Want a Circular Economy? Start With Food.

I get asked fairly often why a lot of my work centres around food, the longer I’ve spent working on Gutface, the more this question pops up. As a designer and creative technologist there is always this assumption that I should be sticking electronics onto 3d printed prototypes or sitting in a converted warehouse, adorned with graffiti on the walls obsessing over the size of the font in my next presentation (both assumptions not wrong!). But Gutface is more than just about making fermented sauce, it is about rethinking our relationship to our food to create truly sustainable, environmentally friendly glocal economies that encourage healthier lifestyles and reduce food waste.

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Gutface started as a passion project looking at how the food system could be better. It is no secret how inherently unsustainable most of the food system (read livestock) is and the vast environmental consequences it has on the planet (read monocultures). We take for granted how POOF! magically food appears on our grocery store shelves everyday and are so disconnected from where our food comes from and how it is made that it made us wonder; how could we or future generations survive if a major crisis suddenly impacted our access to food?

We started looking at easy, robust preservation methods that required little know how and little technology. It was the story of a Nordic butter that is preserved underground for years only to be teeming with health bacteria and inherit the flavours of the local environment that led us down a rabbit hole we couldn’t (nor wanted to) escape. Fermentation, the process of preserving food through its chemical breakdown by micro-organisms was the perfect technology. It was a research trip to France that turned us from curious designers to fermentation zealots.

 Camembert cheese fermenting away. The white fluff on the outside is probiotic bacteria that will impart a distinct taste and quality in this cheese that slightly differs between manufacturers.

Camembert cheese fermenting away. The white fluff on the outside is probiotic bacteria that will impart a distinct taste and quality in this cheese that slightly differs between manufacturers.

There we learnt about terroir; each ferment is unique because of the bacterial profile of the place in which the vegetables were harvested. When probiotic bacteria are encouraged to grow in the fermentation process, they express - in the purest form - the local particulars of time and place. It is no wonder that fermented foods are the most closely tied to culture (think blue cheese, soy sauce, labneh) and this has vast potential for local based creativity. We also learnt about the wondrous health benefits of fermentation. The probiotic bacteria that are responsible for the process are also crucial to our digestive and mental healths. It is not a coincidence that many lifestyle diseases have surfaced (such as IBS, allergies and even obesity) since we increasingly substituted fermented foods for processed, sterilised ones. Finally, at a wooden table in a rural cottage kitchen, warmed by a wood fire, we were invited to a lunch made of food that would otherwise be wasted such as watermelon skin pickles and apple scrap vinegar.

 Food brings cultures together. We were invited to lunch in Normandy by a food blogger that was made mostly of fermented foods. Here you can see fermented pineapple rinds and in the background fermented watermelon rinds - a great way to save food from anaerobic digestion in landfills.

Food brings cultures together. We were invited to lunch in Normandy by a food blogger that was made mostly of fermented foods. Here you can see fermented pineapple rinds and in the background fermented watermelon rinds - a great way to save food from anaerobic digestion in landfills.

It became increasingly apparent to us that fermentation wasn’t just an interesting food preservation method, it had to become a way of life. As part of a wider redesign of the food system, fermentation can teach us the importance of collaborating with the most misunderstood but crucial members of nature; bacteria - to make food that is far better for us. Fermentation in its essence promotes a sustainable, circular way of living - have pineapple scraps? Use them to make tepache and then use the waste from that process for a more nutritious compost - all using no energy. Hell, if farms are going to continue throwing away perfectly good but ugly vegetables, ferment them. It can encourage unique, local creations that promote local economies through small business, tourism and cultural exchange because if there’s one thing that’s always in demand - its food.


If we can redesign our cities to centre around circular, local food models, could we not create a healthier future for ourselves, a sustainable future for our planet and more robust glocal economies? I’m convinced we can.