Food: Bigger than the Plate is the newest V&A exhibition taking on food waste

Mushrooms made from coffee waste and hybrid hens are just some of the necessary novelties that we come across at the V&A museum’s latest exhibition

The Urban Mushroom Farm project uses waste coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. Courtesy GroCycle
The Urban Mushroom Farm project uses waste coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. Courtesy GroCycle

It’s fair to say that climate change and sustainability find themselves at the top of global conversation at the moment. From Extinction Rebellion and United Nations summits to the oft-controversial ­comments by American President Donald Trump, the world’s population has never been quite so acutely aware of the precarious situation we find ourselves in. This increasingly vocal trend has found itself a home at London’s Victoria and Albert ­Museum for its new exhibition, Food: Bigger than the Plate.

The V&A’s first retrospective on the subject, it encourages people to discuss and assess their relationship with a substance that’s both a need, essential to humankind’s survival, as well as a demand, as dishes get evermore innovative in our quest for delicious food.

From creation, distribution and waste to the enjoyment of taste, visitors are taken on an immersive journey through the food cycle with more than 70 innovative projects. Bigger than the Plate does not seek to judge or preach, but it does ask observers to look at our relationship with food in a sometimes “­provocative” way, says V&A director Tristram Hunt at the exhibition’s opening day on May 18.

“Something really big is happening in the world of food. We are seeing a growing desire for a food future that is better for people and the planet,” adds co-curator Catherine Flood.

Don’t expect to spend all day at the V&A eating, either. The only edible offering comes from Loci Food Lab, a travelling project that wants to collect the different priorities that ­consumers display. Rather than being offered specifics dishes, visitors are instead asked for the three qualities they value most when deciding what to eat.

We are shaping the world through how we eat and that makes it one of the most exciting materials to work with.

Catherine Flood

Options included the more obvious “delicious” and “nutritious”, but also “traditional” and “protein-rich”. What comes out is perhaps a little underwhelming at the end of an exhibition dedicated to food – a salty spread and a relish made from tomatoes thrown atop something resembling the texture and size of a Bran flake. This is all put together by a chef using just a tweezer.

Aside from the flake-sized snacks, the exhibition also incorporates an apparent surge in interest that artists and designers have shown in using food as a subject material. “We are shaping the world through how we eat and that makes it one of the most exciting materials to work with. There’s a huge amount of creative energy right now focused on questions of food. We wanted to give that space to bring it to the public,” says Flood, who wanted to explore individuals and groups that are trying to “radically reinvent” proceedings across the cycle, from compost and farming to trading and then finally eating and waste management.

Carolien Niebling asks if insects, nuts and legumes will make up ‘The Sausage of the Future’. Courtesy Noortje Knulst
Carolien Niebling asks if insects, nuts and legumes will make up ‘The Sausage of the Future’. Courtesy Noortje Knulst

Researcher Carolien Niebling, for instance, has taken an interdisciplinary approach to her showing The Sausage of the ­Future, which combines visually exciting designs with what appears to be genuine consideration for taste. It stems from her belief that modified sausages could fundamentally help us reduce our intake of meat by incorporating new, and perhaps bizarre, ingredients to bulk up the much-loved food – such as insects, nuts and legumes.

Initially hard to fathom is the work of artist Koen Vanmechelen of the Planetary Community Chicken project. At a time of battery hens and mass-produced meats, he has sought to inbreed chickens to try and build their genetic strength. He hopes this means they will become more ­resilient, and each time a hybrid chicken is bred, Vanmechelen turns it into a piece of art.

An installation by the Planetary Community Chicken project. Courtesy V&A
An installation by the Planetary Community Chicken project. Courtesy V&A

Also eye-catching is an exhibit by the Urban Mushroom Farm, which attempts to illustrate the food circle through its efficient use of waste coffee grounds to grow the fungi. ­Visitors can literally see the ­mushrooms sprouting, albeit very slowly, through a plastic casing reminiscent of a giant sausage, hanging from the ceiling.

The mushrooms are then served at the V&A’s cafe courtesy of the more than 1,000 cups of coffee it sells every day. “Used coffee grounds are rich in nutrients, but most end up in ­landfill,” explain the farm’s creators. The whole concept to close “the nutrient loop” is a “smart step towards farming in the concrete jungle, taking waste from cities that are overflowing with coffee, but where soil is thin on the ground”.

After viewing and tasting ­planet-friendly food, visitors are finally led to think about the sustainable use of waste, which is a theme that runs across the exhibition. The Victorian era has been credited with installing some of society’s most revolutionary ideas, including modern plumbing amid outbreaks of cholera – a model of the system is one of the first things to greet people in the compost section. Also on display is Merdacotta, a ceramic toilet made from the surplus cow manure obtained from agricultural entrepreneur Gianantonio Locatelli’s dairy farm.

Merdacotta, a ceramic toilet made from cow manure, on display at the V&A. Courtesy Henrik Blomqvist
Merdacotta, a ceramic toilet made from cow manure, on display at the V&A. Courtesy Henrik Blomqvist

Sat beside the Victorian mock-up is the Loowatt, a waterless toilet that converts waste into biogas and fertiliser. The company’s chief executive, ­Virginia Gardiner, referring to the Victorian model, says: “We’ve been trying to come up [with] something for this century.”

According to Gardiner, 65 per cent of people around the world do not have access to sewers and probably never will. This comes with a staggering number of health risks, and much of Loowatt’s interest has come from developing countries. It’s already involved in selling 3,000 toilets to an urban scale-up in Madagascar over the next two years, and been ­selected as a vendor for an operation in Manila.

“We are able to tap into existing treatment systems, and our ­solution provides a really good way to get the waste from toilets to treatment,” explains Gardiner. “I wanted to create a toilet that provides an ­experience with a flush toilet that would work in my home, which is also waterless and turns waste into a commodity, because I feel that it is something humanity needs now.”

Excrement goes via a ­compostable polymer film on the toilet into a container that is regularly cleaned out. Domestic interest has primarily come from festivals, but also VIP events such as the Royal Windsor Horse Show. “Everybody uses the toilet and we need new ways of doing it,” says Gardiner.

Food: Bigger than the Plate is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until October 20

Published: June 2, 2019 02:35 PM

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