new book from Monacelli Press marks the coming of age of urban agriculture - at least for the design world. Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture is a timely reflection on design and urban food systems, and on the ways that agricultural issues are once again shaping urban spaces and buildings.

At the heart of the book are over forty project case studies. These range from ambitious urban plans for the reintroduction of urban agriculture to our cities, to simple measures for growing food at home. [It's a special pleasure that the Urban Farming project in Middlesbrough UK, with which this writer was involved, is the first of the case studies in the book].

] An idea whose time has come…back?

This is not the first time urban agriculture has been discovered by design. The economic and agricultural logic for locating fruits and vegetables close to a city's centre was artiucluated as a planning tool by the economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen as long ago as 1826. And although it seems hard to believe now, food production was integral to early modernist concepts of the city. In Garden Cities of Tomorrow [1902] Ebenezer Howard proposed that five-sixths of the land be dedicated to food production. Le Corbusier, in his 1922 Contemporary City proposal, included three types of food producing areas. And Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, in the 1930s, proposed that agriculture be integrated into dispersed low-density living.

What actually happened, after von Thünen's early proposal, was a 200 year diversion fuelled largely by cheap energy. During World War II, it's true, spaces in many countries were transformed into remarkably productive areas; but food production as integral to cities disappeared after the war after with the growth of globalized industrial food systems.

The difference today is that urban agriculture is emerging from necessity, not from the studios of cerebral architects. A powerful grassroots movement in recent years has given us the revival of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and box-schemes, the 100-mile diet, and Slow Food. The physical and cultural connection of food and cities has been a largely bottom-up process to which the design world is now responding.

The challenge for designers, say the authors of Carrot City, is to develop "exciting and innovative proposals for a future Productive City that will capture the imaginations of the public". For urban agriculture to gain wide acceptance, they argue, the design of buildings and garden spaces around need to incorporate edible landscaping, and space for small livestock - and these must be aesthetically pleasing.

This cultural challenge has been taken up with particular gusto in France. An enormous exhibition in Paris earlier this year, The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature explored nature in the city from multiple perspectives: historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological. The Fertile City followed a competition among 12 famous architects to make Paris "the world's most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis". Out of this emerged the memorable metaphor of "Paris as a sponge.

The grand projects in Paris demonstrated once again that architects are adept when it comes to the visualization of enticing futures. The trouble is that their interest and capabilities do not extend to implementation. For our cities to become 'fertile sponges' in real life, someone has to to get their their hands dirty, and feet wet, in the context where such dreams would be built.

Among the prosaic but life-critical barriers to food-growing in cities are food safety regulations. Food production can of course be environmentally degrading, and unhygienic, if poorly practiced; but legislative constraints are a terrible burden on the farmers and small-scale processors upon which re-localized food systems depend. [This regulatory straightjacket is a global challenge: An obscure [to this writer] organization called Codex Alimentarius Commission, for example, sets global food standards - but It is not subject to any visible form of democratic control]. Evocative design visions will not be realized until this kind of policy barrier is included as part of the urban transformation process.

In parallel with the grand architectural visions, new technical-ecological concepts of productive infrastructure are also emerging. Among those included in Carrot City are Greenhouse Villages being developed by the Dutch innovation Network. These design-led proposals aim to optimise urban food production by combining elements of permaculture, technology, and a whole-systems approach.

A recent iteration of this genre, Polydome, aspires to achieve high yields by interweaving crops and livestock among highly diverse outputs - over 50 crops, two mushroom varieties, chickens, eggs, fish, and honey. Polydome envisions a fusion of urban form and industrial ecology - the purposive connecting together of productive gardens and resource flows such as waste heat, water, and nutrients available in waste.

Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn, whose concept of Contuous Productive Urban Landscapes informed our project in Middlesbrough, suggest in their introduction that Carrot City be used as a toolbox and component store more than a blueprint for tomorrow's sustainable cities. This is wise advice: growing things, and standardization, do not make good bedfellows.

] From Carrot City to Ecopolis

But how to put all these components together? We can learn a huge amount here from experiences in the urbanizing global South. From Lima in peru, to Kinshasha in Zaire, and Rosario in Argentina, expertise has been accumulating on how to grapple with complex social-ecological networks of urban agriculture. As described by Mark Redmond and colleagues in his essential book Agriculture in Urban Planning, practical problems [the impact of pesticides, micro-biological risks, pollution and water contamination] are solvable. The real challenge is governance: How does one get the diverse groups of stakeholders involved in urban farming to work together?

Among answers to the latter question is a technique called Multi-Actor Ecosystem Participation [MEPA]. This sounds like [and is] policy-speak.
], but the words mark a shift in the scale of design thinking - from the city to the bioregion. [Redmond's book marked the launch of a programme called Ecopolis which explores this shift further].

Another lesson from the South is that necessity, more than aesthetic reverie, is the mother of urban transformation, and what drives that transformation is social energy more than the fossil-fuel kind.

This is not to say that design has no contribution to make. On the contrary, Carrot City makes it easier than before to determine where design can make a real difference - and where it should leave well alone. The conclusion I draw is that the design focus right now should be less on production [lots of people kjow far more about that than we do] and less on awareness raising [we are aware] - and more on the design of alternative trade networks and new distribution platforms.

I'll be returning to those topic in the near future.

Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture is written by Mark Gorgolewski, June Komisar and Joe Nasr. There's a talk and signing on 5 October in New York with June Komisar and Joe Nasr 12:30pm at the Van Alen Institute.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:20 PM

June 27, 2011

Geeked-out gardening

The day after I celebrated his Kickstarter success with Tyler Caruso, co-founder of Seeing Green, which is about measuring the value of urban agriculture, I read a fascinating piece by Simon Kuper in the FT about the use of data to analyse every tiny aspect of a football match..

'Largely unseen by public and media, data on players have begun driving clubs’ decisions', Kuper writes, 'particularly decisions about which players to buy and sell'. Chelsea’s performance director, for example, has amassed 32 million data points over 13,000 games. At other clubs, too, obscure statisticians in back-rooms will help shape this summer’s player transfer market. Just as baseball has turned into more of a science, Kuper concludes, soccer will too.

This prompted me to wonder: Could statistics and data-mining come to dominate food growing, too?

My curiosity was further piqued when I hard about a 'computer that runs your garden' also known as an Automated Garden Facility (AGF) also known as Garduino.

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The idea of Garduino, which is built on the Arduino platform, is to monitor the garden environment in real time and use that information to water plants when they're thirsty, turn on supplemental lights when the sun's not bright enough, and alert you when temperatures are uncomfortably chilly for plants. What's up-and-running so far is a pilot application that measures the water status of a plant where the information is collected by an NSLU2 mini linux server.

Garduino is pretty cool, but I can't help worrying that its ambitions are too narrowly-focused. It's spec surely needs to include the thorny issue of Measuring What Matters [MWM tm].

The picture below, for example, is a close-up of my tomato beds here in France. What you see is a tomato plant, doing OK, and two other plants, also doing OK, that were formerly known as weeds.

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One problem with Garduino is that the conditions it measures and regulates are exactly the same for tomatoes, as they are for the 'weeds'. To complicate matters further, some 'weeds' are more beneficial to the local ecosystem than others - or so one learns from permaculture. You need to know which ones bring which benefit, or not, in order to decide which ones to 'weed' - that is, kill - or not.

Although Garduino is resolutely bottom-up and open source, and stands in cultural opposition to the monopolistic and evil tendencies of agribusiness, I'm not sure how diferent it is, in kind, from Accenture's 2004 Pickberry Vineyard project. Then, a wireless mesh of networked sensors was deployed over a 30-acre premium vineyard. Is Garduino not a child of the same control-seeking mentality?

The answer is probably yes and no. My intutition is that *some* Garduino-like platforms will be needed as we make the transition to resilient food systems in all their complexity and diversity. How much tech, and what kinds, and who will use and own and control them, need to be discussed as we go along. We'll need evidence and data, not just arguments, to get the attention of wavering policy makers.

The last time we discussed appropriate technology widely was during the 1970s when we'd barely thought about, let alone deployed, the internet, sensors, wifi, or an internet of things. Today's new times are like the 1970s, only different: It fels like a good moment to revisit and reframe the app-tech debate.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:28 AM

June 23, 2011

Shoe Town to Brew Town

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When Jimmy Carbone, co-creator of The Good Beer Seal, was considering running for mayor of his old hometown in Haverhill, Massachusetts, he began to ponder possible new uses for industrial buildings that had fallen in to disuse. Could small resource-sharing breweries be a centerpiece of a regional economic development? To find out, he asked his peers in craft brewing, green building, engineering, and microbial science for advice. This intriguing discussion continues at an event at Brooklyn Brewery [pic above] on 19 July called Shoe Town to Brew Town.

The environmental impacts of brewing are significant. They are energy intensive operations and use lots of water. By the same token, many brewing 'wastes' have the potential to be re-used as raw materials in another product or process. Fermentation lends itself to the production of biogas or methane, for example; breweries could be a modest power centers for the local industrial ecology. The New Belgium Brewery in Colorado uses 40 percent less energy per barrel of output than the average American brewer because, from hops in to beer out, every stage of the firm's brewing process has been designed for greater efficiency and the re-use of waste.

Brewing wastes can also enrich food chains. The mash leftover from fermenting process, which is microbially rich, can be fed to pigs, or fish [such as perch) or oysters and mussels. Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, for example, is not a brewery but it does occupy a once abandoned warehouse in which one floor now houses aquaponic systems for growing Perch, and another floor is used to grow greens.

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'Shoe Town to Brew Town' is July 19, 7:30-10:00 PM Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tickets are $40 per person [mainly because this is a benefit event for the Gaia Institute].

Posted by John Thackara at 05:54 PM

June 21, 2011

The high-tech permaculture metabolic engine greenhouse

A few years ago urban farming in developed cities was a fringe topic that few designers or architects thought much about. There were exceptions: we tried hard [but failed] to build a prototype of Natalie Jeremijenko's Urban Space Station at Designs of the time in 2007. But the prevailing design view until recently was that food growing belonged as ar away from the city as possible.

Now, as the realization dawns that global food systems are neither resilient nor sustainable, small-scale urban plots are sprouting up everywhere - 2,000 new projects in London alone, by some accounts. In their wake a new phenomenon is evident: design-led proposals to optimise urban food production that combine elements of permaculture, technology, and a whole-systems approach.

One such project, proposed by Except Integrated Sustainability, is called Polydome. It offers, say its designers, "a revolutionary approach to greenhouse agriculture with the possibility of commercial scale, net-zero-impact food production" .

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Intrigued by the bold claims made for the project, I talked in Amsterdam with one of Except's partners, Eva Gladek, to find out more.

JT: So tell me about Polydome.

EG: Polydome is a concept for a new kind of polyculture greenhouse that achieves very high yields by strategically interweaving crops and livestock. With its diverse outputs (over 50 crops, two mushroom varieties, chickens, eggs, fish, and honey), even a small Polydome system can provide a richly varied food supply for a large population. We calculate that with the yields and diverse outputs shown in our model, Polydomes could allow most western cities to produce most of their own food within city borders.

JT: It sounds like a Dutch version of Xanadu - marvelous, but mythical. Does Polydome have roots in the Dutch context as it is now?

EG: We developed the concept partly in response to needs of some of earlier projects. Last year, for example, we developed a neighborhood concept for renovating a social housing area in Rotterdam's Schiebroek-Zuid neighbourhood. We recommended a lot of urban agriculture, both for its socio-economic benefits as well as to serve as a kind of 'metabolic engine' for the neighborhood by generating energy and locally handling green wastes and gray water.

