Science in Society Archive

An Urban Dream Farm for London?

The first community project in the metropolis to recycle food wastes into energy and fertilizer by anaerobic digestion - Sam Burcher

The organic muesli producer who keeps making history

Alex Smith has been made a London Leader of Sustainability for 2009 by the London Development Agency (LDA). This appointment by the Mayor of London’s office is a far cry from thirty years ago when Alex was a squatter and started his food company Alara with two £1 notes he found in the street. Alara now produces up to one hundred tonnes of organic muesli each week, some sixty percent of UK’s total muesli production.

Alara was the first cereal business to be certified organic in the world, the first cereal company to be Fair Trade certified, and soon, if Alex has his way, he will be the first food production company to be zero waste. Alex wants to make his mark as London Leader by using anaerobic digestion to recycle food wastes into energy and fertilizer to support the first “Urban Dream Farm 2” in the world. Dream Farm 2 (see final chapter in ISIS’ Report Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free [1]) is based on the circular economy of nature, in which organic wastes are recycled into food and energy resources, thereby maximising carbon sequestration and minimising greenhouse emissions and environmental pollution.

Alara’s food factory is on an unusually green industrial estate just north of King Cross-St Pancras train stations and Camley Street Natural Park, a wildlife sanctuary on the banks of the Regents Canal.  Across the road is the Elm Village housing estate and further down Camley Street is St Pancras Old Church, the oldest Anglican parish church in London built on what was originally an Iron Age mound. The church stands in a beautiful cemetery garden re-designed by the author Thomas Hardy when he was a young architect and where the poet Shelley is reputed to have first met Mary Shelley visiting the grave of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft.  Johann Christian Bach, the son of the famous composer is also buried in St Pancras Gardens which form the grounds of the Hospital of Tropical Diseases and St Pancras Coroners Court. 

A permaculture forest garden

Alex has already made a head start to the Urban Dream Farm. Over the years, he has added to Alara’s eclectic environment by planting a permaculture forest garden where delicious looking lettuces, bee hives, broad beans and about one hundred fruit trees can flourish. The garden runs parallel with the railway tracks and is an urban green corridor stocked with blueberries, raspberries, elderberries, mulberries, passion fruit, pomegranate, kiwi, plums, pear and apple trees that are starting to fruit.  Alex has also constructed a large pergola made of sweet chestnut and planted grapevines at each corner which will eventually entwine and climb with blackberries up the wooden framework. Beneath the pergola are stools and a table made of reclaimed marble where outdoor meetings can be held. A large metal cabin which is Alex’s garden shed is topped with a windmill to generate enough “live” electricity to read by. He and friends recently serenaded the trees with song, wine and good wishes at a traditional wassailing party.  

Wide interest in food waste

The crucial next step is to install the first community scale biogas digester at Kings Cross. “I’ve always been interested in food and energy and I believe that the nexus point between the two is biogas digestion,” he said. Alex has identified the various interested parties within his local community to target constant food waste streams for year round recycling. Alara’s next door neighbour is Booker Cash & Carry, the country’s largest food wholesalers with over 160 outlets. It is the land beside Booker’s warehouse that the first community biogas digester will be set up. Currently it’s a tangle of brambles and a mature apple tree, but it runs in a seamless continuation of the permaculture forest garden, and so would fit perfectly with the green development that Alex has begun.

Camden Council owns the land adjacent to Alara and Booker and has expressed an interest in the biogas project that could potentially recycle about 200 tonnes of kitchen waste borough-wide per year. This would include kitchen wastes from the local housing estate as well as food wastes from Alara and Booker, the garden projects and other neighbouring food processors (see Diagram 1). In addition, Booker collects huge amounts of vegetable oil from their food networks that they want to recycle into bio-diesel.

Camden Council and Alex believe that a local community biogas project could provide a waste hub which integrates the interests of around 120 social enterprise schemes part of London Recycling Community Network (LCRN). A working model of an urban community biogas digester recycling scheme would provide multiple local benefits such as training and permanent employment to get people off the unemployment register and into green jobs. The education and employment side of the project would be co-ordinated by the SEED Foundation and planners from the Council have introduced Alex to the London Irish Centre, a local community group who will be participating in creating vegetable and herb gardens on the land in front of Alara and Booker.

Re-shaping the land

Another direct benefit of the community biogas digester is the digestate, which is the solid, nutrient rich, compost-like material produced by anaerobic digestion.  Alex is excited about the potential of digestate to transform the quality of the soil in his garden projects and in local parks and amenity spaces.  He aims to put to put two tonnes of digestate onto the land around Alara every year.  This will sequester more C in the soil and increase the carbon stock in the gardens and thus help mitigate climate change.

Alex plans to build a greenhouse over and around the biogas digester to heat it to a constant temperature of around 40 degrees centigrade.  At this stage he wants to use materials that fit with the landscape and are sensitive to the zero waste criteria. He is hoping to build greenhouses from recycled car windscreens and may also use a converted car engine or generator to run off the biogas to heat the greenhouses. There is also scope for a combined heat and power system.  The greenhouses would also be suitable for growing tropical fruits such as bananas. Because this is a zero-carbon project the central focus of the AD system both in terms of raw materials going in and the energy coming out should be done without the use of any fossil fuels at all.

Universal recycling and regeneration hub

The ancient and historic lands around Kings Cross fascinate Alex.  “People have been doing stuff on this land for ten of thousands of years,” he tells me. Queen Boudecea is supposed to have lost her battle against the Romans here. The old name for Kings Cross is Battle Bridge, which crossed the River Fleet before 19th Century industrial development paved over it. The underground river runs past the old church which is the second oldest Christian church in the country; the first is in Glastonbury, near to where he was born. Alex is keen to develop the spiritual links to his local environment with sensitivity, boundless generosity and, I suspect, meditation.   He also wants to enhance the practical links between local people to make the Urban Dream Farm 2 project more real and give it a sense of place. The planting of the first inner city vineyard in Alara’s permaculture gardens growing rondo red grapes will be made into wine and consumed by the Kings Cross Terra Madre Group.  “What can be done on a community level should be done,” Alex says.

Kings Cross is one of the easiest places in the world to visit and is home to one of the largest Brownfield sites in Western Europe.  Building the UK’s first community biogas digester here would set the standard for recycling food wastes into energy and crop fertilizer for a sustainable London and be an inspiration for the artists, writers, poets, scientists, musicians, environmentalists, architects, engineers, farmers, urban growers, everyone, for generations  to come.


[1] Ho MW, Burcher S, Ching Lim Li, and others. 2008 Food Futures Now Organic and Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS/TWN 

Article first published 01/04/09

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