The University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food (ISF) has officially launched its exciting new project at Tinsley Tingas!
In one of its former classrooms, an abandoned school building now gives home to a set of hydroponic systems providing a variety of herbs and leafy greens. The soil-free production systems were built using low-cost up-cycled materials and a specially formulated polyurethane foam, developed at the University, which acts as an effective alternative growth medium for the plants. According to the leader of the project Jacob Nickles, the purpose of the urban farm is to demonstrate some of the groundbreaking work that happens at the University and act as a community hub to connect residents, academics and local businesses in the name of sustainable food production.
The opening event, titled Food in the Urban Environment, took place on 17th May 2019, where a number of academics from across the UK, with a guest speaker from Oko Farms, New York’s largest outdoor aquaponic farm, presented their research and ideas on a range of topics related to sustainable food production, nutrition and the governance of these systems. From these insightful talks we could get answers to questions as diverse as “How much food do we waste globally?”, “What does farmers’ concern with their image have to do with the sustainability of agriculture?” and “How do I get my children to eat more vegetables?”. The professional day was followed by a ‘Family Fun Day’ on the 18th, where members of the public could learn about healthy eating and growing food in cities, and try their hands—and tastebuds!—at urban farming.
The Tinsley urban food project forms part of the translational research happening at the University’s recently founded Institute for Sustainable Food, whose aim is to find practical solutions to complex global problems related to food security and the sustainability of the food system. To tackle these challenges, the Institute takes an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together expertise from both the natural and social sciences and focusing on knowledge exchange and collaboration between different faculties. They also emphasise the importance of engaging with businesses and the general public. As stated by Dave Petley, Vice-President for Research and Innovation at the University, scientists now agree that if they want to make real change in the world, it is not enough for them to sit in a room and talk about how it could be done: they must go out there and work together with the people. Projects like the urban farm at Tinsley could play a vital role in this, and help make sustainable food production a reality for everyone.
With the globalisation of the world, our food sometimes travels all around the planet to end up on our plates—we probably don’t need to explain why this is unsustainable. Decreasing the distance between the point of production and markets can not only reduce the carbon footprint of our food but also minimise spoilage and loss of quality during transport. Freshly picked fruits and vegetables are also often more flavoursome than those that come from long distances away, which are sometimes picked green and ripened artificially on the way.
Fortunately, consumers today are becoming more aware of the negative environmental impacts of transport and want to know where their food comes from. The term ‘locavore’ was coined at the beginning of the century to refer to people that aim to consume only local seasonal fruits and vegetables (usually from within 100 to 250 kilometers), partly for their better taste and partly to promote the sustainability of the food system. In France, like in several other countries, in most cities you will find locally grown fresh produce in small independent shops and at markets, where you can sometimes buy them directly from the producer—unfortunately, buying local processed vegetables is more complicated.
Food is processed to improve its shelf life (e.g. by freezing, canning, heat treatment or addition of preservatives), taste (e.g. addition of salt, sugar, acidity regulators) or texture (e.g. chopping, pre-cooking, blending), and to make it more practical to use—in today’s fast-paced world, people tend to spend less time in the kitchen and want products that are easier to store and quicker to cook. Processing vegetables near the point of production could allow people to eat more local even if they don’t have a lot of time to spend on food preparation. But how feasible is it? Would such products find a place in supermarkets and consumers’ kitchens?
We can divide food processing into two groups based on its target: that which is aimed directly at consumers (i.e. products go on the shelves of shops to be purchased and used by individuals and families) and that which targets mass catering (processed food is delivered to the kitchens of different catering establishments). We are going to use two examples of local vegetable processing initiatives in Burgundy, one from each of the above categories, to illustrate some of the opportunities for and challenges faced by such projects.
Food processing for consumers
The Félix Kir Agricultural High School in Plombière-lès-Dijon is giving courses on subjects related to the food industry and has a technological hall where students can learn about food-processing. This hall is used to process locally grown fruit and vegetables into a variety of products, including jams, juices and different types of soup (such as gazpacho, a cold Spanish soup made of raw vegetables), which are then sold in small shops in the area.