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To make this metabolic engine large enough, we also wanted to introduce commercial-scale agriculture in local greenhouses. These greenhouses would also serve to capture a lot of the heat necessary for residential space heating and hot water in the neighborhood.

JT: If I fly over The Netherlands today, I see mile after mile of glass houses already. What's different about your's?

EG: Currently all commercial greenhouses in the Netherlands are geared to produce a single crop. There's no way a small, local population will need for 33 tonnes of tomatoes; they'd all end up being funneled into the global produce distribution chain. This which would create expense in both economic and environmental terms. This approach also fails to provide the diverse local food supply we'd ideally like to see. The technologies for greenhouse monoculture are extremely well-developed, but there's very little information out there on producing multiple crops within a greenhouse.

JT: Don't many indviduals already grow multiple crops in greenhouses?

EG: One of the practical motivations for the project is to find an agricultural model that would be useful for urban environments, produce a variety of edible products, and allow for more than hobby-scale urban agriculture.

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JT: I guess it's true that whole populations cannot be fed by each individual growing her own food - but does the scale have to be so much bigger than that?

EG: A deep motivation for this project is to explore what truly sustainable agriculture could look like. Agricultural activities currently occupy around 40 percent of the terrestrial surface of the planet and already take up most arable land. And yet our demand for food is steadily growing as global population increases. This is a real confounding problem for humanity. Our contribution to thinking about solutions to this existential challenge is to focus on greenhouses.

JT: You say that 'for the first time in history, cities could become producers rather than just consumers'. How would this happen?

EG: We believe that there are many reasons to bring food production into cities: increasing people's connectivity to the food chain, improving food security, helping close nutrient cycles, reducing food miles, etc.

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Despite this being an active field of interest and discussion, there is still widespread skepticism about urban agriculture actually possible on a serious scale. Based on the calculations we've done for Polydome, even if we were off by a factor of ten, it is clear that commercial-scale urban agriculture is feasible, even economically speaking. And Polydome is only one of several approaches that could work. What we're missing is the investment, political support, and the urban farmers who are willing to take this task on. Knowledge and social barriers have become more of an issue than technology at this point.

JT: But you're not claiming that Polydomes can feed the world?

EG: For the record, we don't think that all food should necessarily be produced within cities. Not everything can be grown in a Polydome, for example – grains, large trees, etc. A lot of the culture around food and where it is produced will also hinge on how people's diets evolve. Grains and cattle remain the largest drain of land and resources; this is something we honestly need to evaluate as we set goals for sustainable food production in the future.

JT: So why greenhouses?

EG: One reason is that they can offer 10 – 20 times more productivity per square meter than field agriculture. That's an enormous benefit when we're talking about limited land resources and concentrated populations of consumers.

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JT: You promise that the goal of Polydome is 'net zero impact'. What do you mean by those words?

EG: In simplest terms, it means that the food produced in a Polydome greenhouse would ideally leave the production facility with an environmental footprint of at least: zero greenhouse gas emissions, zero waste, zero synthetic chemical use, zero non-renewable water use, zero soil erosion. These are some of the major impacts that the world is most concerned with in terms of agricultural production. It's currently impossible to buy food that doesn't have at least some significant impact in one of these categories, if not in all of them.

JT: This is where my gut instinct tells me that that you are being over-optimistic.

EG: I think it's natural to be skeptical upon hearing this. After all, everything we do these days has an impact. My response to that is to think of a forest. Forests are teeming with growth, and produce a large variety of biomass faster than any of our commercial farms. And yet, they do this successfully without being fertilized, sprayed with pesticides, or causing a significant net impact in any of the categories I just listed. That is proof that such a thing is possible.

JT: But Polydome is not a forest, it's a man-made machine - or sounds like one.

EG: Biological systems adapt intelligently to surrounding environments and do enormous amounts of work using only ambient climactic conditions and renewable resources. So the idea behind Polydome is just that: design a kind of agriculture where biological systems do most of the “thinking” and the work. We will certainly need supplemental energy for some mechanical equipment, ventilation, and lighting – that is where we can rely on technology.

JT: The words 'rely on technology' make me nervous.

EG: The number and sophistication of greenhouse innovations developed in the Netherlands is astounding. The country already has a nation-wide goal of achieving zero-energy greenhouse production within the next 10 years. So our objective for Polydome is to combine the best of both worlds: biological and technological, relying on technology only when necessary.

JT: What kind of inputs would the system need to achieve those 'high yields' - for example, energy, water, or chemicals?

EG: Right now, Polydome is a concept rather than a specific design. All the data we've gathered are the basis of our blueprint for making the system net-zero impact according to the definition I described. We're not starting from scratch here: we understand how the different parts of the system interact on a material and energy level. However, Polydome will need to be be customized to fit the context of its actual environment, so the greenhouse will have different product combinations and physical structure depending on where it is located.

JT: Where does the energy come from to make the whole thing run?

EG: We did a lot of research on energy technologies for greenhouses. We put together a portfolio of options for making the system carbon-neutral. We also did a lot of research on integrated pest management strategies. Companies like Koppert Biological Systems who we talked to, specialize in biological crop protection and natural pollination. They use biological systems to protect crops using minimum chemical corrections. [The photo, below, is a hand-held device that sprays 'good' predators over a crop where they will eat the bad ones].

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Koppert maintain large databases on companion planting, for example. Polydome uses this information to work without synthetic chemicals.

[In many ornamental and tree nursery crops, the use of biological pest control can be time-consuming. Koppert's Airbug hand-held blower distributes predatory mites quickly and evenly. The company claims this delivers savings in labour of around 80% compared with manual introduction.
http://www.koppert.com/products/blowers-for-natural-enemies/airbug/

JT: I'm still not convinced that a man-made machine of the kind I am hearing you describe can be closed-loop.

EG: Because it is a polyculture, it is also quite easy to make the system closed-loop in terms of nutrients by changing the ratios of certain elements in the system. If there is enough land to pasture cattle in the area, then all you need is a small number of cows per hectare of greenhouse to close the nutrient cycle. Alternatively, if you actually place the greenhouse in an urban environment, then you have various options for getting return organic wastes from residential or commercial operations nearby.

JT: And water?

EG: The biggest challenge is indeed to provide enough water using local, renewable sources. Some of the water in Polydome is cycled through the aquaponics system [see the edible eels, below] multiple times, but there are also soil-based crops, which use much more water.

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In the case of trees, this can partially be addressed by planting them very deep in the soil, reducing their dependency on irrigation. Though this wasn't so much of a problem for our model, which used Dutch rainfall values, we expect it could be more difficult to secure in areas with less plentiful water resources. In an urban environments, water supplies could be easier to secure if the Polydome could use filtered gray water from neighboring residences and commercial areas.

JT Polydome still sounds like an industrialized farm, only under glass. What's the difference?

EG I guess that really depends on your understanding of the word 'industrialized'. It's certainly intended to function, at least potentially, as a commercial farm, and it could even be designed to be quite large. Polydome doesn't strike me as industrialized, though, because for me that word smacks of a high degree of mechanization, precision, straight lines, etc. Because it's a polyculture, Polydome can never have the degree of mechanization that most industrial farms currently do. The crop clusters within the system result in a lot of intercropping, with nectarine trees, for example, planted together with garlic and artichokes. Each plant type has its own maintenance and harvesting schedule. This should produce the visual effect and feeling of an intensely designed garden rather than an industrial farm.

JT: That might be the visual effect, but surely the people in the picture are still tending a machine?

EG: The patterns of labor in the greenhouse also demand more flexibility and creativity than the labour required by existing industrial agriculture. The people working there will need to use their perception and intelligence to ensure that the plants and animals are doing well. I must say, though, that I don't object to industry per se. I object to the reductionist logic prevalent in industry – the decisions to ignore the complexities and benefits of biological interactions, the insistence on synthesizing everything and on keeping everything uniform and commodifiable. Those aspects of industrialism are certainly absent from Polydome.

JT: Polydome makes me think of earlier closed-system experiments such as Biosphere 2. That experiment seems to have failed because it was not a natural system. It was set up by humans, rather than evolve over millennia. What's the difference between Polydome and a a Biosphere?

EG: Polydome would never be a closed system in the sense of Biosphere 2. Depending on the specific energy and ventilation technologies that we select for the particular design, the greenhouse will have exchanges of soil, air, water, insects, or even animals with the outside world. We want Polydome to be 'closed' in its cycling of nutrients and materials. This means that whatever nutrients are extracted from the soil or water in the system should be returned, preventing a state of constant depletion. In parallel, the system should be zero-waste. The point of Biosphere 2 was quite different; it was to see if humans could create eco-capsules that would allow us to survive in outer space – or on Earth in case things on our own planet went horribly wrong. And in fact, if I recall correctly from a conversation I had as a child with one of the original crew members of Biosphere 2, their system didn't fail on an ecological level nearly as significantly as it did on a human level; the second mission was abandoned after the crew got into a series of dramatic arguments of some kind. So thankfully Polydome won't be housing any humans!

JT: The idea that humans and ecologies are in different categories begs a multitude of questions.

EG: Well, technically speaking, all ecosystems are productive in the sense that they take carbon dioxide and water, and turn it into large quantities of biomass. As humans, we're particularly interested in certain types of this biomass, ones that can be classified as food, fiber, or 'useful' chemicals such as medicines or fragrances. I don't think we're trying to say that the ecosystems are aspiring to do or be anything in particular - they just happen to be usefully productive from our point of view.

JT: Has all this come out your head, or have you done research to back up the scenario?

EG: We spent eight months developing data sets on crop yields, plant heights, root depths, nutrient demands, economic values, the nutrient contents of manures and specific green wastes, and a couple dozen other parameters The crop clusters
within the greenhouse were designed taking into account all of these interacting variables. We also interviewed many companies working in the greenhouse sector– from research groups working on sensor technologies to greenhouse designers to actual growers. We learned a lot about the latest technological advances that could play a role in truly eco-efficient greenhouses.

JT: Such as?

EG: One example is the Daylight system developed by Technokas.

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JT: But of course. 'Let there be light!'

EG: Well, yes. The system uses fresnel lenses embedded in the greenhouse roof glass to focus direct sunlight on thin strips of PV cells. The PV cells generate electricity and hot water (through water piping that is used to keep them cool) all without preventing plant growth in the greenhouse below. This is unique. It allows a single vertical area to be used for many different purposes. It is these multi-solution innovations that I find most promising.

JT Your visiting card says 'industrial ecologist'. What does one of those do?

EG Industrial ecology is sometimes it's referred to as the 'science of sustainability'; it's also been described as the study and optimization of material and energy flows within society'. Industrial ecology is a new interdisciplinary science that melds social and technical knowledge, and focuses on systems thinking.

JT Except's materials cycles charts are beautiful to behold. Are they based on real numbers?

EG Why, thank you. Yes – they're all based on real numbers. And they're quite fun to draw.

JT: You're also a blacksmith?

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EG: I spent two years blacksmithing quite actively. but for a few years now I've only had intermittent access to a forge, since I've mostly been living in the center of cities.


JT- Who will work in Polydome?

