SUPURBFOOD is an international research project carried out by a consortium of ten research and ten SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) partners, in which novel solutions to urban and peri-urban food provision have been examined in three thematic areas. These thematic areas are: (i) nutrient, water and waste cycles, (ii) short food supply chains, and (iii) multi-functional land use. While positive developments are found in all of these, additional steps are needed to make full use of the potential of these innovations. Hence, the project team formulated a set of recommendations and would like to ask relevant stakeholders (e.g. policymakers, entrepreneurs, civil society organisations) for their opinion about their effectiveness. For that purpose an online survey has been launched, which takes 10-15 minutes to complete. If you considers yourself to be a relevant stakeholder, you are kindly requested to complete the online questionnaire, which is available in seven languages: English, Dutch, German, Italian, Latvian, French and Galician.
Much of the discussion around reducing food waste has focused on the individual household consumer – after purchasing food at the supermarket. An important avenue for addressing the problem lies, indeed, with supermarkets themselves. Supermarkets have strict cosmetic standards about what they will accept from their growers and suppliers. Farmers know that fruit and vegetables that do not conform in size, shape, and colour – even if perfectly good to eat – will not be accepted by the supermarkets. In turn, supermarkets also lay the “blame” on picky consumers. (The power of supermarkets in dictating terms in their contracts with growers is for another blog post.)
The French supermarket chain Intermarché has designed an interesting and successful campaign against food waste. It is designed to raise awareness among consumers and to provide an outlet for food that would otherwise be thrown out before getting to the farm gate. Using a multi-pronged marketing approach (including cheaper prices, special branding, and recipe and product development), Intermarché is showing that even an ugly carrot can be a beautiful thing. You can also learn more about the European Year against Food Waste here.
Earlier this month, we had a fun food culture class on the topic of waste and edibility. The writing of Mary Douglas on Purity and Danger was useful in order to think about how the definition of ‘waste’ is in fact a social construction which depends on social relations and thus varies from context to context. We looked at the various stages in the cycle from production to consumption where ‘waste’ is created by some, but sometimes turned into food by others. Waste, or ‘dirt’ in the words of Mary Douglas, is ‘matter out of place’. For a thing to become out of place, there needs to be an order with normalities such as, when a food is beyond its expiration date in a supermarket it will be thrown away. Anomaly then is all that does not fit the order (or who order differently). Examples are gleaning practices on agricultural fields, food collection for food banks and dumpster diving in retail waste.
Making your own vermiculture or ‘worm farm’ is not very difficult (see the many instructions on internet). Maybe the most difficult bit here is acquiring the right type of worms. The ‘red wiggler’ which you can order by mail in Australia, US or the UK is not available through the mail man in the Netherlands. The manure heap – a left over of last year – in the corner of our allotment garden proved the solution. The red wiggler likes manure. We dug in and ‘harvested’ around a hundred last year september and again a hundred in the spring. By now we have a healthy population which reproduces and soon we might need to expand our farm or donate worms to a new farm…. Continue reading
Organic recycling was part of the urban ecology during the middle ages. “However, as cities grew larger, their self-regulatory ecosystems began to break down” Carolyn Steel writes in her instructive chapter ‘Waste’ in Hungry City (2008:251). “If the ‘filth and muck’ of fourteenth-century Coventry caused a nuisance, that of London, a city 10 times the size, can be readily imagined.” (ibid). The other side of the coin was the state of agriculture, which was facing a rapidly decreasing soil fertility (see earlier blog 18-8). It was what Marx called ‘metabolic rift’ a rift in the metabolism of the human relation to nature through labor which “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing” he wrote (cited in Foster 1999:379).
