Coffee is said to have been discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd after he saw his livestock going crazy after nibbling some small red berries that grew on a local bush. A thousand years later, the amount of coffee grounds we pour down the sink every day is enough to form a mountain range. But what if something more useful could be done with them?
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition about food and eating begins, counter-intuitively, with composting. It introduces a series of wonderfully mad free-thinkers, from excrement entrepreneurs to urine harvesters and other eco-anarchists, including one who grows oyster mushrooms on the detritus from our coffee pots, before looping back to farming, trading and cooking. “Time is running out on the late 19th century idea that the world economy is simply one huge digestive system that you don’t really have to think too much about,” explains May Rosenthal Sloan, one of show’s two curators. “Young people today are more and more taken with grass-roots activism. They want to know where their food comes from, is it grown in a sustainable way and can the process of food production be redesigned to change the world.”
The inventiveness of the young designers who are “rethinking the global table” is impressive. Carolien Niebling has created a “sausage of the future” out of nuts and dried fruit; Kayle Brandon and Kate Rich use open sourcing to reverse-engineer Coca Cola (the company recipe is top secret) so you can make cola syrup of your own at home. But first prize must go to Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, a microbiologist and an artist who specialises in smell, who have designed an experiment that challenges our cultural squeamishness about bacteria by making cheeses out of microbial samples from human skin. Beat that.
Oyster mushrooms by GroCycle
“A cup of coffee is a truly wonderful thing,” explains Eric Jong, director of GroCycle, a British company on a mission to get city-dwellers into low-tech mushroom farming. “But 99% of the biomass of the coffee bean is wasted.” GroCycle’s kits let people grow mushrooms in used coffee grounds, full of nutrients that oyster mushrooms thrive on, instead of earth.
The history of the V&A’s South Kensington building, which produces 1,000 cups of coffee a day, augurs well for plant-based innovation: it stands on the site of the Brompton Park Nursery, which introduced many imported pears and apples to Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The mushrooms grown in the exhibition will be used in the museum’s café.
Ceramic toilet made from excess cow manure by Gianantonio Locatelli and Luca Cipelletti
Merdacotta, meaning “baked shit”, is a terracotta-like material made from mixing cow dung with clay. It was invented by Gianantonio Locatelli, a dairy farmer in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, after he realised that his 3,500-strong herd produced 50,000 litres of milk and 150,000kg of manure, far more than his farm’s annual output of Grana Padana cheese. Determined to do something useful with the waste, he experimented with mixing it into clay, and baking it as bricks, floor tiles, tableware – and even toilets. Just the thing for Locatelli’s Shit Museum – a tribute to humans' fascination with faeces from Pliny's writings on the dung beetle to the use of poo in architecture – which he opened with three friends in Lombardy in 2015.
Ooho! by Skipping Rocks Lab
Across the globe, 1m plastic bottles are sold every minute. Most of them end up in landfill or in the sea. Skipping Rocks Lab, which is a joint venture between Imperial College and the Royal College of Art in London have come up with an alternative called Oohoo!, a biodegradable material made from algae. Either you swallow it down or it biodegrades completely in three weeks. The lab recently signed a contract with the online ordering service, Just Eat, to replace their plastic ketchup sachets with Oohoo!. A useful pointer to a future of waste-free packaging.
Totomoxtle by Fernando Laposse
Mexico, historically, was one of the greatest producers of native corn, with more than 60 native varieties in a wide range of colours. Industrial farming and increased use of imported seeds from America, beginning in the 1990s, means many of these have gradually been lost. Now Fernando Laposse, a Mexican industrial designer, has returned to the southwest of the country where he spent much of his childhood, to develop a new veneer material he calls “totomoxtle” and which is made out of the discarded husks of vibrantly coloured varieties of heirloom corn. It is not only a practical and visual celebration of Mexico, but a useful source of income for young mothers who would otherwise find jobs hard to find.
Piñatex by Carmen Hijosa
Leather tanning can be a filthy business, bad for the environment and the health of those who spend their lives working in it. Carmen Hijosa, a Spanish businesswoman who went to the Philippines to develop its leather industry, was inspired instead to design a whole new sustainable material called Piñatex, made out of the discarded leaves and rough skin of pineapples. The Philippines is the world’s third biggest producer after Costa Rica and Brazil. Piñatex comes in a variety of colours and textures. It stretches and is highly durable, making it perfect for upholstery, wall-coverings and clothes. Watch out for it on the catwalk.
Selfmade cheese. Conceived by Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, remade for the V&A by an interdisciplinary team at Open Cell
Some of the tastiest foods we eat are made with the help of microbes. But why are we drawn to a particular smell when it comes from cheese and revolted by the very similar bacterial culture – and smell – produced by human skin from people’s toes and armpits? To explore that question, Christina Agapakis, a microbiologist, and Sissel Tolaas, an artist, performed an experiment: to produce a cheese with a unique microbial portrait unique to the person who donated the sample. Five British celebrities graciously offered their body parts for sampling, including the chef Heston Blumenthal, whose pubic hair provided the microbes for Comté cheese. According to the V&A, the cheeses are all still being analysed to see if they are edible – and safe.
Food: Bigger than the Plate Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until October 20th