Food scraps can enjoy a second life as fuel
If the story of jesus creating more than enough fish and loaves for the hungry masses is understood as a parable rather than a miracle, it shows a prophetic awareness of how food abundance can be created through the miracle of upcycling.
The fact is, it's unlikely we can solve the world's food problems by producing more than we do now. It's even unlikely we can do it by conserving, consuming less or eating more wisely in terms of the resources used in the making of various agri products.
But by thinking outside the composter, we can let food beget more food - and get a much greater enviro bang from our agriculture. This is the promise of abundance that food upcycling allows, but it requires extending allowable thought far beyond recycling.
Food systems provide one of the few opportunities granted to humans to reverse nature's near-universal trend toward degrading energy. They can actually be designed to stop entropy, which is usually as irreversible as gravity.
This is where upcycling struts its stuff. It does one better than recycling, which often deserves to be known as downcycling because it fritters away the possibilities for a real energy transformation from dying matter.
Yes, conventional composting converts decaying plants into nutrients that condition the soil. But by sending agricultural by-products back to the ground, our food system misses many opportunities to create additional value that could end up making food "waste'' more productive than the original food.
Growing Power in Milwaukee, one of the rare upcycling projects of this kind, uses donated food leftovers from restaurants to warm greenhouses through the harsh winters, thus eliminating one of the biggest cost barriers to urban greenhouses.
The food waste is fed into anaerobic digesters that speed up the natural process of decay with special bacteria and turn the soup of waste into methane gas that runs generators.
Given the fact that we need to feed a world of 9 billion people over the next generation, it's shocking that there aren't more of these enterprises. Most research is directed to boosting the productivity of producers, usually by very small margins. Almost no resources are diverted, University of Manitoba geographer Vaclav Smil complains in his Feeding The World: A Challenge For The Twenty-First Century, to making better use of food waste, which amounts to almost half the food produced in the world.
But there's more than one way to up the value of food refuse. Visionary planners are working on a new concept called "eco-industrial parks" - intentional communities of factories that deliberately locate close to one another to take full advantage of one another's "waste" products.
Just as trash is in the eye of the beholder, so is upcycling. Sawdust is waste in a furniture factory. Food scraps are waste in a food processing factory. Sawdust and food scraps are a match made in upcycling heaven, the perfect mix of nitrogen and carbon for healthy, odour-free compost.
So a furniture factory and food processor need a matchmaking developer and enviro-conscious planners to insist that a compost-making plant locate between them.
The rethinking of food waste could also feed an urban livestock movement.
Though it's hard to imagine in today's context, wait until the food crisis means more than expensive pasta. Many scraps that get tossed directly into the composter could, with standard sanitary practices, be fed to chickens, pigs or tilapia - fish from Asia and Africa that grow well in urban aquafarms because they don't require moving water.
In such cases, leftovers are upgraded to protein while the animal also converts the food waste into manure that can be applied to the soil. And just before the poop is turned into fertilizer, it can be composted in a digester to create biogas that can be used to heat the building. This is a natural in any eco-industrial park.
It's going to take some major reframing of the traditional urban-country divide, but making the best use of what the city has mountains of - pouring forth from every kitchen daily - means having the courage to take recycling upscale.