Food, community, and energy: grassroots innovation in rationalizing the local supply chain

This blog is mostly about the political economy of industrial scale energy: central station electricity systems spanning chunks of continents, hydrocarbon fuel production and refining, and making both cleaner and more efficient. But this time I want to talk about something a bit different. I recently attended a very interesting meeting for a nascent group wanting to develop a local network for food harvesting. The idea would be to harvest excess fruit, berries, and nuts in Ottawa and the surrounding area, then either distribute it fresh to food banks or preserve it in jams, also for distribution.

It was a pleasant and exciting experience to discuss, with some really intelligent, knowledgeable, and passionate people, how to make the enterprise a reality. It brought me right back to my younger days, when I was an enthusiastic devotee of people like Bradford Angier and Euell Gibbons, whose books I devoured before running out and devouring the wild foods they talked up.

There is a certain elemental, magical excitement that comes with the prospect of acquiring outdoor proficiency, especially if you are, like me, an urban animal who lives in a man-made world that often seems divorced from the tangible, earthy natural world. Outdoor proficiency requires knowledge of how to get a meal when all there is is you and Mother Nature—no restaurants, no grocery stores, no well-stocked refrigerator or canned food. It has been a while since I have felt the stirrings of that kind of excitement. I felt it again during the local food harvesting meeting. It was very enjoyable, like rediscovering something long lost.

And it does tie into this blog. Food is energy. A few weeks ago I was on the phone with one of my brothers, who recently launched a bakery in Toronto, The Cliffside Hearth, which specializes in naturally leavened breads (though not exclusively naturally leavened; he also makes baguettes, which are yeasted breads).

He told me about one of the suppliers to the bakery, a miller of organic flour located north of Toronto. This miller sells wheat hulls, which are usually just thrown out, to some plant in Ontario that generates electricity. i.e., biomass energy.

A few weeks ago, the Power Workers’ Union, the biggest labour organization in the Ontario electricity sector, ran a full-page advertisement that advocated, among other things, using biomass in Ontario’s coal-fired power plants.

Presumably, discarded organic wheat hulls could serve as fuel for power plants. Of course this could not possibly provide enough fuel to run grid-scale generators 24/7; many sources of biomass would be required. But every bit of biomass mixed with coal would reduce the carbon output of coal. It would also make it environmentally viable to continue running the coal plants, which provide highly flexible generation.

So the organic flour industry shares, or could potentially share, a symbiotic relationship with the central-station grid electricity business.

And local food: well, this blog is about energy. Food at its most basic is energy. But it is not just utilitarian. It is also an essential part of community and culture, and economic life.

So it all ties in.

I will provide details of this group and its activities as the whole thing develops and gets off the ground. Or on the ground.

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11 years ago

I’m proud of you my boy! I always knew that taking you & your brothers out of school one day a school year for exploratory hikes into the Gatineau Hills was good for developing minds bodies and souls, including my own.I could not imagine that those trips, catching snakes, picking wild things to eat would make a scientist out of you, a musician/baker out of Dave, and a naturalist/arborist out of Peter. Alas, my work is not done yet as I am required to listen and learn all about your work and therefore I too continue to be a learner. Merci!!! Ma