Despite the benefits they can provide in terms of education and decreased environmental footprint, there are a number of challenges faced by such local growing and processing systems. Firstly, the reliance on produce from a restricted geographical area means that, at least in temperate climates, production will vary with season and is particularly vulnerable to potential yield losses to pests, diseases or extreme climate events. Secondly, the involvement of several independent, small producers makes the logistics of operation more complicated than if it relied on a small number of large suppliers. Finally, in the case of Félix Kir High School (and potentially in other schools), there is no production during the summer holidays—just when it could be highest, at the peak of the growing season.
These factors present obstacles for small scale food processing initiatives to establish contracts with supermarkets. Since this is where most people get their supply of processed vegetables from, it is difficult for locally grown and processed food to reach consumers. The question is, are people ready to change their habits and go the extra mile to buy locally processed food? And are they willing to accept the reduced choice that necessarily comes with local food.
Food processing for mass catering
The new French food law ‘EGalim’ (from Etat Généraux de l’Alimentation, the country’s food and drink industry summit conference) was enacted by the government in 2018, with the following main objectives: to pay a fairer price to producers, improve the sanitary and nutritional quality of products and promote the sustainability of the food system. Among other things, the law requires the food services of state institutions (e.g. school canteens) to source 50% of their ingredients from local, organic or quality labelled products by 1st January 2022. Currently, because they can’t afford to prepare fresh produce themselves, these catering services use mainly globally sourced, ready-to-cook frozen vegetables. As a result of the EGalim law, new projects are starting that aim to facilitate the transition to using more local ingredients. For example, ‘légumeries’ are being created, which are places where vegetables are cleaned, peeled and chopped before they are sent to the kitchens of public catering establishments, helping them meet the required 50% and improving access to local, fresh vegetables for people they cater for. The establishment of légumeries can also create employment and play a role in reintegration. A good example of this kind of initiative is the légumerie project of the city of Dijon, which aims to process 10 tonnes of vegetables per day to supply 7 to 10 local kitchens.
The main problem with such projects, as Christophe Bonnot, the project leader of Dijon’s légumerie explains, is that mass catering menus do not take the seasonality of vegetables into account, which would be essential when relying in large part on local produce. Therefore, there must be a discussion between local food processors and caterers, whose menus need to be changed or made more flexible to accommodate for the variation in supplies. Another issue, already mentioned in the previous section, is the lack of logistics to deal with multiple small farmers. However, with the right effort from all parties involved, it will be possible to restructure the sector. Regulatory changes obliging caterers to use local products can play a crucial role in this by prompting the creation of the logistics and infrastructure necessary.
While there is clearly an increasing interest in sustainable, local food in the West from both the public and authorities, an important question arises: what can we call local? Is it the food that comes from the city you live in? Perhaps a few kilometers from your home? Or from anywhere within the country? Without a clear definition and an appropriate labelling system, not only is it difficult for consumers to make an informed decision about their food choices, but the success of regulatory efforts like EGalim will also be limited. In order for local vegetable processing to develop into a viable part of the food sector, it is essential to identify the obstacles that stand in the way and address issues like the ones outlined in this article. We believe that together we could make a difference and decrease the environmental footprint of our food, support small farmers and make fresh, local produce more accessible to all.
Our brilliant sustainable food project campaign has now launched on Kickstarter.
The not-for-profit campaign aims to help people to grow sustainable food all year using Aquaponics.We want to raise awareness and get as many people as possible using our open source ‘WaterElf’ electronics kit to share knowledge and best practice.
Lots of people are behind us already, but we need more! Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, so we need to reach our funding target to continue our work.
The range of rewards for getting involved include:
A recipe for an aquaponics system
A funky fishy wegrow T-shirt
Aquaponics courses at TV presenter Kate Humble’s amazing aquaponics greenhouse
Aquaponics kits to grow your own food at anything from tabletop to greenhouse size
So even if you don’t want to grow food yourself, you could support us in trying to make the way we live just that little bit better for as little as £10.
