söndag 12 februari 2017

The food, the environment and the worms (seminar)

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One of the two research projects I work in, "Sustainable practices and data: Design and opportunities for change" (SPOC) organized a Swedish-language 4-hour workshop/half-day seminar this past week on "The food, the environment and the worms: How do we design a better food system?". Which sounds better in Swedish due to the alliteration ("maten, miljön och maskarna").

While the project also involves ICT and design, the seminar focused more exclusively on food and sustainability and we had two great invited speakers, Gunnar Rundgren (farmer, author) and Karin Wendin (professor). We also took the opportunity to present our research project (my colleague Cecilia Katzeff did that) while I was leading and hosting the event. See the invitation below for further information.

I thought both talks were great but will only discuss Gunnar's talk here. He was the main speaker and he has just come out with a book (published in both Swedish and English), "The great eating disorder". He brought a few copies and I bought my own copy of the Swedish-language book. Gunnar's talk was choke-full of facts and I am sure he could have talked for much longer had we given him the chance. I found three threads running through his talk, namely 1) the connection between the food system, technological developments and social practices, 2) the connection between the food system and energy and 3) the overarching connection between economic incentives and the food system (also workings its way through points 1 and 2). Examples of each is:

- How dinner habits changed changed together the microwave oven. One example is the microwave oven that portended the death of social eating due to the fact that it was no longer necessary to gather around the table and eat the same food at the same time. Another is refrigerated boats/containers that revolutionized what food we put on our plates (food miles etc.).
- The modern (industrialized) food system is optimized for minimizing hours (work time) per calorie produced and we do a lot of things that does make sense economically but that on the whole is really very stupid (e.g. we waste a lot of energy). We use very large amounts of energy for fertilizer, pesticides, agricultural machinery, food processing, transportation, refrigeration and cooking.
- The underlying driving force is of course money (economic incentives) and it leads us down a one-way street of bad (and sometimes immoral) decisions. Optimizing the breeding of cows so that their udders fit milking machines (but not any longer human hands) makes sense only during very specific conditions and leaves few options should the electricity be cut for a longer period of time. Optimizing yield by breeding chickens and wheat that are 100% dependent on human "care" seems deranged when you realize how fragile (and how much energy inputs) current food production practices are.

Something around two-thirds of the seminar was spent listening to the talks and the last hour was spent on a small-group exercise where groups were tasked with thinking about visionary change to the food system in the near future. Accepting that our current food system is unsustainable, how do we design a new food system? More specifically, "In the year 2030, we will..." We suggested a range of topics (including the topic our second speaker talked about, i.e. changing our diet to eating insects) and asked the groups to think about about best case scenario. We also asked them to limit themselves and to think about one solution to one problem. Finally we also listed three questions to get the group discussions going. In 2030:
- Where does the food come from?
- How do we produce food?
- How do we eat food?

We finally encouraged the groups to not shy away from formulating bold, radical ideas that were provocative! We had five groups working on different concepts in parallell but I will settle for discussing the results of my own group. I teamed up with Gunnar Rundgren (a fountain of detailed information about the food system) and we were joined by master's student Andrea. Here's the task I suggested and that my group worked with:

- Historically, agriculture has delivered upwards to ten times the energy out (in the form of the energy content of the food) compared to energy in (human and animal energy invested in agriculture). One farmer could potentially produce food for himself and for upwards to nine other persons.
- Modern industrial agriculture instead uses upwards to ten time more energy (fertilizer, pesticides, agricultural machinery, food processing, transportation etc.) than it delivers and this only works because (fossil) fuels contain so much energy and have been so cheap for so long. A tractor uses a lot of energy, but that energy has been very inexpensive compared to the time (salary) of the farmer who sits in the tractor. We thus subsidize agriculture energy-wise as we constantly strive towards optimizing productivity (food out) per working hour.

Modern agriculture thus delivers a lot of food and it certainly delivers in terms of food per hour invested/spent on farming, but it might use upwards to 100 times more energy per calorie-delivered-from-the-food-system compared to pre-modern (pre-fossil fuels) agriculture. So my question was: what would have to go away and what would into vogue if we voluntarily chose to, or involuntarily were forced to shift to an energy-efficient food system. More specifically, what would happen if we had to go from 10:1 to 1:1 in terms of energy inputs in the next 10-15 years? We can still use energy inputs, but only a tenth of what we use today per calorie delivered. What, for example could be learned from current or historical low-energy agricultural practices? Here are some of our suggestions in terms of what would have to go (out) and what would come back (in):

- Heated greenhouses and vertical farming in cities would go and root crops (carrots etc.) would come back.
- Feedlot operations would go and grazing would come back into vogue.
- A lot of overly detailed "unnecessary" regulation would have to go and small-scale operations would come back. Common sense permaculture principles would become very popular, i.e. output from one agricultural process would become input to the next process instead of (over-)specialization and monocultures.
- Cooking practices would change and raw food or food that does not necessitate cooking or heating would become more popular (or necessary).
- Global streamlining of the food system would become harder and diversity in terms of utilizing local assets/production factors would become much more important.
- Commodification of food would decrease and non-market food production would increase (producing of oneself or trading/giving away food to family or neighbors).
- Urbanization would stop and metropolis/megacity would decline. Instead we would see an increased ruralization, i.e. people moving back to the countryside (perhaps accompanied by land reform). More people living in the countryside would also help better close local nutrient loops, that is, people to a higher extent living and eating food grown locally instead of transporting food hither and dither.
- Food waste would of course decrease. Perhaps scraps would be kept and fed to chickens or pigs even in the cities?
- Refrigerated container ships would be out and sail ships would make a comeback. It certainly can't get cheaper than that - energy-wise - to transport food.
- Fragility would decrease and robustness would increase.

I think the exercise turned out fine and that the day was a success. Only after the event did I realize we could have disseminated the information a little more aggressively. I could had spread the information to the students who took our sustainability course before Christmas and my colleague Björn who will advise no less than six bachelor's students on food-related topics could have invited these specific students! That's a pity but all in all still a great seminar. Here's an English-language translation of the invitation:

The food, the environment and the worms: How do we design a better food system?

Our food system is dysfunctional. We do by all means get cheap food, but the environmental impact is large and progress sometimes goes in the right but sometimes also in the wrong direction! What are the problems and what are the proposed solutions? Can part of the solution be found in the use of design and information technologies that challenge and inspire everyone who cooks and eats food (that is, all of us) to change our habits at the supermarket, in the kitchen and by the planter ("odlingslåda") in a more sustainable direction?

Gunnar Rundgren is a farmer, author and consultant and he was a founder of the KRAV eco-label 30 years ago. Gunnar Rundgren recently published his latest book, "The great eating disorder: food, power, environment". He describes how our food system - from agriculture to food processing to trade and all the way into the households - do (not) work.

Karin Wendin is a professor of food and culinary arts at Kristianstad University and is also associated with the Swedish Technical Research Institute (SP). Karin Wendin has done research on the future of food - on eating insects as the tasty, nutritious and environmentally friendly alternative to meat - when space and resources become tight.
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