Marx was not alone in his opinion and he himself was greatly influenced by Justus von Liebig. Proposals to compost human waste as part of the design of the urban waste disposal system were propagated and sometimes tried in the UK, France and Germany (see Steel chapter Waste) and in the Netherlands (in Groningen see earlier blog 16-8). The sewage system with no in-built recycling won, most of the world sewage is dumped in the ocean untreated. The metabolic rift in terms of Marx widened and its effect is only delayed by chemical fertilizers and global transport. Yet, “nutrients found in sewage are a finite commodity” (Steel 2008: 259). In a few decades when the mines with phosphates are empty and the oil has leaked away in the sea, human sewage will most probably become a valuable resource again.
Growing plants on the balcony? I do, and tomatoes need lots of fertile soil. Worms make fertile soil for free. In my bicycle shed (typically Dutch I suppose). While in Iowa last year, I was inspired by the ‘urban ag movement’ and I saw an instruction on the cityfarmer website which led me, on return, to close my household nutrient cycle better by composting my own vegetable food scrapes. It took a while to get the right balance in the three-story box that we build out of plastic storage boxes but it is working well now. The worm castings are extremely fertile as is the liquid (their pee and the muck water from the food scrapes). And it is fun, I think, to compost and close part of the cycle in this way.
Back in the 19th century, Marx was worried about disrupted nutrient cycles since large amounts of nutrients were traveling to city and town while none of that returned to the field. During 1830 – 1870 the depletion of the soil fertility was the overriding environmental concern in Europe and the US. Prior to the discovery of chemical fertilizers, bone and Peruvian guano (accumulated dung of sea birds) were massively imported in Britain to relieve soil exhaustion while other countries had to search for alternatives because of the British monopoly on guano (Foster 1999).
“The second agricultural revolution, associated with the application of scientific chemistry to agriculture, was therefore at the same time a period of intense contradictions” Foster (1999:377) writes. The discoveries in soil sciences also made farmers even more acutely aware of the depletion of the soil and the need for fertilizers. Marx understood that soil fertility is “not so natural a quality as might be thought; it is closely bound up with the social relations of the time” (Marx in Foster 1999; 375) captured in his concept of metabolism. His writings about metabolism can be seen as one of the earliest writings on what is now called ‘sustainability’.
We are very familiar with recycling paper, glass and recently, plastic. It feels good that this waste is turned into a resource again. Many of us are also recycling food scrapes through municipal services, backyard compost heaps or small-scalle vermiculture. However,when we are flushing the toilet, we do not often see our own waste as a valuable resource.
Our sewage system seems the only and logical answer nowadays but it was highly debated in the 19th century for its disadvantages before it was adopted (like pasteurisation was rejected by medical doctors because it would also kill all the ‘good’ in milk, see Dupuis 2005). Alternatives were cesspools or the barrel system. Cesspools and sewage pipes were believed to leak and thus to contaminate the groundwater. Contaminated groundwater due to the absence of city-wide waste disposal systems was, by then, seen as the primary cause for outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the mid 19th century.
The Netherlands had a vocal protagonist of the barrel system in the medical doctor Ali Cohen from Groningen (Houwaart 1997). He became nationally known for his zeal for urban waste disposal. The barrel system simply meant that human waste was collected in barrels which were emptied in a cart behind horses. The waste was then turned into compost at a city composting place after which the compost was sold to the farmers outside the city. Cohen strongly believed in the composting of human faeces as a fine example of restored balance between man and nature, city and countryside.
Various Dutch cities tried the barrel system. However, it turned out not to be profitable, except in the city of Groningen. The special conditions in north of the Netherlands, including the existence of good waterways and large farm holdings in the immediate area were lacking in other parts of the country ( Houwaart 1997). While other cities started investing in sewage systems, the barrel system continued in Groningen until the beginning of the 20th century. Not a very clean practice, emptying barrels in the middle of the street. But the city government always refused to improve the system despite new ideas such as not emptying it on the spot but changing the barrel for a cleaned and disinfected one. The result was that at the end of the 19th century the city was, totally unlike Cohen’s ideals, stuck with a very outdated waste disposal system compared the other Dutch cities.