Sustain RCA Talk On
Disruptive Food Systems

The RCA Sustain Talks take place at the Royal College of Art and we attended the most recent one, where the theme was Disruptive Food Systems.  These talks are a series of lectures which are open to students, staff and also external visitors looking to address sustainability in their work.  The speakers were Andrew Thornton of Budgens Crouch End, Kelvin Cheung of Food Cycle, Charlie Paton of the Seawater Greenhouse Project and Julene Aguirre Bielschowsky of project ENTO.

First up was Julene Aguirre Bielschowsky representing a group of RCA masters students who collaborated on a project known as Ento.  The aim of the project is to introduce edible insects to the western diet by the year 2020.

It is broadly recognised that edible insects are a more efficient, healthy and sustainable source of protein, which could offer a solution to global food demands.  However, whilst there is a movement within the UN and the EU for investment in farming to commercialise this food-source, a key question the project looks to address is how do we change western culture to accept this, in a similar manner to sushi (and raw fish), which is now a familiar sight on our high streets.

Working with a chef, the team produced a number of products, for example, pâté and crackers made from insect flour, and then trialled them with various people.  Initial tests have shown that people are prepared to try these products when presented in familiar formats and not looking like insects.


Next up was Andrew Thornton, the owner of two Budgens franchised stores in Crouch End and Belsize Park.  He initially took over the Crouch End store to offer a different experience to the normal high street supermarket and, shortly after, acquired his second store.  He believes that it’s easy to compete against the supermarkets, if you do something different.  Fundamentally, Andrew cares about connecting people with food and the environment, and about raising awareness of the damage done to the planet by the food industry.

He launched Food From The Sky, a community based permaculture project, on the rooftop of his store in Crouch End, to grow food to sell in the supermarket below, while providing a learning and educational space for the different parts of the communities.

Another passion of his has been to stop the massive overuse of plastic carrier bags. A staggering 35,000 carrier bags were used every week, at each store, so he decided to encourage people to use their own bags, or pay for the bags.  Each one purchased cost 1p, which went to charity.  For the first project they raised £3,000 for a local school to provide a stage.  Since then, a further £125,000 has been raised to help 45 community projects and it has additionally saved 12.5 million carrier bags.

The amount of food waste going into landfill has been reduced to 6%.  This is accomplished partly through the employment of a chef who is given food that’s going out of date, from which he makes delicious meals to be sold in store.  Additional spare food is given to FoodCycle (see their story below) and any remainder is composted.

A year and a half ago, Andrew decided to put doors on the chillers, reducing the heating bill and saving 16% of the store’s total energy, with no loss of custom.  Other Budgens stores have since followed suit.


Kelvin Chung introduced us to FoodCycle which was formed in 2008 to take surplus food from supermarkets and, with the help of volunteers and spare kitchen spaces, turn the food into highly nutritious meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation.

Since they formed, they have grown to 14 hubs throughout the country, with 1,000 volunteers feeding 4,000 meals to beneficiaries.  They are now looking to increase to 100 hubs and utilise some of the 400,000 tonnes of food waste that come from our supermarkets every year.  It is hoped that some of this could help to feed the 4 million people currently affected by food poverty in the UK.


The last speaker, Charlie Paton introduced  Seawater Greenhouses.  These are structures that enable the growth of crops all year round in arid regions, using seawater and solar energy, therefore not relying on scarce fresh water.

The Seawater Greenhouse uses the sun, the sea and the atmosphere to produce fresh water and cool air. The process recreates the natural hydrological cycle within a controlled environment. The entire front wall of the building consists of a honeycomb lattice evaporator.  The sea water trickles down over the lattice, cooling and humidifying the air passing through into the planting area. Sunlight is filtered through a specially constructed roof, which traps infrared heat while allowing visible light through to promote photosynthesis. This creates optimum growing conditions – cool and humid with high light intensity.

Cool air passes through the planting area and then combines with hot dry air from the roof cavity. The mixture passes through a second sea water evaporator creating hot saturated air which then flows through a condenser. The condenser is cooled by incoming sea water and the temperature difference causes fresh water to condense out of the air stream. The volume of fresh water is determined by air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation and the airflow rate.

With appropriate meteorological information, the detailed design and performance of the Seawater Greenhouse can be optimised for every suitable location and environment.

The first of these Seawater Greenhouses was constructed in Tenerife following the development of a prototype in the UK.

More Sustain Talks are planned…see here for details.