EG: Polydome could lead to the emergence of an entirely new kind of farmer, a new professional niche for educated urbanites who are looking for 'real'work rather than the abstract, mostly computer-based labor that is currently the primary option for urban professionals. Operating such a greenhouse will require ingenuity, business sense, and an understanding of living creatures. Of course, it will also require some physical labor. But in contrast to existing agricultural systems, this labour will vary on almost a daily basis, and rarely include single stretches of the same repetitive task.

JT: When I went to live in the Netherlands in 1993, everyone was complaining that glasshouse-grown tomatoes were tasteless. Won't Polydome produce be tasteless too?

EG: The popular mythology around the weak taste of Dutch greenhouse tomatoes is that it results from two things: harvesting while the fruits are still green and the fact that the tomatoes are grown hydroponically without soil. One producer told me that harvesting before the fruits ripened did indeed have a small impact on taste but that the main issue is that the market isn't willing to pay for better-tasting tomatoes. The varieties grown now are easy to grow, get large quickly, don't spoil as readily, etc. Better-tasting ones are apparently more finicky.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:23 PM

June 20, 2011

Kick-off!

This was a first for me: witnessing first-hand a Kickstarter project cross the line and go live.

The happy guy with the phone [in Claire Hartten's garden in Brooklyn] is Tyler Caruso, joint founder [with Erik Facteau] of Seeing Green: The Value of Urban Agriculture.

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Their project is a year-long research effort to measure the stormwater management potential of two urban farms: Brooklyn Grange (a rooftop farm) & Added Value (raised beds) in NYC. Their aim is to create a model for future research, that can be replicated anywhere, to help validate and support urban farms.

'We think policies should be based on scientific study' Tyler explains; 'we want our work to encourage the adoption of supportive incentives and non-restrictive regulations for urban farming'.

This is important work. Farms give us a lot more than just edible produce. They also increase food security, decrease food miles traveled, offer healthy and nutritious produce, create green jobs, improve air and water quality, combat Urban Heat Island effect, beautify neighborhoods and - a Tyler favourite - 'create habitat for critters'.

And it's not just about food. Wastewater treatment plants in New York account for 17 per cent of the city's green house gas emissions. Tyler believes that water intensive plants with deeper growing beds can increase an urban farm's water-holding capacity. But he needs numbers to back up that hunch.

'We know farms are good but we don’t know exactly how good' Tyler explains. 'There are a lot of skeptics out there that need some convincing. And there is nothing better for combating a nay-sayer than hard data. All decisions in cities are based on numbers'.

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A first chunk of the Kickstarter money will be used to purchase dataloggers, flowmeters, a wind sentry, moisture probes, rain gauges, sensor shields, batteries, lumber and greenroof materials.

Right now, Seeing Green will focus in depth on on just two sites. But there's real potential to reproduce the monitoring experiment on a wider scale and across the city if other groups can find the resources to take part. Using the Pachube platform, for example, one could begin to see feedback on the water retaining properties of different kinds of beds and plants - and in real-time.

One project already using Pachube, but not yet funded, is Don't Flush Me. The idea bhere is to allow NYC residents to help reduce the amount of pollution in the harbor. Some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage is dumped into the harbor every year. This comes from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) that open when the sewer system is overloaded.

The Don't Flush Me iservice would alert residents when the overflows happen and encourage them to reduce their wastewater production before and during an overflow event.

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Posted by John Thackara at 02:22 PM

August 13, 2010

Alternative trade networks and the coffee system

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(Summer re-run: first published 4 August 2008)

Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world – quite a few of them in this house - but few of us in the North know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean.

After reading a new book called Confronting The Coffee Crisis I feel better informed not just about the negative aspects of the story - but also motivated to explore practically the potential of emerging alternative trade networks to change the bigger picture in profound ways.

In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar, or roughly six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

So far, so outrageous. Less well-known are the damaging effects of these unequal power relations embedded in global coffee networks: threatened livelihoods, greater poverty, malnutrition, deforestation, and out-migration.

A “bigger, faster, cheaper” mentality has created a dynamic that exploits the most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain.

The intensification in production that started with the green revolution is based on the use of external inputs like chemical pesticides and ferttilizers, and machines and large scale irrigation to boost production. This technology generates economic concentration, social exclusion, the rtise of expensive ‘patented’ seeds, and the depreciation of natural capital via compacted, eroded and degraded soils, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of groundwater.

Awareness in the North of these problems fuelled the rise of fair trade systems - but their proliferation has now become a problem on its own. It's easy to be overwhelmed buy a choice of options that can include “organic”, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Utz certified, shade-grown, Bird Friendly, and so on.

Producers have a host of new practical problems to deal with. When Fair Trade adopted a certification-based model, they introduced more coffee-industry actors into what is now a billion dollar global market. At least 200 certifying agencies now audit farmsteads and post-harvest processing, storage, and transport across a global span.

Certification has enhanced the livlihood of certified coffee farmers – but the financial and bureaucratic costs are substantial. Certification services are arrayed along a transnational “chain of custody” and documented by an audit trail. Producers feel the effects as they are asked to jump through more and more hoops in order to access high value markets.

Although certified markets create consumer awareness of the inequities of coffee production, they often operate within the traditional coffee commodity systems which continue to be controlled mainly by large scale roasters and retailers.

The saddest development documented in the book is that Fair Trade is losing its social-movement identity in a bewildering welter of competing labels, brand names, product logos, and other marketing messages. "Direct producer-consumer solidarity ties are giving way to an individualistic consumer politics of choice as the FT labeling system becomes institutionalized," say the authors.

But the book ends on a positive note, and emphasizes that it's not a simple matter of ‘traditonal’ vs ‘modern’ farming. Interactions between local livelihoods and global actors do not automatically have to be negative

Traditional 'shade-tree' coffee systems, with their diverse shade tree species and multiple use strategies, are sophisticated examples of the application of ecological knowledge and can serve as the basis of sustainable agroecosystems of the future.

The potential is there, but the challenges are significant. Scaling up traditional-progressive systems confronts the a daunting array of quality hurdles. The most fascinating section of the book for me is the following quotation from the the Mexican agronomist Eduardo Martinez Torres, as he explains that quality control only begins with the growing:

“Next comes choosing the right time for harvesting; harvesting only mature berries; not allowing harvested berries to heat up; sorting berries on intake; making sure the beans don’t crack during the depulping process; double sorting after depulping; making sure fermentation lasts the right length of time, ie between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the altitude and average temperature; thoroughly washing the berries; grading; properly drying, preferably both in the sun, as well as in the drier to avoid mildewing; the drying temperature should be moderate. The temperature should never be turned up to speed the process and save time, since an uneven drying process can significantly damage bean quality. When drying is done on patios, layers should not be too thick and beans should be constantly stirred. Never mix together beans of different grade of quality, beans at different stages of dryness, or beans from different altitudes. Selection, patience and care are the operative words during processing, since all these things make for the best bean quality and, consequently, the best price for the product”.

Hmm: so coffee is a complex business. But the book is filled with examples of growers groups that have been able to achieve remarkable progress by pooling expertise and resources that deliver a lot of the value currently added (if at all) by layers of intermediaries.

Of particular importance are alternative trade networks and the nascent Community Agroecology Network (CAN). Alternative trade networks emerging in the coffee system are based on lessons learned from farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and attempts in other markets to connect producers and consumers in more direct relationships that are socially just and ecologically restorative, and promote mutual learning and positive change.

Alternative trade networks redistribute value through the network against the logic of bulk commodity production, reconvene trust between food producers and consumers during the direct exchange of goods.

In Agua Buena, Costa Rica, the farmers’ cooperative has developed the capacity to ship roasted coffee directly to North American consumers’ doors. Coffee delivery depends on the postal service, and direct exchange is difficulty; however email and Internet chatrooms facilitate these interactions.

Two other projects also deal with alternative trade networks.

The first, Feral Trade, created by the artist Kate Rich, has been trading goods along social networks since 2003; their first transaction was the import of 30kg of coffee direct from El Salvador to a cultural centre in Bristol, UK. The import was negotiated using only social contacts, and was conducted via email, bank transfer and SMS.

Then there is the Fair Tracing project whose aim is to to support ethical trade by implementing Tracking and Tracing Technologies in supply chains to provide consumers and producers with enhanced information.

The idea is to It will give producers a better overview of the value chain and price structures along it, and to empower consumers to trace a product’s origin and value chain.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:48 PM

August 05, 2010

You can't grow food with an iphone app - -

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- - but Tana Sprague *can* sample the sounds of Caciocavallo cheese maturing. I was curious, when I first heard about it, as to the meaning of ‘'Rurality 2.0' - the theme of the Interferenze festival in Italy last week. So now I know. It would miss the point to ask "why?" - and besides: this is my favourite summer picture so far.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:10 PM

August 04, 2010

The big chill

(Summer re-run: first published 8 January 2008)

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.

Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. "We'll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort" pledges the firm in its Plan A.

In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.

But M&S's Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions - a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday.

As a consequence, food retailers waste insane amounts of energy: a single open-fronted freezer costs 15,000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone - and that does not include the embergy (embodied energy) involved in each unit's manufacture.

Unchecked, air conditioning units and chiller cabinets will cause hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere in the next 50 years.

Off course, M&S may reply, if food were not refrigerated, a good proportion of it would rot or spoil. Up to 40 percent of fruit is lost post-harvest in some food systems.

Such a loss of produce represents a waste of energy on its own account, since wasted food embodies the energy used in its production, processing and transport.

Nonetheless, as things stand today, it looks as if M&S is resigned not to reduce, but to offset, the massive energy emissons from its supply, storage and retail operations when its five year deadline for Plan A expires.

The alternative would be for M&S to change its business model to one of shopless shopping, and close down most of its retail outlets.

And why not? Refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and high street stores, are expensive and wasteful steps, and therefore profit-reducing costs, in the journey from farm to table. M&S is well-placed to become the radically de-centralised distribution and quality assurance platform that all towns and cities need to relocalise their food systems.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:57 PM

July 31, 2010

Fish systems and design

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(Summer re-run: first published August 2009)

A grim new film, The End of the Line, reveals the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It exposes the extent to which global stocks of fish are dwindling; features scientists who warn we could see the end of most seafood by 2048; and includes chefs and fishers who seem indiferent to the ecocidal consequences of their business practices. "We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing” says Charles Clover, author of the book of the film.

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Must, must. Although important in raising awareness, the danger with films like The End of the Line (as with 'An Inconvenient Truth', and Michael Pollan’s 'Food, Inc') is that they bombard us with so much bad news that positive and practical actions, that are also being taken, are obscured - and opportunities to help them develop are missed.

The End of the Line received far more publicity, for example, than the launch of FishChoice.com

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This free, non-profit web portal helps chefs and retail buyers procure sustainable seafood from suppliers accredited by leading ocean conservation organizations; FishChoice partners include the Marine Stewardship Council, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Blue Ocean Institute.


FishChoice.com is one of many business-to-business (B2B) innovations that begin to unlock an intractable problem: how to reconfigure food systems that lock their participants into ecocidal behaviour.

It’s not as if fishermen, wholesalers, food processing firms, retailers, chefs,and consumers, want to destroy the world’s fisheries; but the linear structure of the supply and communication chains they operate in prevents them from seeing, and responding appropriately to, the bigger picture.

For food systems to be resilient we need to reconfigure, radically, relationships between fishers and consumers; we need to measure what matters throughout the lifecycle of fish; turn supply chains into supply webs, or ecologies; and put in place new, transparent economic relationships between fishers and citizens.

