In this weeks post, I’d like to explore a seemingly paradoxical situation whereby we might be able to turn some of our food processing industry away from being a massive energy importer, into a net zero energy consumer. This would hopefully stem some of the massive job losses we have recently seen in this sector, but is it possible?
Admittedly, the Irish food industry is making some efforts to become less energy-import dependent, through creating energy from burning waste animal fat (tallow), and using anaerobic digestion to turn some of the other waste by products into energy. These efforts are not huge in impact though, and probably amount to no more than mid-single digits in overall percentage terms.
Where is the Irish food industry headed?
However, in the last decade we have seen wave after wave of factory closure in Ireland’s food industry, much of it in meat processing. Examples include Hannon’s Poultry, Dawn Meats, and Glanbia in Roscommon, Green Isle (Donegal Catch) in Sligo, Kepak in Leitrim, as well as Cargill and Barford meats in Monaghan. Examples outside the meat industry include Oatfield Sweets in Donegal, Yoplait in Wexford, HB and Jacob Fruitfield in Dublin, Irish Sugar in Carlow and Cork, Erin Foods in Tipperary, and Skretting fish feeds in Mayo. Quite a lot for a small country. The list could continue with smaller factories, and it will probably grow over the coming decade as more companies struggle with higher energy and transport costs, as well as the higher energy intensity of our food processing industry compared with other countries.
We could complain that Ireland imports almost as much food from the UK as it export there. However from an energy stand point, it doesn’t really matter if we import our food or grow it here, it’s made mostly with imported fossil fuels regardless of where we get it, and in an era of expensive energy, this is a major factor in bleeding wealth out of the country. A few weeks back we highlighted that one of the main opportunities for reducing energy imports (and hence conserving our wealth) was to make and consume more food locally. But what if it was possible to reuse some of these closed down factories and run them as ‘zero net energy and waste’ local food suppliers?
Factory shutdowns = opportunity?
A new enterprise in Chicago, “The Plant” aims to do just that. They have taken over a disused meat-packing factory, and will produce a number of food products and fertilizers on a small-scale, including mushrooms, vegetables, fish and beer. The basis of the plan is that the energy will come from food waste, and the nutrients from one process will feed the next. The building itself is already there, so there is not much energy required in construction, and it is already capable of meeting hygiene standards since it was originally built to be food grade compliant.
From a community-scale point of view, the guys behind ‘The Plant’ are demonstrating how something like this can be done on a shoestring budget, and since nearly a quarter of the energy required to put food on our table comes down to food processing, this approach should be cost competitive in the future, even at a smaller scale.
Food for thought
A lot of our food in Cloughjordan comes straight from the field on to the dinner table, courtesy of the local CSA, but with the long spell of bad weather we’ve had lately, not all of us are ready to move away from the help of indoor food growing just yet. We’re currently working on a business plan for the community of Borrisokane to help them grow some food year-round indoors, using energy from local waste biomass. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on. In the meantime, let us know if there are any disused food processing plants near you which may have some potential reuse in local food production – we might be able to help.