You can read more about the project and find out how you can support it here:
One of the beauties of aquaponics systems is their flexibility and scalability – regardless of plot size or position, an aquaponics system can be designed to suit. As a result, there is growing interest in their use in urban areas, whether it’s a basement, attic, garage, cupboard or warehouse.
This is important because, apart from the sustainable production of food, there are many secondary benefits to urban aquaponics systems. Their presence could help combat the dietary health problems prevalent within many cities by giving citizens access to affordable local fresh fish and vegetables.
Local food production could also help to reconnect children and adults with the sources of their food and nature in general, and evidence is mounting that exposure to nature in this way can have positive mental and physical health effects.
There is also a fantastic fit between aquaponics and the requirements of the national curriculum for biology, chemistry, physics, maths, and business studies, meaning aquaponics systems could provide excellent practical teaching resources for schools, or even be located within the schools themselves to provide produce for the canteen.
Such local production could also help to reduce the transport related carbon emissions and air pollution that result from the daily transportation of goods into urban areas.
Another benefit that stems from outdoor aquaponics systems is the potential to combat the ‘heat island’ effect. This is where urban areas become much warmer than surrounding rural areas during summertime, due to hard surfaces like rooftops, concrete and tarmac absorbing solar energy and releasing it when the sun goes down to artificially elevate ambient temperatures. Aquaponic farms on urban rooftops or disused sites could offset this effect by preventing the hard surfaces absorbing the solar energy in the first place.
With many cities in the UK having gone through an industrial contraction, there are now many such unused industrial sites, often in inner city areas, that would provide perfect areas for farms, and could provide a catalyst for urban regeneration.
Taken together this means urban aquaponics is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative and an ever more important area of research.
WaterElf is a micro-controller with built-in wifi, a bunch of sensors, valve controls, electrical socket switching and data logging to the cloud. Here’s the last prototype to emerge from the lab into the wild:
Adding a WaterElf to aquaponics means you can ensure that the key water parameters such as pH and water temperature stay in the correct ranges. The WaterElf also senses the air temperature, humidity and light levels – so that you can match what you grow to your conditions. As well as all that, the Elf can also sense the water level in up to 3 grow beds – opening up the ability to set different flood-drain levels for each bed independently.
The WaterElf can control up to 16 electrical sockets by radio – so you can use this to control pumps, lights, fans etc. You can also control up to 3 of our water valves with the Elf, this is useful in larger systems such as those based on the FAO design.
We’ve been refining the design of our system since 2013 when our first prototype was installed at the Incredible AquaGarden in Todmorden. We’ve been on an incredible journey and learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work in a busy, challenging environment with lots going on.
Because the WaterElf sends the data it collects to our database in the cloud, you can see a summary dashboard on your phone or computer anywhere in the world. If you’ve got the Raspberry Pi control center with fish-cam (the Grow Hub) then you can also see the fish in real-time! And having the ability to share the current state of your system with other growers in our community means that if you need help then it’s only a click away. We’re excited about building a knowledge base of what grows well under which conditions – using the power of citizen science. Of course if you’d prefer not share your data then you can turn this off – but we hope you choose to contribute.
Like almost everything we do, the designs of the WaterElf are open source. We believe the problems facing our communities and our planet are too important, and too urgent, to avoid tackling right now. Open source allows us to be small and yet work collaboratively towards big solutions to big problems. It sidesteps all the barriers of licensing and patents. It means that we can work flexibly with others such as Open Source Ecology, Farm Urban and Aquaponics Labs – focusing on the engineering not the contracts. It gives us a curating rather than owning relationship with our technologies that keeps us centred on meeting the needs of the community.
We don’t see people using the WaterElf as passive consumers of a tech gadget – we’ve done everything we can with its design to try to make it a springboard into a community of growers. With every report of success or failure with one crop or another, the shared knowledge pool gets bigger and more valuable. Join in, grow some fresh food and find out just how much fun it can be.