This is easy to say - hard, in practice, to do. I received the Fish Choice press release on market day where I live in France, and I soon found myself at my regular independent fish stall. The friendly couple who run it told me what tasted best that day - but information about the fish on the table before me was otherwise minimal. Hand-written tags told me things like “Cod, North Atlantic” and a price per kilo. But I was given no idea where the fish came from, how or when it was caught, by whom, or what has happened to it since then.

In the language of system design, I was an “actor” at a “touch point” at the end of a “chain of custody” running from the fishing vessel to the dock, from the dock to a processor or wholesaler, and from there, in this case, to my fishmonger.

In the language of stating the obvious, I was buying blind.

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I do carry around a credit card sized consumer guide to buying fish (above) published by the World Wildlife Fund. It divides fish into “preferred”, “buy in moderation” and “avoid”. I use the leaflet in restaurants where one can consult it discreetly whilst reading the menu. But standing in front of my cheerful fishmonger, with a queue of people behind me, I did not. It’s too small and fiddly to read easily; the names of fish listed by the WWF do not always correspond with the words on the plastic tags; and above all, I was not at all sure I possessed the social tact to engage the friendly fishmonger in a non-confrontational way.

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The above mobile phone application has, it’s true, been designed to make fish consumers smarter. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new service brings Seafood Watch recommendations directly to your iPhone (in the US only so far). But although a step forward on the WWF leaflet, the iphone service is still based on a linear model: you receive information from a trusted supplier, which is good; but the service does not enable you confer with fellow citizens about it, still less with intermediaries further up the fish supply chain.

Seafood traceability is an essential element in sustainability. But most food systems are based on closed, proprietory networks in which access to information is controlled by powerful supermarkets and wholsesalers. In the UK, for example, five chains control 80 percent of food sales. They derive immense competitive advantage from their control over information flows – and handsome profits follow. I don’t have a number for fishers, but I’m sure it’s similar to the coffee farmers who receive less than six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

It’s not that large firms are filled with personally evil people. On the contrary, retail giants like Walmart, Carrefour and Elior (Europe’s third largest contract catering firm) are doing a lot to promote sustainable fishing. Walmart, for example, is committed to sell only MSC certified fish in its 3,700 US stories, and had achieved 50% of that target by January 2009; and in the UK, Waitrose supported the production of The End of the Line.

But however well-intentioned, these global players are not about to remove themselves as intermediaries in long global supply chains; neither are they ready to open up their information systems to independent scrutiny.

Besides, the main problem is not a lack of information. A raft of eco labels has been launched, and Iceland, Sweden and Ireland run their their own ecolabel systems for fish. But the multiplicity of such schemes, many of which are based on contradictory criteria, makes it harder for consumers make informed choices about what they are buying.

Another problem is that global accreditation schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council's blue ecolabel, do not take account of the energy impacts of the airfreight often used to move eco-labelled products around the world. A Danish researcher, Mikkel Thrane, who has proposed a ban on the air freight of MSC-labelled products, argues that “it doesn’t make sense to put a label on a product reflecting sustainability when non-carbon-friendly shipping methods are being used.”

The same argument applies to the huge amounts of energy used by retailers to display fish

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– for example, in brightly-lit chiller cabinets; or in the location of fish counters in out-of-town megastores that greatly amplify biosphere-damaging transport intensity.

Everything in a food system needs to be measured and accounted for - not just one element in the process.

The biggest challenge is the impossibility of feedback and personal relationships in attenuated global systems. In a truly sustainable fish system, its actors will be connected in a web of relationships rather than in a one-way chain.

Technology can help here. Peer-to-peer networks, wikis, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping, mobile communications, platforms for knowledge-sharing – all these are potential components of distributed systems that connect citzens more directly with producers.

] Food systems are social systems

But iphones are only part of the answer. Food systems are social systems, and technology on its own cannot orchestrate the multitude of actors and stakeholders involved. Practical, context-specific issues need to be dealt with, continuously - and it's through these day-to-day negotiations that mutual trust develops.

Place-specific social enterprises for food, based on distributed models, are already emerging in cities of the South. In in such cities as Kinshasa or Dakar, in Africa, a “multi-actor ecosystem participation approach” (MEPA) has been developed that treats food supply as an ecosystem in which farmers, policy makers, environmentalists and regulatory bodies collaborate on the basis that the ecosystem itself is a shared responsibility. The interactions. Involved are complex and multi-directional, but geography and culture provides a shared space.

A more ecosystem-centric approach is also being pioneered in the North. In the fast-growing Transition Towns movement, for example, citizen groups are mapping foodsheds and watersheds as the basis for a more holisitc, regional approach to food security.

foodzone-300x212.jpg

These maps, and other web-based tools in development, are viewed by Transitioners as tools to enable face-to-face contact among each other, and with food producers and citizens - not as visually mesmerising ends in themselves.

An especially inspiring UK model is a restaurant-led initiative, Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants, that “links good fishermen with chefs…the idea is to build a long term relationship with “your” fishermen”. The Pisces team therefore insists on getting out on individual boats, and sees for themselves how the fish are caught.

Chefs laughingPICT3601.jpg

This is a huge commitment of time and effort – and of trust on the part of the fishers. But for Pisces, it’s a worthwhile investment in the future. “Managing simply to avoid stock collapse is a miserably negative goal” they say; “despite all the problems, there remain an amazing diversity of fish just off the British coast - over 170 species in the North Sea alone. We want stocks to be built up so that they can support bigger catches, and better profits, while still leaving plenty for other species”.

The design lesson here is that there can be no one global “sustainable fish system”. The design task, instead, is to look for practical ways to help a multitude of different models – like MEPA in the South, or Pisces in the North – succeed, multiply, connect and adapt - in different ways in different contexts.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:27 PM

April 02, 2010

Eating animals

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If Requiem for a Species (below) is shocking at an existential level, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals hits you at the level of lunch.

It's no less gruelling for that. Among the in-your-face statements that pepper the text: "When we eat factory farmed meat we live literally on tortured meat..and put it into the mouths of our children". And, "factory farming - which accounts for virtually all meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants - is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment".

The author is especially appalled by the wastefulness of modern food systems. It takes up to twenty-six calories fed to an animal to produce just one calorie of edible flesh - and yet animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.

This is because meat producers don't pay 'external' costs such farm subsidies, catastrophic environmental impact, and human disease. Those costs fall on the biosphere.

Then there's the shit. Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much shit as do human beings, roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than municipal sewage... and yet there is almost no waste treatment infrastructure for farmed animals.

For Foer, these horrors and biocrimes are only possible because we are disconnected from the fact that animal foods involve killing animals. The ways we buy meat and fish at restaurants and supermarkets, pre-cooked in pieces, widens the disconnect.

But as the secrecy surrounding the factory farm breaks down "we can no longer plead ignorance - only indifference" Foer writes. "Those alive today are will fairly be asked: what did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"

The website contains links to excellent organizations one can do something with.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:35 AM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2009

From FarmVille to TransitionVille

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If I were a PsyOps specialist at Monsanto, I'd have invented FarmVille. More than 62 million people have signed up to play the Facebook game since it made its debut in June, with 22 million logging on at least once a day. It's quickly become the most popular application in the history of Facebook.

FarmVille players outnumber actual farmers in the United States by more than 60 to 1, and it would be hard to imagine a better way to distract people from re-localising food in real-life.

"The whole concept of ‘I’m sick of this modern, urban lifestyle, I wish I could just grow plants and vegetables and watch them grow,’ there is something very therapeutic about that,” said Philip Tan, director of the Singapore-M.I.T. Gambit Game Lab.

FarmVille Freak, a blog, has a simpler slogan: “I can’t stop watching my crops!”

I was tempted, at this point, to write about the prospect of real famine in the Society of the Spectacle - but a more important story commands my attention: the publication in the UK of A Transition Food Strategy.

Although the local food movement has been growing strongly for decades, local food remains a small part - around five per cent at best - of the bigger picture in most industrialised countries.

The good news is that plot-by-plot, farmers market by farmers market, the elements of re-localised and de-industrialised food ecologies have been put in place. But in order to scale-up these emergent local food systems, a higher degree of strategy and coordination is necessary at a city-region level

That's why the publication of A Sustainable Food Strategy for Bristol and Bristol Food Network is so significant.

Its author, Claire Milne, says the purpose of the strategy is "to develop a sustainable and resilient food economy for Bristol based on mutually supportive collaboration between Bristol communities and producers, processors, suppliers in and around Bristol that supports the health and wellbeing of communities and the environment now and in the future".

The Bristol plan is is based on six strategic work programmes:
1. Reaching wider audiences
2. Increasing sustainable food production for Bristol
3. Developing sustainable food chains providing food for Bristol
4. Developing a sustainable food culture in Bristol schools and early years establishments
5. Influencing decision–makers to support sustainable food systems in and around Bristol
6. Communications to raise awareness about sustainable food and activities in Bristol

To drive this work along, and to coordinate it, a Community Interest Company, provisonally named Bristol Food Network, will be set up to deliver the six core programmes; facilitate links between city stakeholders around the programmes; and to enable community participation in the strategy.

Following the Bristol project, Caire Milne has started on a similar programme in Edinburgh.

In parallel to these initiatives, the Transition Network is piloting a Food Project Database.

There's also this new book Local Food: How to Make it Happen in Your Communit. by Tamzin Pinkerton and Transition Towns co-founder Rob Hopkins.

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These Transition food projects are exciting but, thankfully, are not unique. In Canada, for example, Toronto is the first of the major international cities to boast a Food Policy Council (FPC). The first FPC was started in the US 20 years ago in the city of Knoxville. Today more than 50 US towns and cities now have a similar structure.

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FPCs take many forms, but are typically either commissioned by state or local government, or are predominately a grassroots effort. FPCs have been successful at educating officials and the public, shaping public policy, improving coordination between existing programs, and starting new programs.

* * * *

One could go crazy trying to track, and make sense of, the many thousands of food projects out there. My own in-box contains 150 unwritten blog entries just on on food. The trick, i think, is to welcome this diversity as a flowering of what Rob Hopkins calls "surge breakers" (in his new text on Resilience Thinking)

Another trick that works for me, when I'm overwhelmed by input, is to gaze passively at a screen -not at FarmVille, but at the real-life comings and goings on channels like Bright Neighbor TV.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:23 AM

November 02, 2009

Melons we can believe in

Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told the US Congress last week that Japan's debt path was out of control. Simon warned of "a real risk that Japan could end up in a major default". [The IMF expects Japan's gross public debt to reach 218pc of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, 227pc next year, and 246pc by 2014].

I really don't understand this scaremongering and negative thinking at all.

Japan must be full of money, because there are so many beautiful things to spend it on.

Last evening, for example, I visited a gorgeous shop round the corner called SunFruits. In it, one of these melons was on sale for only 21,000 Yen [euros 160, US$ 233].

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Now to the farmer who grew the melon, these prices might seem a bit on the high side, compared to what he was paid for it.

But this is where the politics of envy so often gets it wrong. Because SunFruits don't just sell melons, they sell a totally designed experience.

Their shop, for example, which contained the melon, makes the average Prada store look like a charity shop. And it can't be cheap paying for the security guard who's there to keep an eye on the $6 strawberries. [That's $6 each strawberry].

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My only concern is that SunFruits will get to hear about Transition Totnes' first nut:

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This first produce of the Totnes nut tree planting scheme has been announced by Rob Hopkins.

Over 100 trees have been planted since the scheme was was initiated three years ago, and it's a worry that if SunFruits are seen to be selling similar nuts for fifty pounds each, thieves might steal the nuts and sell them in Japan.

