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September 21, 2006

Noisy food

A couple of days ago I found myself in the town centre of Carlisle, in the north west of England, at 7am. The roads were empty except for a a large white truck whose driver was unloading packaged food into a shop. An incredible, raw-edged roar of noise came from the refrigeration unit on top of his cab. The noise was so extreme that my skin started to creep, and I couldn't hear a word when someone called me on my mobile phone. I retreated into the railway station cafeteria, but it was not much better in there: Two large refrigerated drinks machines were roaring away so loudly that the sales assistant had to shout to tell me the price of a coffee.

That noise represents wasted energy. The scary thing, as I learned at the Creative Rural Economy conference in Lancaster last week, is that perpetually rising food transport intensity is government policy. One policymaker described the countryside as "post productivist", and a senior academic advisor to the UK government told me later that "the purpose of the countryside is consumption".

I suppose this is factually correct - city dwellers make 1.2 billion trips to the countryside in the UK alone, and spend 12 billion pounds shopping when they get there; but it's a disastrous policy in environmental and food security terms.

It's also mad. One supermarket is flying planeloads of turnips from New Zealand to the UK in order to drive down the prices being asked by home growers. Turnips contain 70 percent water - so the company is in effect flying planeloads of water across the world to drive down prices of a root crop that could once have been found within a couple of miles of where most of the population lives.

I also learned that if you or I spend ten euros on a food in a supermarket, less than 60 cents - 6% - of tha money goes to the farmer who grew it. The rest goes to the wholesalers, the processors, the packagers, the retailers - and to the running costs of that roaring white truck in Carlisle.

But lots of good things are happening too, as we are finding out in the City Farming strand of Dott.

Posted by John Thackara at September 21, 2006 10:01 AM


Great post. They've resorted to premium grocery delivery by diesel truck here in New York City. Idling double-parked or racing thru residential streets, their waste is such a caustic presence.

Posted by: Dave at September 22, 2006 01:49 AM

Hi John,
Great post. I once attempted a design project to do with designing/building a sustainable domestic refrigerator? Early on in the research phase I contacted Cameron Tonkinwise of EDF (whom you no doubt know of) to discuss it. He insightfully pointed out to me that it is not necessarily the domestic refrigerator that is unsustainable. Rather, it's that refrigeration has allowed intensive agriculture, ie to grow more than is seasonally required in one region, store it, ship it, distribute it, all without regard for the seasons or locale. To eat turnips, etc all year long at our convenience.
rgds, Anthony

Posted by: Anthony Heap at September 22, 2006 03:02 AM

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