Dinnertime: Potatoes sans Carbon

Potato Fair
Back to the Supply Chain Gang. I reread this Carbon Trust mini-white paper (Carbon footprints in the supply chain) this morning with a view to picking out the Open possibilities, as the term relates to supply chains.

Rather than a polluter pays approach the paper advocates an holistic view on the entire supply chain for two test cases, the Trinity Mirror produced Daily Mirror and three products Walkers Crisps produces. Let’s get some muck behind our ears and look at the spuds.

Walkers was encouraged to “own” the entire supply chain from start to finish. Broken into three stages this chain incorporates:

  • Raw material
  • Distribution, manufacturing and retailing steps
  • Product use and disposal

Crucially using this methodology Walkers is to take responsibility for the carbon in parts of the supply chain that it traditionally doesn’t own, e.g. the production of the actual potatoes.

So:

For each of the products, the full product life-cycle was analyzed, considering emissions from fuel use in raw material production and distribution through manufacturing and product distribution to disposal and recycling…
Suppliers and other supply chain partners were engaged to provide energy data…
The data gathered was used to build a mass balance map of the flows of materials and energy through the supply chain and to build a footprint of the life-cycle emissions for each product. These results were then used to identify opportunities to reduce emissions by changing process flows and by changing the way the supply chain is structured.

The report goes on to list lots of expected insights. In the case of Walkers it presents this rather interesting finding:

A key opportunity relates to the water content of the potatoes. The overall supply chain can save up to 9,200 tonnes of CO2 and £1.2m per annum by changing the way that potatoes are traded; Walkers can reduce the emissions from the potato frying stage by up to 10%.
…By changing the way potatoes are purchased, savings can be made by both parties.

Here’s how:

The Problem for Farmers

  • Spuds purchased by weight
  • Spuds are stored in artificially humidified warehousing
  • This increases water content (thus their weight and saleprice)
  • Humidifiers use lots of energy. Energy = CO2

The Problem for Walkers

  • Spuds are fried to drive off moisture once sliced
  • Extra moisture in spuds increases frying time. Ergo more CO2 used in cooking

You’re seeing where this is going right.

The Solution

  • Price spuds by water content. Reward farmers for extra dry spuds
  • No commercial incentive for humidifying spuds means < CO2
  • < water means < frying means < CO2 = WINWIN

Okay, so that’s a nice little standalone study. Join up the supply chains and look for efficiencies. Easy to do in this case, not so easy once we get exponentially bigger supply chains.
Imagine the pack of salt + vinegar crisps is part of a ready meal. The ready meal is served on a plane. And the flight is part of a package holiday to Lanzarote. How we begin to put all that together so that Thomas Cook can add everything together to find efficiencies. Something it probably hasn’t even countenanced doing yet.

We open up the chain. We expose the information to whoever can use it, or add to it. What next? Can we build a reward economy around creating new efficiencies? Can we introduce a self-learning algorithm to capture these efficiencies and migrate them to similar systems/chains? From a software engineering perspective the answer is undoubtedly yes. How about social engineering?

It strikes me that if some of this were to be done we’d be faced with a problem analogous to those Wikipedia and Flickr have answered so successfully. In Wikipedia’s case it’s giving ownership and trust to its team of non-paid admins, without which it couldn’t function. In Flickr’s case it’s allowing you, I or anybody add descriptive tags, metadata, to each and every photo.

So at last a planet saving use for the social surplus. But how do we engage. Why would a member of Clay Shirky’s gin-soaked masses want to “tag” an Open Supply Chain rather than edit a Wikipedia article or sort a Flicker archive? Figure that one out and we may have a business model here. So answers on a (creative commons attributed) postcard please.

Potato Fair Play


As you’ll see if you take a look over on TrashBlanc.com right now I was up early this morning visiting what I believe is London’s only annual Potato Fair. I was with four longtime patrons of the event who provided plenty of advice, but the most important piece was “get there early”. They weren’t wrong, by 10.30am I was in a bustling school féte scene straight out of the Archers.

I could write for hours about the great varieties on display, from the bog standard Golden Wonder to the brilliantly named Skerry Blue and my own personal favourite the Sharpe’s Express, but it was the sheer fact that this was taking place in the middle of London that impressed me most. George Monbiot wrote a lighthearted piece recently about his love forapple varieties. Well and good I thought at the time. But attending something like the Potato Fair and seeing the variety of potatoes alone we have in our soil is simply amazing. And it’s also terribly depressing. 95% of these varieties will never hit the shops. Tesco, Lidl and Aldi have no interest in small lots with smaller margins and the vast majority of the population don’t know what they’re missing. Shame.

Here are some photos from my Flickr account.

Pink Fir Apple

Potato Fair

Potato Fair

Irish Pork Recall

SXS-Eats

As you can see the TrashBlanc team are back in action. Likewise big international food crises have kicked navel gazing Irish finance reporters off the front pages of Ireland’s finest journals. It may be fun and games in the TB kitchen but right now a half billion Euro pork industry is going down the shithole in Ireland. And the industry in question has only itself to blame.

The irishtimes.com has a good chronology of events here.

The basic problem: bad chemicals that have found their way into some feed that has come through an agri/bio recycler. The feed of course is centralized and has distributed the contaminated contents to farms throughout Ireland. Any good journalist would ask what else is in the feed? What is being recycled? But maybe the public isn’t quite ready to hear how their sausages are bred and fed right now. Though one can only ask if not now, then when?

It’s time the entire European Union started questioning a system that can turn one incident at one feed/recycling/rendering plant into a continent wide hunt for contaminated Irish Pork.

When one link in the production chain can effect every other downstream link in an entire industry, there’s deep deep problems.

Even if we ignore the gross environmental and sustainability issues at play here, there’s a simple economic argument. Farmers and agri-business throughout the EU and the US are massively subsidized through grants, tax breaks and artificially inflated food prices. This subsidization is directly responsible for the upkeep of agricultural poverty cycles in developing countries. And even with all that in play our farmers have still managed to waste those grants on a system that has utterly failed.

The economies of scale that big-farming claim necessitate centralized feeding and distribution have been been proved utterly false once again. The big supermarkets, Tesco, Carrefour and Asda/Walmart are equally guilty. But it’s our finance and agriculture ministers who we elect us to save us from ourselves and ourthirst for low prices. It’s time they started doing just that.