Happily, most of the Totnes trees have a ‘guardian’ whose job it is to keep an eye on them.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 PM | Comments (1)

August 11, 2009

Fish systems and design

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A grim new film, The End of the Line, reveals the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It exposes the extent to which global stocks of fish are dwindling; features scientists who warn we could see the end of most seafood by 2048; and includes chefs and fishers who seem indiferent to the ecocidal consequences of their business practices. "We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing” says Charles Clover, author of the book of the film.

Must, must. Although important in raising awareness, the danger with films like The End of the Line (as with 'An Inconvenient Truth', and Michael Pollan’s 'Food, Inc') is that they bombard us with so much bad news that positive and practical actions, that are also being taken, are obscured - and opportunities to help them develop are missed.

The End of the Line received far more publicity, for example, than the launch of FishChoice.com

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This free, non-profit web portal helps chefs and retail buyers procure sustainable seafood from suppliers accredited by leading ocean conservation organizations; FishChoice partners include the Marine Stewardship Council, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Blue Ocean Institute.

FishChoice.com is one of many business-to-business (B2B) innovations that begin to unlock an intractable problem: how to reconfigure food systems that lock their participants into ecocidal behaviour.

It’s not as if fishermen, wholesalers, food processing firms, retailers, chefs,and consumers, want to destroy the world’s fisheries; but the linear structure of the supply and communication chains they operate in prevents them from seeing, and responding appropriately to, the bigger picture.

For food systems to be resilient we need to reconfigure, radically, relationships between fishers and consumers; we need to measure what matters throughout the lifecycle of fish; turn supply chains into supply webs, or ecologies; and put in place new, transparent economic relationships between fishers and citizens.

This is easy to say - hard, in practice, to do. I received the Fish Choice press release on market day where I live in France, and I soon found myself at my regular independent fish stall. The friendly couple who run it told me what tasted best that day - but information about the fish on the table before me was otherwise minimal. Hand-written tags told me things like “Cod, North Atlantic” and a price per kilo. But I was given no idea where the fish came from, how or when it was caught, by whom, or what has happened to it since then.

In the language of system design, I was an “actor” at a “touch point” at the end of a “chain of custody” running from the fishing vessel to the dock, from the dock to a processor or wholesaler, and from there, in this case, to my fishmonger.

In the language of stating the obvious, I was buying blind.

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I do carry around a credit card sized consumer guide to buying fish (above) published by the World Wildlife Fund. It divides fish into “preferred”, “buy in moderation” and “avoid”. I use the leaflet in restaurants where one can consult it discreetly whilst reading the menu. But standing in front of my cheerful fishmonger, with a queue of people behind me, I did not. It’s too small and fiddly to read easily; the names of fish listed by the WWF do not always correspond with the words on the plastic tags; and above all, I was not at all sure I possessed the social tact to engage the friendly fishmonger in a non-confrontational way.

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The above mobile phone application has, it’s true, been designed to make fish consumers smarter. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new service brings Seafood Watch recommendations directly to your iPhone (in the US only so far). But although a step forward on the WWF leaflet, the iphone service is still based on a linear model: you receive information from a trusted supplier, which is good; but the service does not enable you confer with fellow citizens about it, still less with intermediaries further up the fish supply chain.

Seafood traceability is an essential element in sustainability. But most food systems are based on closed, proprietory networks in which access to information is controlled by powerful supermarkets and wholsesalers. In the UK, for example, five chains control 80 percent of food sales. They derive immense competitive advantage from their control over information flows – and handsome profits follow. I don’t have a number for fishers, but I’m sure it’s similar to the coffee farmers who receive less than six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

It’s not that large firms are filled with personally evil people. On the contrary, retail giants like Walmart, Carrefour and Elior (Europe’s third largest contract catering firm) are doing a lot to promote sustainable fishing. Walmart, for example, is committed to sell only MSC certified fish in its 3,700 US stories, and had achieved 50% of that target by January 2009; and in the UK, Waitrose supported the production of The End of the Line.

But however well-intentioned, these global players are not about to remove themselves as intermediaries in long global supply chains; neither are they ready to open up their information systems to independent scrutiny.

Besides, the main problem is not a lack of information. A raft of eco labels has been launched, and Iceland, Sweden and Ireland run their their own ecolabel systems for fish. But the multiplicity of such schemes, many of which are based on contradictory criteria, makes it harder for consumers make informed choices about what they are buying.

Another problem is that global accreditation schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council's blue ecolabel, do not take account of the energy impacts of the airfreight often used to move eco-labelled products around the world. A Danish researcher, Mikkel Thrane, who has proposed a ban on the air freight of MSC-labelled products, argues that “it doesn’t make sense to put a label on a product reflecting sustainability when non-carbon-friendly shipping methods are being used.”

The same argument applies to the huge amounts of energy used by retailers to display fish

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– for example, in brightly-lit chiller cabinets; or in the location of fish counters in out-of-town megastores that greatly amplify biosphere-damaging transport intensity.

Everything in a food system needs to be measured and accounted for - not just one element in the process.

The biggest challenge is the impossibility of feedback and personal relationships in attenuated global systems. In a truly sustainable fish system, its actors will be connected in a web of relationships rather than in a one-way chain.

Technology can help here. Peer-to-peer networks, wikis, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping, mobile communications, platforms for knowledge-sharing – all these are potential components of distributed systems that connect citzens more directly with producers.

] Food systems are social systems

But iphones are only part of the answer. Food systems are social systems, and technology on its own cannot orchestrate the multitude of actors and stakeholders involved. Practical, context-specific issues need to be dealt with, continuously - and it's through these day-to-day negotiations that mutual trust develops.

Place-specific social enterprises for food, based on distributed models, are already emerging in cities of the South. In in such cities as Kinshasa or Dakar, in Africa, a “multi-actor ecosystem participation approach” (MEPA) has been developed that treats food supply as an ecosystem in which farmers, policy makers, environmentalists and regulatory bodies collaborate on the basis that the ecosystem itself is a shared responsibility. The interactions. Involved are complex and multi-directional, but geography and culture provides a shared space.

A more ecosystem-centric approach is also being pioneered in the North. In the fast-growing Transition Towns movement, for example, citizen groups are mapping foodsheds and watersheds as the basis for a more holisitc, regional approach to food security.

foodzone-300x212.jpg

These maps, and other web-based tools in development, are viewed by Transitioners as tools to enable face-to-face contact among each other, and with food producers and citizens - not as visually mesmerising ends in themselves.

An especially inspiring UK model is a restaurant-led initiative, Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants, that “links good fishermen with chefs…the idea is to build a long term relationship with “your” fishermen”. The Pisces team therefore insists on getting out on individual boats, and sees for themselves how the fish are caught.

Chefs laughingPICT3601.jpg

This is a huge commitment of time and effort – and of trust on the part of the fishers. But for Pisces, it’s a worthwhile investment in the future. “Managing simply to avoid stock collapse is a miserably negative goal” they say; “despite all the problems, there remain an amazing diversity of fish just off the British coast - over 170 species in the North Sea alone. We want stocks to be built up so that they can support bigger catches, and better profits, while still leaving plenty for other species”.

The design lesson here is that there can be no one global “sustainable fish system”. The design task, instead, is to look for practical ways to help a multitude of different models – like MEPA in the South, or Pisces in the North – succeed, multiply, connect and adapt - in different ways in different contexts.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:12 PM | Comments (2)

August 03, 2009

How much is a school garden worth?

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One in nine Americans already relies on federal food stamps to help buy groceries – a startling number that will grow as unemployment rises. At the same time, medical spending on obesity - a major cause of diabetes, stroke and heart attacks - reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in a decade.

So, how much must a school garden be worth, as a long-term investment?

California is spending $65,000 (45,000 euros) per classroom seat in a schools rebuilding programme – but only $1 per child per year for garden upkeep and support.

Mud Baron, whose job is to help 500 L.A. schools develop gardens and nature projects, has fought a lonely battle to persuade planners and architects that contact with nature - not just buildings – is a crucual ingredient of a "green" school.

When Mud explained his campaign to a Doors of Perception workshop at The Planning Center, in February, we came up with the idea of re-labeling school gardens as “outside classrooms”; this would have resolved Mud’s resource problem at a stroke.

But the situation in California has deteriorated fast since then:The budget crisis has left countless teachers unemployed, and a $1.7-million grant to Los Angeles Unified School District for its Instructional School Garden Program has expired.

Mud’s boss has agreed to match the funds that Baron and his network can raise – if they reach $100,000. We don’t usually run campaign appeals here, but when the issue is schools + food + learning-to- grow: well, we simply have to make an exception.

Donate what you can here.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

July 08, 2009

From permaculture punks to anaerobic digesters

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I came across a fascinating essay about permaculture and energy descent in Mexico that introduces me for the first time to the existence of so-called permaculture punks in Mexico City. Its author, Holger Hieronimi, has spent the last seven years developing a permaculture based homestead there- so he knows the difference between theory and practise. The picture above, which shows a stage in the construction of an anaerobic digester, is just one among a whole sequence of fascinating visual stories. I also never heard of bocashi composting, either, until today.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:03 AM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2009

Urban farming: the new dot com?

In September a new event called Agriculture 2.0 will introduce a select group of alternative agriculture entrepreneurs to investors. SPIN-Farming LLC, together with NewSeed Advisors will co-host Agriculture 2.0 in New York.

Roxanne Christensen, co-author of the SPIN-Farming online learning series, says a wave of innovators is developing profitable models for sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. These new entrepreneurs are developing breakthrough technologies, approaches and business models that, she says, "can help create a post-industrial food system that is less resource intensive, more locally-based, and easier to monitor and control".

When I first wrote about SPIN-Farming here last July, I was intrigued by the idea of a franchise-ready sustainable farming system that could be deployed quickly and on a wide scale. (That is the concept behind SPIN Farming; it stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive).

SPIN's growing techniques are not, in themselves, a breakthrough. What's novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process, it doesn't sound all that different from McDonalds.

There are a host of reasons why urban farming is more complicated, once you start, than opening a hamburger restaurant. Among these: Skewed planning laws, competition for land from developers, insecure water supplies, pollution management, and the sheer number of diffferent actors involved even in a simple food system. But the "just start a business" approach will inject a new dynamic into the range of experiments multiplying all over the world.

Areas represented at Agriculture 2.0 will include controlled climate growing systems, building integrated agriculture, urban agriculture, closed loop irrigation and waste processing systems, mobile food processing, aquaculture, and appropriately-scaled marketing and distribution systems.

According to Janine Yorio of NewSeed Advisors, the conference will take a sector which has been viewed as marginal, dispel that notion, and expose its potential to the mainstream financial community. “We want to shine the light on the sustainable agriculture sector and demonstrate to investors that there are real economics and commercial prospects here,” Yorio says.

Registration for Agriculture 2.0 opens on June 29. For more conference information visit NewSeed Advisors.

