How inefficient is your dinner table?

28 Feb 2018

Image: Larisa Blinova/Shutterstock

Students at Queen’s University Belfast delved deep into the agricultural habits of Ireland and Holland, from farm to dinner table. Emily McDaid reports.

A project under the master’s of architecture at Queen’s University Belfast recently reviewed the mobility and inefficiencies of the global food-on-demand system.

This project focused on transportation, using food as a representative commodity. It studied the contents of a dinner table in Leitrim, Ireland, and the Hook of Holland.

“Leitrim is struggling agriculturally – it’s a very wet environment,” said Sarah Wright, one of the students central to the project. There were 13 students involved in total.

Conversely, Holland – via a vast system of greenhouses – has become one of the world’s biggest food producers. If you have a tomato in your fridge, it’s likely to have come from Holland.

The fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme Cheap and Plentiful – The Global Farm is examining the meteoric rise of Holland’s farming activity.

“We compared the two places, looking at what their energy levels are; whether they use renewable or non-renewable energy, what their transportation systems are and whether hyper-intensive farming has been good for Holland,” explained Wright.

“Leitrim is not very developed – it’s a postcard landscape for tourism,” she said.

The group looked at everything on your dinner table, even non-edible items. Wright explained: “One example was a 26-piece IKEA cutlery set. Looking at how it came to being, the steel was dug in China, the product was processed in China, packaged and branded with an IKEA label via a distribution centre in Germany and then shipped on to Dublin – it was a long journey from raw material to table.”

Wright pointed out that the lifespan of an object is important as well. Food is a fast-moving good, gone as soon as you eat it; cutlery is a long-lifespan product.


Sarah Wright, Queen’s University Belfast. Image: TechWatch

Beef has long been flagged as being an inefficient way to feed people, in terms of input and output, as explained in this previous TechWatch article.

Wright pointed to some of the numbers: “Steak would have only a two-hour radius of where it could be shipped at ambient temperature. A longer journey requires cool freight, using a huge amount of energy.”

How far it goes, how much energy goes into making it, what resources are expended to ship it and what the gains are on a human level (in terms of protein and vitamins) – all of these factors were studied.

The conclusions?

The group built this website with some of its findings.

Wright said: “We found that although the Netherlands does a great job of intensifying farming, it has created a world where we’re all dependent on them, while local farming is dying out.

“Local farms could compete by using mobility technology effectively – more drones, magnetic levitation trains and automation of the farming itself.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland