Big Food Redesign Challenge: It’s time to redesign food for nature to thrive
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Redesign Challenge aims to inspire the food industry to...
In a circular economy, food ingredients should be diverse, low-impact, upcycled, and produced in a regenerative system. But what does that look like in practice?
This episodes was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Well in an ideal world, everything that you bought on a supermarket shelf, and every bowl of cereal or bite of a chocolate bar or bowl of pasta or meal that you had, would mean nature was better off as a result of the way the ingredients that went into those products are grown. And so those who are in charge of designing the products that we put in our supermarket baskets, have a real ability to change the system, you know, so you think of the large food corporations, or even the small innovators who are making, or manufacturing those food products. If you if you think about their design decisions around how they are procuring the various ingredients or how they are specifying that maybe maybe we should use heritage varieties of carrots or potatoes or whatever it is in the product. what that would entail for farmers and therefore landscapes. You know, I think there is a there is an argument to say there is a huge responsibility on on organisations that manufacture the food that we put into our shopping baskets every day.
Pippa Shawley 1:04
Hello and welcome to the Circular Economy Show Podcast. I’m Pippa Shawley and in this episode, we’ll meet three brands using circular design principles to create their products. In the last two episodes, we heard about why our current food system needs to change, and how farmers can help to address biodiversity loss and climate change. If you missed those, then I recommend you have a listen before diving into today’s episode. Before we hear from our guests, I asked Reniera O'Donnell, Food Lead here at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, what we mean when we talk about redesigning food.
So what we're talking about, Pippa, is rethinking, I guess the ingredients that go into the food products that we see on our supermarket shelves. So thinking about how do we use more diverse ingredients in our food products? How do we use ingredients that have a lower impact on the environment? How do we use upcycled ingredients? You know, and really importantly, how do we think about designing food products that enable farmers to farm ingredients in a way that are regeneratively grown, in regenerative farming systems? And the work that we've done, really shows that if we start to think about redesigning food using these these kind of core principles, that actually we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the food that we are growing by 70%. And we can reduce biodiversity loss by up to 50%.
Pippa Shawley 2:30
Circular design for food is about putting nature at the centre of product decisions, from concept, to ingredients, to packaging. So let’s meet one of the brands redesigning the way our food is made. Rubies in the Rubble was founded in 2012 by Jenny Costa, who set up the condiment brand after reading about the amount of waste generated by the food industry. She used her mum’s jam and chutney recipes to preserve fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be thrown away, starting her business in a burger van in London.
Jenny Costa 2:59
Back in 2012, no one was talking about food waste. It was a really hippy notion, if anything, it was talked about, just from a financial point of view, but it was bin divers, and it was almost people wanted to show that they were affluent enough to eat and could waste. And it's also a very hard one to get your head around because it's compostable and people are like, well what's the big deal, but it's, I suppose it's the it's the thinking back of that bowl of pasta that you've made too much of and what was the carbon footprint of getting that bowl of pasta made and on your plate. So yeah, I started really passionate about that, having found this gem of knowledge and just wanting to share it. And so on the weekends, I started selling my mum's old recipes, really, I made the classical traditional way of preserving something, I started going to fruit and veg markets taking surplus, fruit and veg are things that would otherwise be wasted. I went along to ones in the middle of the night around sort of 4am. So that was the big, big wholesale fruit and veg markets and sort of learning about supply chain. And then taking anything that was surplus or was about to..or would only have a couple of days left in it, and then turning it into something that I could extend the shelf life and it's it's a very traditional thing that people have been doing for generations, a way of preserving fruit and veg. And I got so excited about it. I thought I'm gonna start a brand about this, I want to make the best tasting products and raise awareness of this need to value food again, through an old traditional method and start working with farmers and different markets around the country.
Pippa Shawley 4:37
After experimenting with her recipes and learning what customers liked, Jenny realised that to scale the business, she needed to find fresh produce before it made it to the fruit and veg markets where she began.
Jenny Costa 4:49
So we started on the market, taking setups from the market and then started speaking to a lot of farmers while we were in our little portacabin. And realising the scale was actually and things that we wanted to use were on the farm. We had one tomato farmer sort of saying in summer months, he can throw around 35 tonnes of tomatoes that he called his to sort of good, good to use tomatoes. So we then started working with these different chains of farmers. And eventually we got to the point that we couldn't make everything in our little portacabin, we started supplying into Waitrose, and we did a lot with Eat with Jamie Oliver back in those days, and then and then slowly grew from there.
Pippa Shawley 5:30
As Rubies in the Rubble continued to grow, it was time for the business to pivot its offering and scale.
Jenny Costa 5:36
I got in some investors in 2018. And they said, you know, if you really want to make an impact look at the market and the size of chutney, you need to go into mainstream condiments where you can access a bigger market and really raise awareness of the message, make people think about it while they've got it in their fridge. And that was when we took the leap into plant based mayonnaises, which are not obviously based on fruit and veg, but we work with aquafaba. So teaming up with hummus manufacturers that were cooking chickpeas, and they would normally throw away that water and we would collect it and dehydrate it into a powder and put it back into a mayonnaise and replace the egg. And we created a range of different mayonnaises and and then similarly with our ketchup, we were looking at ketchup and thinking what's the biggest ingredient and, in a classic in your use of mainstream ketchups tomatoes around 9% of the recipe or 10%, maybe max. And then the bulk of the recipe is water, vinegar and sugar. So we replaced the water and half of the sugar with pears and we worked with local pear farmers and would make a pear puree, which is a very neutral taste. And that it's better for you, better for the planet and a ketchup that we could put our put our name to.
Pippa Shawley 6:51
So as well as upcycling produce that would otherwise have gone to waste, Rubies in the Rubble has diversified the ingredients it uses in its recipes. This is another key part of creating a circular design for food. Those same principles can also be applied to what we drink. I spoke to botanist and archaeologist Elzanne Singels, who co-founded Grounded Ingredients, to learn how they are working with farmers and plant gatherers across the continent of Africa to source and grow indigenous plants for teas. While Camellia sinensis, the plant used to make tea, is grown throughout East Africa and some of the wetter areas of southern Africa, Elzanne believes there is a huge opportunity for using indigenous African plants, such as rooibos and honeybush, to make herbal teas.
Elzanne Singels 7:39
First of all, people are realising how many functional benefits herbal teas can have. And apart from that, you can have a greater diversity of enjoyment for as well of what you're drinking, but also have a bigger impact with your purchases that you're making. In a wider area of scope. You know, from the tip of Africa all the way to the North, you could potentially be drinking indigenous teas from all over. So we have a portfolio of indigenous herbal teas that were also I would say is like the most important important part of our portfolio, because we are so well positioned here to really interrogate what the impacts of those value chains are, and really drill down to the essence of how to set up and commercialise indigenous tea herbal teas correctly. So that's really where a core focus of our tea portfolio has been, was in drilling down what is the impact of the rooibos industry, of the honeybush industry, of purple[?] And then there's lots of other indigenous herbals that are also becoming more and more popular in Europe and in North America.
Pippa Shawley 8:57
Rooibos belongs to the pea family, and grows in a small area in the Cedarberg, about 300 kilometres north of Cape Town in South Africa. Elzanne says that the flavour of the region comes through in the taste of the indigenous ingredients.
Elzanne Singels 9:11
So we are in the Cape Floristic region, which is a very special type of vegetation that grows you're called fynbos. And fynbos has very characteristic types of compounds that occur in the plants here. And that's where the taste of indigenous herbal teas from the Cape come from. So Rooibos and honeybush tastes like fynbos. So if you ever come and visit the Cape and you go walking on Table Mountain, you will smell that essence of fynbos and that is what the tea tastes like, but really taste like the landscape, which is beautiful. But in terms of people that maybe won't be able to access the fall do [?] and go walking on Table Mountain. It is described as a woody flavour that has fruity notes, so depending on where it comes from different fruity notes, but mostly that I think that woodiness describes it quite well. So it's a very earthy drink with some sweet notes. So it is very popular in blends. It's a very good base for blending. So if you want to put something on it that's a little bit stronger, like Chai rooibos is very popular, for example, because those more stronger flavoured spices pair so well was earthy base of rooibos.
Pippa Shawley 10:34
While taste is incredibly important for consumers, cultivating plants in the regions they are native to is low-impact and good for the climate, as Elzanne says.
Elzanne Singels 10:44
A very big, a very big motivator for me to use indigenous products as a botanist is the impact on the climate that it could have. So if you look within South African systems, in the past huge dam projects were done to make sure that farmers had ample water for irrigation. It's not for drinking water. And they would plant, still to this day, in some of the most arid regions in our country, there's mangoes being grown, because it's very nice and hot and beautiful fertile soils, and all of the water just being sucked up and used. And recently, I don't know if your listeners will be familiar, but we have experienced a very long, very severe drought in South Africa. And Cape Town came very close to not having any water in our taps
Pippa Shawley 11:41
Elzanne Singels 11:42
Multiple times. And in that time, the irrigation downs were of course completely empty. So that puts a farmer actually in a very vulnerable position throughout climate change. So what's great about some indigenous plants, especially if they grown in the area, where they occur is that they are naturally adapted to that area and the soils. So you need less fertiliser... rooibos is a very another very good example rooibos. You overwater it. Usually that's how it dies. So it actually doesn't need you to water it because it lives in the mountains where it just gets the natural rainfall the area and it creates its own nitrogen, so you don't have to fertilise so it's like a super good example of how indigenous crops that are even cultivated and not wild harvested, could create more resilient farming systems in the projections for climate change that are kind of required for farmers to still make an income.
Pippa Shawley 12:43
Resilient farming systems that don’t rely on synthetic fertilisers are a key part of a circular economy for food. Another brand with ambitions to grow nature-positive food is Hodmedod’s in the UK. Last year, the Foundation went to visit Nick Saltmarsh and Josiah Meldrum, who founded the company with William Hudson, in the east of England, to find out why they started selling beans, pulses and peas. Nick started by explaining what ‘Hodmedod’s’ means.
Nick Saltmarsh 13:12
Hodmedod's is, depending where you are in Suffolk or Norfolk, it can mean a hedgehog, it can sometimes mean a snail, sort of round and curled up. So perhaps slightly fancifully, a bean or a pea is round and curls up in its pod. So there was a tenuous connection with the beans and peas that were our first products
Pippa Shawley 13:30
By sourcing and growing a diverse range of pulses, grains and flour, Hodmedods are cultivating diversity and helping customers switch to lower impact varieties that are often forgotten. Josiah explains how these beans and peas not only provide nutritious food for people to eat, but also help nature to thrive on the farm:
Josiah Meldrum 13:50
5%, roughly speaking, of all manmade climate emissions come from the production of nitrogen. So if we can avoid it by using plants like these beans, then that's absolutely fantastic. The sense that there is this, what you could broadly call, a global emergency. And that you could, you could put the climate into that, you could put biodiversity loss into that, you could put inequality of food distribution into that, you could put chronic ill health into that. And really, that's what we're driven by, you know, how do we how do we find answers to these complex problems? How do we find a systems approach that will allow us to make a positive shift through through diet and land use and beans and peas are just at the heart of that. So as well as feeding itself, this bean can potentially be feeding other crops in the field. So if we were to drill wheat into this bean crop, the wheat would grow better and need less nitrogen because the bean would be feeding it.
Pippa Shawley 14:43
One business working with Hodmedod’s is Maple Farm, a 137 hectare organic farm situated near the Suffolk coast. Farmer Mike Mallet says that growing peas for the brand has helped close the loop across his farm.
Mike Mallett 14:56
I was really quite shocked to find that in order to make our hen food, we were using soya beans that were imported from China. And I thought, how can it be that we're having to bring these beans halfway across the world in order to in order to feed our hens.We've tried all sorts of approaches. And about 15 months ago, somebody suggested to me, why not try keeping mealworms raising mealworms with us with the view to use them as an alternative to soya because they're a high protein food source. And being insects and chickens want to eat insects, they're just a kind of perfect match really. The beauty of the system is we've got the flour mill next door. And when we produce in flour that also produces bran and the bran is the perfect medium and food for the mealworms. So we put a bran in the trays along along with also some of the pea flour that comes from Hodmedods and fresh powder is which is their waste product that's kept and that is a fantastic fertiliser.
Pippa Shawley 16:02
This system means Mike no longer has to pay for imported chicken feed, or synthetic fertilisers. Josiah hopes more businesses will follow suit.
Josiah Meldrum 16:11
By making a lot of noise and demonstrating the changes possible we can inspire farmers and other businesses in order to make changes to the way that they're working as well. We are not the change. We are simply a catalyst and an enabler for change. I hope.
Pippa Shawley 16:26
Mike and Josiah’s story reminds us that even though we often think of ingredients in isolation, the system in which they are produced has a huge impact on the shape of our landscape. And, as Josiah says, it will take more than one business to create a nature-positive food system. But brands like Rubies in the Rubble, Grounded Ingredients and Hodmedods are showing how applying the circular design for food framework to products and portfolios can contribute to this change. So next time you look in your fridge, think about the ingredients you have and how they could support a climate-friendly future.
In next week’s episode, we’ll look at the role of retailers. I hope you can join us then, thanks for listening!
This episode was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The Circular Economy Show Podcast is published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and produced by Skinny Mammoth Media. Thanks to our contributors Jenny Costa, Elzanne Singels and the Hodmedod’s team.
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