If, like me, you're trying hard to cut down on air travel, but want to know more about this development, you can always see Paula Sobie, co-founder of City Harvest and now also a SPIN farming trainer, speak at the Foodprint conference in The Hague on 26 June.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:25 AM | Comments (5)

June 08, 2009

Dodo and chips

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Before my recent visit to Helsinki, I was told by one of its members, Päivi Raivio, that I needed to know about an environmental organisation there called Dodo. And so it transpired that I was taken in conditions of some secrecy to this guerilla potato planting event. Given the generous volume of soil the team had amassed, Helsinki's eco-warriors will soon be enjoying a bumper crop.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:15 PM

March 30, 2009

London "nine meals away from anarchy"

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In 2007 Lord Cameron of Dillington, first head of the UK Countryside Agency, famously remarked that Britain was ‘nine meals away from anarchy.’ Britain's food supply is so totally dependent on oil - 95 per cent of the food eaten there is oil-dependent - that if the oil supply to Britain were suddenly to be cut off it would take just three full days before law and order broke down. "We rely on a particularly vulnerable system. Britain needs to invest seriously in agriculture infrastructure if we are to avoid food crisis" said the noble Lord at the time.

I'm not sure that much action has so far followed these remarks, but an exhibition opening in London next month explores what those investments might be. The show looks at different ways that cities might be transformed from consumers of food to generators of agricultural products, and at how food production can be incorporated into the urban environment at both industrial and domestic levels.

A highlight of the London show is a photographic and filmic record of the Dott 07 Urban Farming project in Middlesbrough. Good to see London following so promptly - only three or four years behind the northern town. In Middlesbrough itself, since Dott 07 itself ended, the town's Council is expanding the Urban Farming programme. The Bohm and Viljoen map (below), created for Dott 07, that plots sites of productive potential, is a reference point for a raft of new initiatives. The Council recently won a £4 million (4.3 million euro) grant to run a "cocktail" (their word) of food and health projects, and the plan is to make the Town Meal an annual event to showcase the results of this new work.


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LONDON YIELDS : Urban Agriculture is curated by Jackson Hunt and opens on Wednesday, 8 April, 6.30 - 9pm at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, off Tottenham Court Road in central London.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:59 PM

July 31, 2008

Nill by mouth

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I just wasted (sorry, invested) half an hour of a busy day scrolling through a collection of digital dashboards. The one above is made for a hedge fund; it looks to me like a virus - but then I am probably prejudiced. The dashboard below is about car door supply chains: I can imagine here adding embergy values.

Sad people like me who like dashboards are, I know, the digital equivalent of trainspotters. But what the heck: it's a low-energy vice, right? Keep on sending them in.

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Posted by John Thackara at 08:42 AM

July 11, 2008

Eating Spin

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The British government is in talks with supermarkets about emergency food reserves "in case the infrastructure of the country breaks down”. The exercise is being spun as a response to possible strikes by fuel tanker drivers, but the more likely explanation is that the precarious state of food systems as a whole has finally registered in mud-free Whitehall.

Persuading Tesco to stock 60 days supply of staple foods is of course better than the three days supply contained in today's just-in-time systems. But sheds full of baked beans are not exactly a long-term solution. A more nutritious form of spin has been developed in the US. At the end of an interesting review of last week's Growing Food for London conference, Roxanne Christensen writes about a franchise-ready sustainable farming system that can be deployed quickly and on a wide scale. That is the concept behind SPIN Farming. "SPIN", Christensen explains (it stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive) "makes it possible to earn significant income from growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets". SPIN's growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough, Christensen continues; what is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. "SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process, it really isn't any different from McDonalds. SPIN-style farming removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:14 AM | Comments (3)

June 16, 2008

Innovating our way to oblivion

Out-of-control buzzwords are like locusts: you can swat handfuls of them down with a bat, but more will come to take their place.

I've been swatting away for ages in this blog at all things Conceptual, Cultural, Clustered and (especially) Creative. But now we're suffering a massive counter-attack by the word Innovation - 137 million uses of which are known to Google alone.

A good proportion of these mentions probably belong to the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK. Nesta's mission is to "make innovation flourish," and one way it does this is by using the world innovation in every second or third sentence of the emails it sends me.

Now Nesta is staffed by smart and well-connected people, and most of my clients think innovation is the very elixir of life itself - so I probably shouldn't say this. But I have to, because it's important:

INNOVATION IS NOT GOOD IN ITSELF - IN FACT, MORE INNOVATION DOES HARM, THAN DOES GOOD.

My evidence for this statement is contained in a breathless announcement from Mintel, the market research company, that a "Record-Breaking Number of New Products Flood Global CPG Shelves" and that (the numbers are for 2006) "close to 182,000 new products were introduced globally, with key booming areas focusing on mind, body, and general good health".

Well over half of these of these innovations - 105,000, to be precise - were food and drink products. This flood of innovations enable us to profit from such trends as "brainpower foods, age-defying treatments, increases in portion control, and "just for you" customised products”.

Now I may have misunderstood something here, but surely the Mintel numbers mean that more than half the innovations that reach the market all over the world - 300 innovations, every single day of the year - decrease the resource efficiency and hence sustainability of global food systems?

Good, so that's Innovation dealt with. Bring on the next killer word!

Posted by John Thackara at 05:28 PM | Comments (2)

April 10, 2008

Worship those worms

Readers of this blog will need no introduction to the Estonian bio-semiotician Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944). Oh, you do? Go to the back of the class. Well, Tallinn Jake saw mind, body and context as inseparable, for all animals (including human ones) and he coined the word umwelt to describe the unity of an organism's physical life-support system and the subjective network of relationships that give its world meaning. Umwelt (literally, 'around world') usefully explains our visceral attachment to cars, despite the damage they do to the public domain and the biosphere. I learned about umwelt whilst reading Elizabeth Farrelly's entertaining new book Blubberland: the dangers of happiness. Umweltness (my word) seems to feed two primal urges - for speed, and for safety - and thereby "puts us in danger of destroying our minds, our bodies, our cities, and our planet" says the author. She's also tough on the boom in Australian versions of MacMansion houses; between 1990 and 2003, the average New South Wales house grew by 60 per cent - even as family size shrunk by 40 per cent, and plot size roughly halved. "Indulgent?" asks Farrelly. "Sure, but governments and markets alike smile on this behaviour since it renders us fat and infantile and keeps the dummy firmly stuck in our collective mouth". Farrelly's prose is trenchant like this throughout, but somewhat archly so at times; I was left with a hunger for more reporting from real-life situations such as the un-modernised suburb of Redfern that she mentions in passing. But the final chaper is well-done as Farrelly describes an imagined future shaped by new belief systems: "The new religion makes heavenly disciples of sun and rain, worshipful shrines of fertility, and compost and sacred objects of water tanks and work farms"

Posted by John Thackara at 11:31 AM

January 08, 2008

The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.

Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. "We'll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort" pledges the firm in its Plan A. In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.

But M&S's Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions - a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday. As a consequence, food retailers waste insane amounts of energy: a single open-fronted freezer costs 15,000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone - and that does not include the embergy (embodied energy) involved in each unit's manufacture. Unchecked, air conditioning units and chiller cabinets will cause hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere in the next 50 years.

Off course, M&S may reply, if food were not refrigerated, a good proportion of it would rot or spoil. Up to 40 percent of fruit is lost post-harvest in some food systems. Such a loss of produce represents a waste of energy on its own account, since wasted food embodies the energy used in its production, processing and transport. Nonetheless, as things stand today, it looks as if M&S is resigned not to reduce, but to offset, the massive energy emissons from its supply, storage and retail operations when its five year deadline for Plan A expires.

The alternative would be for M&S to change its business model to one of shopless shopping, and close down most of its retail outlets. And why not? Refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and high street stores, are expensive and wasteful steps, and therefore profit-reducing costs, in the journey from farm to table. M&S is well-placed to become the radically de-centralised distribution and quality assurance platform that all towns and cities need to relocalise their food systems.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:20 AM

November 30, 2007

Who is afraid of local food?

In the October issue of Blueprint its editor Vicky Richardson's accused Designs of the time (Dott 07) of secretly buying 10,000 pounds worth of fruit and vegetables when our Urban Farming project in Middlesbrough "did not generate adequate grub for the guests". Vicky declined to name the greengrocer for whom Christmas came so early - and I hereby confirm that her charge is ridiculous and untrue. But she did give me the space to publish this reply.

"The biggest problem with the porkies in her (Vicky's) story is that you can't eat them. Dott's Urban Farming project was not an aesthetic game, nor a yuppy lifestyle fad. It was a practical response to the urgent necessity to develop alternative food systems from the ground up.

Standing in Harvey Nichols Food Hall, or wherever it is that Biueprint's editor shops, food supplies may well look secure. But as I write, there are empty shelves in Caracas, food riots in West Bengal and Mexico, warnings of hunger in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18 percent food price inflation in China, 13 percent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago, and rice is 20 percent more expensive, says the UN.

Harvey Nicks may look well-stocked now - but at what cost,. and for how much longer? Almost a third more food was flown into Britain last year than in 2005. Air-freight rose 31 per cent in the year to 2006, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Food air miles have more than quadrupled - a rise of 379 per cent - since 1992.

The emerging food challenge we face is about energy, not ethics. Today, up to 40 percent of the ecological footprint of a city can be attributed to the systems which keep it fed and watered. On American farms in the early 1800s, the balance between calories expended and calories produced as food was about even. In 'developed' countries now it takes ten calories worth of energy from fossil fuels - in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and transportation fuel - to get one calorie back in the form of food.

That insane ratio was sustainable whilst energy, especially oil and natural gas, was cheap. But what about now? Since Dott's New Urban Farmers fed 2,500 people in Middlesbrough's Town Meal, the price of crude oil has shot up by $25 a barrel, and there's a growing consensus that the imminent $100 a barrel energy crunch will not be a blip, but the new norm.

In her attack on Dott's Urban Farming project, Vicky Richardson writes that "the idea that a modern urbanised society can survive by growing its own food is unrealistic and undesirable". Undesirable to whom, for goodness sake? The interests most threatened by a re-localisation of food supply are those associated with biotechnology and the agribusiness.

I'm perplexed that Vicky should cite "the spirit of invention and free-thinking" in defence of these corporate interests at a time when many of them are also embarking on radical change. Patrick Cescau, for example, the boss of Unilever, one of the world's largest food businesses, spoke recently of " seismic shifts in the world we do business in A reality gap has opened up between where we are and where we know - both instinctively and intellectually - we need to be".

Global industrial agriculture was less the result of "free-thinking" than of saturating land with fertilizers and pesticides, and soaking it with vast irrigation schemes, using cheap oil and gas to do so. That era is over. Besides, it was an approach based on brute force compared to the innovation required now to re-localise food supply at the level of the city-region.

Real innovation now combines top-down and bottom-up approaches. Middlesbrough Council was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm with which the experiment was taken up at grass roots within the community. Its officers tell me that many residents are asking how they can get involved again next year. But Dott's project was not about returning Middlesbrough to some kind of pre-industrial Emmerdale Farm. It was inspired by and complements the larger Stockton-Middlesborough Initiative, a 20-year vision for regenerating the urban core of the Tees Valley to ceate a "Green-Blue Heart” for more than 500,000 people.

Middlesbrough is in a global vanguard of city regions - from Arrezzo and Barcelona, to Toronto and the South Bronx, that are beginning to integrate food and water systems into their strategic planning. For these pioneers, food flows and water systems are a new layer of productive infrastructure, not a decorative afterthought.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:55 AM

August 16, 2007

Food systems and cities: Doors event in UK

Up to 30 percent of the ecological footprint of a city can be attributed to the systems which keep it fed and watered. But when the Mayors of the world's 40 largest cities met recently to discuss sustainability strategies, food was not on the agenda. Why not?

Doors is organising a one day international debate, jointly with Designs of the time (Dott 07), to reframe the food systems of city-regions as design opportunities. The debate opens with a review of Dott 07’s Urban Farming project, in Middlesbrough, UK, which has involved more than a thousand citizens.

The debate is intended for service and food system designers; policymakers who deal with rural and urban development; urban planners and developers; and change leaders from retail, food and house building businesses.

John Thackara will moderate the day's proceedings. Among the speakers will be Chris Hardwicke, a Toronto-based architect who is involved in Toronto's emerging food strategy and who was one of our group at Doors of Perception 9 on 'juice' in India earlier this year. Chrtis is also part of a team organizing Alphabet City a festival about food, in Toronto, that immediately preceeds the Dott 07 Festival.

Key people from Dott's Urban Farming project presenting (who were also at Doors 9) include David Barrie (senior producer), Debra Solomon (culiblog.org), Nina Belk (Zest innovation) and Andre Viljoen (architect and urban designer).
Tim White from Middlesbrough Council and someone from Bioregional Quintain will also take part.

The Dott 07 Debate on food systems and cities takes place Monday 22 October, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 10h-17h. Tickets - just this once! - are free. But you absolutely have to reserve your seat by emailing adam.thomas@dott07.com

Posted by John Thackara at 07:39 PM

February 05, 2007

Gone Juicing...

With four weeks to go before Doors 9, most of our blogging energies will be devoted to the Juice site. Why not join us? Or, nearly as good, please print the Doors 9 poster (5MB) and stick it everywhere in your environment. It will feel as if you're in India with the rest of us. And if you missed our February Doors of Perception Report special "do it" edition, the archive copy is here.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM

January 02, 2007

Doors 9 conference programme

We preview our main activities for the year - especially Doors of Perception 9 in India and Designs of the time (Dott 07) in the UK in January's Doors of Perception report which (if you do not receive it by email) is here. Please make a note of the key dates. Please also pass this information on to friends and colleagues who may be interested.

DOORS 9 CONFERENCE PROGRAMME (Saturday 3 March)

Doors 9 opens with a introduction to the relationships between food, energy and design by Hannu Nieminen (Finland, Nokia), Aditya Dev Sood (India, Centre for Knowldge Societies), Debra Solomon (Netherlands, culiblog.org) and John Thackara (Doors of Perception).

Session 2 is about food in cities: Dutch architect Winy Maas (MVRDV) proposes three-dimensional agriculture, with a reference to pig cities. Urban designer Andre Viljoen explains his book about Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (CPULS). David Barrie and Nina Belk describe their urban farming project for Designs of the time (Dott 07) in the UK. Designers Sanjeev Shankar and John Vijay Abraham compare old and new traditions of street food. Chris Hardwicke (Toronto) and Ron Paul (Portland) discuss farmers markets as hubs within food systems.

Session 3 is on food information systems. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, ponders new ways to think about browsing for food. Divya Sharma looks at food maps. Ellis Neder (USA) and Ian Brown (Fair Tracing, UK) look at identity management and food certification systems.

Session 4 of Doors 9 is on "juice". Designers Jogi Panghaal and Ezio Manzini discuss the different ways European and Asian cultures think about food. Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich (editors Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century) describe small and large scale changes already under way with Walter Amerika, an advisor to multinational food companies.

Session 5 of Doors 9 (yes, it's a full day, but there's food throughout) is a social technologies bazaar featuring innovative food-related projects from around the world. Among those you will meet are: Garrick Jones (UK, Ludic Corporation); Georg Christoph Bertsch (Germany, Cargo Bathing); Giovanni Canata (Italy, DxH2O water project); Claire Harten (USA) and Maria Wedum (Denmark), Dirt Cafe; Kultivator (Sweden, agriculture as art); Dori Gislason (Iceland, new lives for fishing villages); Francesca Sarti (Italy, food kiosks in Florence); Marije Vogelzang (Netherlands, Proef project); Maja Kuzmanovic (Netherlands, Groworld) ; Margie Morris (USA, Intel, food repositories).

Posted by John Thackara at 06:34 PM

October 18, 2006

Lethally lit lunch

George Monbiot also writes about food in his book Heat (see below). Food retailers, especially, waste insane amounts of energy. They use seven times more power (275 k Wh per cubic metre) to run a food hall than is used in an office. For the larger stores, up to a quarter of that energy budget goes on lighting - which is to make the food look good, not for it to be good. Most of the rest (64 per cent) is used for refrigeration, which is also ruinously wasteful. Think of all those open-fronted units: A single open-fronted freezer costs a retailer 15000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone.

Monbiot says we should replace out of town food retailing with warehouses that would service internet-enabled home delivery services. But even that sounds too transport-intensive if powered vehicles are to be involved. Bikes are the answer. Young lads seem happy to haul fat tourists around in rickshaws in London, so they (the lads) can retrained to do grocery runs, too.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:14 PM

September 23, 2006

Food information systems

Two days ago I was in London to talk with design school tutors about the design competition concerning food information systems that the Royal Society of Arts is running together with Dott07. Today I learned from CalorieLab via SmartMobs that McDonald’s is now placing codes on the packaging of many foods so that eaters can scan the package with their cell phones and find out the nutritional information. "Known as a QR Code, these printed codes look somewhat like a barcode and are scannable by many photo cellphones. All sorts of information can be packed into these little codes, from the website to find the amount of calories and fat in a Big Mac to a company’s contact information on a business card," the site explains. This is good news for any young designers seeking to win a trip to Doors 9 (the prize for winning the RSA competition): you don't have to invent a QR food application - McDonalds has done that: take that as your starting point and amaze us with how much further it could go.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:52 PM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2006

Noisy food

A couple of days ago I found myself in the town centre of Carlisle, in the north west of England, at 7am. The roads were empty except for a a large white truck whose driver was unloading packaged food into a shop. An incredible, raw-edged roar of noise came from the refrigeration unit on top of his cab. The noise was so extreme that my skin started to creep, and I couldn't hear a word when someone called me on my mobile phone. I retreated into the railway station cafeteria, but it was not much better in there: Two large refrigerated drinks machines were roaring away so loudly that the sales assistant had to shout to tell me the price of a coffee.

That noise represents wasted energy. The scary thing, as I learned at the Creative Rural Economy conference in Lancaster last week, is that perpetually rising food transport intensity is government policy. One policymaker described the countryside as "post productivist", and a senior academic advisor to the UK government told me later that "the purpose of the countryside is consumption".

I suppose this is factually correct - city dwellers make 1.2 billion trips to the countryside in the UK alone, and spend 12 billion pounds shopping when they get there; but it's a disastrous policy in environmental and food security terms.

It's also mad. One supermarket is flying planeloads of turnips from New Zealand to the UK in order to drive down the prices being asked by home growers. Turnips contain 70 percent water - so the company is in effect flying planeloads of water across the world to drive down prices of a root crop that could once have been found within a couple of miles of where most of the population lives.

I also learned that if you or I spend ten euros on a food in a supermarket, less than 60 cents - 6% - of tha money goes to the farmer who grew it. The rest goes to the wholesalers, the processors, the packagers, the retailers - and to the running costs of that roaring white truck in Carlisle.

But lots of good things are happening too, as we are finding out in the City Farming strand of Dott.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:01 AM | Comments (2)

September 19, 2006

Juice button now works

If you look at the menu on the left, we've added a button labelled "Doors 9 on Juice".

Posted by John Thackara at 02:38 PM

September 07, 2006

Food as a design opportunity

Doors of Perception 9 takes place in New Delhi 28 February to 4 March 2007. The theme is “Juice: Food, Fuel, Design”.

We've extended the first deadline for submissions to 30 September.

Why "juice"?

(Most of the statistics that follow are taken from the miraculously useful and interesting website of Jean-Marc Jancovci)

Global food systems are becoming unsustainable in terms of environmental impact, health, and social quality. But what to do?

The U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy. This disparity is made possible by nonrenewable fossil fuel stocks.

127 calories of energy are used to grow and export one calorie of lettuce from the US to the UK.

In 'developed' countries, CO2 emissions attributed to producing, processing, packaging and distributing the food is about 8 tonnes a year for a family of four.

Agriculture and food now account for nearly 30 percent of goods transported on Europe’s roads.

95 percent of the fruit and half the vegetables eaten in the UK are imported.

There are 52 transport and process stages in one bottle of ketchup.

In France, 20 percent of money spent by citizens on food is devoted to raw products such as fruit, vegetables, or fresh meat of fish. The rest is used to buy processed food : pasta, canned food, frozen food, biscuits and sweets, drinks, etc.

These processing industries consume energy and therefore emit greenhouse gases.

Most processed foods are packaged. Manufacturing the packaging (steel, aluminium, plastics) accounts for 70- 80 percent of the overall emissions of the food industry.

Processed food is generally bought in supermarkets which consume electricity to keep foods frozen - especially in open display units.

Most supermarkets sell industrially-grown chickens. The lifecycle of such a bird entails:
• Emissions linked to the heating of the hen house;
• Fossil fuels used to manufacture the fertilizers used to grow the grain eaten by the chicken;
• Fossil fuels burnt by the tractor used to grow the grain eaten by the chicken;
• Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions that occur when the fertilizers are spread on the field;
• Fossil fuels required to manufacture chicken food (industrial chickens rarely eat "raw" cereals, but rather processed foods) from the cereals;
• Emissions linked to the manufacturing of tractors, to the drying of grain, and to the refinery of the diesel oil used by the tractor....

Eating meat requires intensive agriculture because it is necessary to grow a lot of plants to feed the animals.

When decaying, nitrogenous fertilizers cause N2O emissions, 300 times more powerful than CO2.

Ruminants emit methane, which is 23 times more powerful than CO2, because of the fermentation of the plants they eat in their digestive sysem.

Producing an unprocessed kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of beef (with bones) leads to the emission of three to four kilogrammes (nearly nine pounds) of carbon equivalent.

Between 65 and 70 percent of the available agricultural land in France is devoted to feeding animals.
Fruits and vegetables (except for potatoes and vineyards) acount for two percent of the total.

The amount of meat consumed by an inhabitant of the Earth has increased by 60 percent over the last 40 years while the world population has doubled. Meat production has been multiplied by 3.2

Every cow in the European Union is subsidised by $2.50 a day.
One in five people in the world lives on less than $1 a day.

The US insists that 50 percent of its food aid is processed or bagged.

Poor diet and physical inactivity account for 35 percent (and rising) of avoidable causes of deaths in the US.

People in industrialised countries eat between six and seven kilogrammes (about 15 pounds) of food additives every year.

Supermarkets are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. Heating and cooling stores represents, in France, between 1,5 and 2 million tonnes carbon equivalent carbon.

Supermarkets are usually located in suburbs – so we use cars to get there. In the UK, 25 percent of car journeys are to get food.

In the home, our use of processed foods causes us to use more energy in fridges and freezers, stoves ovens, microwaves.

In France, the electricity consumption linked to eating (fridges, freezers, dish-washers, stoves and ovens, not to mention small appliances) represents 22 percent of all energy consumed at home,

25 percent of domestic waste is composed of food waste which, when landfilled, leads to methane emissions.

Is that all mad, or what?

That is why Doors 9 is about food and energy.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:34 AM | Comments (1)

July 08, 2006

Doors 9 call for projects

DOORS OF PERCEPTION 9: JUICE: FOOD, FUEL, MEANING
Food continuously circulates through the landscape into our homes and Bodies. It thereby organizes our calorific, symbolic and social energies. Juice, the essence of food, can also mean credit, electricity, access, flavor and love. The topic of food, as product as well as service, as metaphor as well as material, as energy as well as connectedness, will preoccupy us at Doors of Perception 9. The encounter will be held in New Delhi from 28 February to 4 March 2007.

Doors 9 begins with a two-day Project Leaders Round Table. This might involve you if your project is concerned with:
- Innovative ways to share, prepare, cook and eat food;
- Urban farming, new links between producer and consumer;
- Practices that transform urban-countryside interactions;
- Sustainable packaging and distribution scenarios;
- Effective uses of new technologies in relation to food.

The deadline for receipt of proposals is Friday 8 September 2006. Projects should be informed by a real location or situation and engage multiple disciplines and dimensions. Hypothetical, conceptual, and unrealizable proposals will not be favoured.

Proposals will be reviewed in September based on a concise project description. Send us an email (Subject header: “juice project”) on these five points:
a) title of your project;
b) 10 word description;
c) 100 word description;
d) name(s) of author(s);
e) URL

Your proposals will be reviewed by:
Aditya Dev Sood, Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS);
Debra Solomon, culiblog.org;
Juha Huuskonen, PixelAche;
Amy Franseschini, futurefarmers;
John Thackara, Doors of Perception.

Notification of finalists will be by Friday 22 September. If invited, you will need to pay for your travel to India, but we will cover your accommodation, food, and basic event costs, as well as your registration fees for Doors 9. Send your project description to: editor@doorsofperception.com

Posted by John Thackara at 08:21 PM

July 06, 2006

Doors 9: design and architecture schools

If you are a design or architecture student, or recently so, we have teamed up with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Designs of the time (Dott07) to offer travel-included scholarships to Doors 9 for the winners of this year’s RSA Design Directions competition. The two themes we have set are on Food Info Systems and on Sustainable Tourism. These documents are previews of the official Call which comes later in July at the RSA site.

Posted by Kristi at 02:08 PM

January 20, 2006

Rural design

What are the key design tasks facing the new post-agricultural rural economies and settlements? A conference in the UK in September will map out a new role for the arts and design in response to new social, environmental and economic regeneration priorities. Among the strands and seminar topics currently being developed are:
• Arts and agri-tourism, artists projects in B+Bs, farm barns and cattle marts
• New rural media, digital art, design and the new rural knowledge economy
• Rural arts and design festivals, rural performing arts and touring projects
• Rural community broadcasting, convergence and cultural applications of ICT
• New urban-rural business partnerships, and arts-led rural cultural diversity
• Future farms, art-farms, rural art workshops and agri-design industry clusters
• Rural Biennales, proposal for a European Region of Rural Culture & Design
• Designing the new rural settlements; rural housing and architectural initiatives
• Investing in rural community-led design, crafts and arts as cultural capital
• Designing alternative land uses, renewables and new energy & fibre crops
• Food as cultural economy, urban agriculture and urban-rural foods initiatives
• Contemporary rural, innovative crafts and design-led rural regeneration
• Rural textile/fashion design and smart clothing interfaces with agriculture.
The conference is being developed by the Rural Cultural Forum, Arts Council England, LEADER+ UK, Culture NW, LITTORAL Arts, and the Lancashire Economic Partnership. 10 – 13 September 2006 at the University of Lancashire. The event is listed here along with other events to do with the changing rural economy and land use.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:59 AM | Comments (1)

January 05, 2006

Pigs and cubic cities

If humans can live in skyscrapers, why not pigs and fish? When the Dutch architect Winy Maas first proposed that 600 metre-high skyscrapers, filled with pigs, could supply most of Europe�s pork needs, he was accused of proposing �concentration camps for animals�. But why should agriculture be restricted to the countryside, and organised horizontally? Would it not be efficient, and ecologically sounder, to move food production and consumption closer together? This is one proposal in 1,400 page book called KM3 by MVRDV. (Winy Maas is the M).

KM3 asks two questions: How much built space would be required in a world supporting ten times more people than it does today - 65 billion? And, how would such a city be organised? Maas and colleagues designed a hypothetical city that accomodates one million people and all their needs in the most compact possible form. For the purposes of the exercise, their city is autarchic: It has no neighbours, and must meet all its needs internally. As design inputs, the team assembled an extraordinary list of spatial reguirements - from the amount of volume needed for food production (20 percent) to the average volume of a psychiatric hospital (446 square metres).

Although startling in scope, KM3 is an extrapolation of existing trends. Among familar urban areas designed to be highly dense are Les Halles and La Defence in Paris, the Barbican in London, and Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam. These examples do not inspire joy at the prospect of a KM3 future. The French sites, in particular, are so ghastly that they feature endlessly in dystopian gangster and science fiction movies. But for Maas, these contemporary examples are imperfect not because they are dense, but because they lack "programmatic diversity". They are monocultures. 3D cities will only work, Maas argues, if they contain a rich mix of acitivites: Not just work, or sleeping, but all forms of production, especially agricultural.

Hence the vertical pig cities scenario. What started as a design provocation has taken on a life of its own. Maas' proposal has fed into an emerging proposal for a total reshaping of agriculture - at least in man-made Holland. A Dutch think tank, the Innovation Network for Rural Areas and Agricultural Systems, proposes the transfer of agricultural production to industrial areas near large populations of people. KM3, Excursions On capacities. MVRDV, 2006. Actar, Barcelona

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM | Comments (2)

November 07, 2005

How fast is fast food?

"Quick-serve restaurants are having a tough time keeping the fast in fast food, as menus become more complicated. At San Diego-based Jack in the Box restaurants, for instance, it takes an average of 228.9 seconds – 3.8 minutes – to get burgers out the drive-through window after an order is taken". This startling information comes from a new study by the trade magazine QSR which rates burger, chicken and taco chains. QSR analysts estimate that speeding up delivery by as little as six seconds can improve sales by 1 percent or more. That's because about 70 percent of all fast-food transactions occur at the drive-through window, and the busiest two hours at most restaurants are during lunch. To enhance (and enforce) efficiency, "many chains use digital timing systems, software and headsets to keep the packages of onion rings emerging with lock-step predictability", the report says. "Indeed, some chains can monitor individual stores instantly from their headquarters to make sure the clock isn't ticking too long on each order". Who said the command-and-control economy was over? That last charming add-on probably came from Wharton Business School, whose banner ad features prominently on the QSR site.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:35 AM

August 10, 2005

Infra for food

If we are to re-localise food, a new generation of information systems will be needed as support. Many of today's food systems rely on closed networks in which access to information is controlled by entities (such as supermarkets) that are not keen on cooperatives and localisation. The good news is that open source software for food systems are already emerging. A story in Indymedia shows the People's Food Co-op in Portland, Cascadia, ringing out items on an entirely free open-source point-of-sale system (or POS) - the software needed to run a cash register and manage the pricing of all the items in a store.The story describes the project as a 'world's first', but several commenters list comparable systems that, they say, already exist. The "I was first! No, I was first!" bickering is tiresome, especially considering the vast amount of design work still to be done . We need, for example, to exploit the potential of RFID systems to give citizens far more information about about a product's history (where product = carrot) than might be comfortable for the the company selling it.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:32 AM

August 05, 2005

Insects of the new economy

An eminent insects expert is to study aspects of biological and religious diversity in order to find ways of conserving the natural environment. Until recently Head of Entomology (the study of insects) at London’s Natural History Museum, Dr Dick Vane-Wright is the recipient of a NESTA Fellowship. 'I suspect that taking a more sustaining role, acting as nature’s steward, is something which most belief systems support' says Vane-Wright, who has studied the relationship between biodiversity and value systems over several years. It's sounds like a fascinating project, but I'm not sure Dr Vane-Wright has been much exposed to the belief systems of the new economy. Biological metaphors were frequently used by its boosters to justify ruthless behaviour that paid scant attention to the interests of the environment. That story is well-told in Metaphors of Life and Death in Silicon Valley.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:52 AM

July 15, 2005

Food that heats us up

Food 'miles' in the UK have risen dramatically over the past 10 years, are still rising, and have a significant impact on climate change, traffic congestion, accidents and pollution according to a report published yesterday, and reported in today's Guardian. Food transport accounts for 25% of all the miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on British roads. The use of heavy trucks to transport food has doubled since 1974 (in southern Europe, it's growing even faster). The dramatic increase has resulted in a rise in the amount of CO2 emitted by food transport: 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in the UK 2002 in the course of getting food to people, a 12% increase on 1992, the report says. Airfreight, the most polluting form of food transport, is growing fastest. Tim Lang, (one of the world's leading critics of industrialised food systems, and author of Food Wars ) is quoted as saying: "If the government doesn't take action to tackle this, all its proposals on climate change will be so much nonsense." A minister called Lord Bach, who launched the report in London, promised that the British government would "work with the industry to achieve a 20% reduction in the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012". The words 'breath', 'hold', 'your', and 'don't' spring to mind: no British government is going to take meaningful action against an industry that combines food, logistics, massively powerful retailers, and spoiled consumers. We'll have to wait for a couple of massive eco-shocks before the policy framework will change. In the meantime, there's a lot of interesting service design to be done in support of the massive move towards sustainable food systems that is already underway.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:42 AM

July 01, 2005

Unexpected campaigners for privacy

A few days ago I commented that managers have not thought through the potential of RFID systems to give customers far more information about about a product's history than might be comfortable - at least, for the company selling it. A forthcoming book flagged by Institute For the Future, does include a chapter on RFID and Authenticity of Goods. But so far as I can see, the applications discussed will refer more to the protection of Louis Vuitton from knock-offs, than of ordinary folk from dodgy food. It suddenly dawns on me: we can expect the biggest, baddest players in agribusiness to come out strongly against RFID on the grounds of ....protection of privacy.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:22 PM

June 25, 2005

Reading your lunch

What happens when citizens are able to 'read' product-specific information directly from a package’s RFID tag using a camera phone? Few business people that I've met have thought the consequences through. The widespread deployment of RFID tags is seen mainly as a way to improve the efficiency of supply webs - not as a way for customers to find out more about a product's history. But consider the following: The Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), together with the University of Kuopio and the Helsinki School of Economics, have developed a prototype for a service that can help people make better food choices by reading product-specific information directly from a package. The service shows the energy and nutrition information of food, and also offers the possibility to use a food diary and an exercise calculator. But that's just a start: that same infrastructure could be used to tell the readerphone-wielding citizen where the food came from, and when; how it was grown; what it was fed or sprinkled with; and so on. Finnish test groups experienced the pilot system as "rewarding". But vicious fights for information control between citizen groups and corporations are inevitable when they realise that RFID tags have the potential to give more of the game away than might be comfortable for some players.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:57 AM | Comments (2)

April 16, 2005

Nomadic Banquet

A reminder that among numerous archives of Doors 8 stuff not on this site is Debra Solomon's Nomadic Banquet. We are still receiving presentations and other material which will be posted here in due course.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:06 AM

November 23, 2004

Needed: Nomadic Banquet benchmarks

One of the pre-Doors 8 field projects we're supporting is an India leg of Debra Solomon's ongoing quest to enable "nomadic banquets". The idea is that people move round a city from street vendor to street vendor - each one being th best at, for example, dumplings, noodles, vodka martinis, whatever.
We're keen to hear about any other locative media projects involving food, rating, mobile phones, GIS and so on that we can learn from and maybe connect with. Check out Debra Solomon's Culiblog - and then tell us about lo-food projects we need to know about. Thanks.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:03 PM