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Spent Grain: Non-Traditional Paths to a Sustainable Food Future

FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE WITH FOOD This series is a collaboration between Goya & Greenpeace. Writers, researchers and activists explore what sustainability looks like out in the field, and as an extension, in your kitchen. From seed libraries and their importance in the face of climate change, to how the cultivation of ragi is woven into the needs of soil, livestock and nutrition; finding alternative uses for spent grain in the microbrewery capital of India, and offering insight into building your own toolkit for gauging sustainability, this series offers a slice of what sustainable, organic agriculture and consumption in India looks like today. ______________________________________ What if I told you that there were grains being produced in our cities that didn't need to be sown or harvested. That they are being produced as a by-product (that has high fibre, protein, is malty and delicious), and it is being thrown away.

Elizabeth Yorke explores the potential of diverting spent grain from landfills to use as a nutritional food supplement. Can something "non-traditional" to our food customs weave itself onto our plates for a sustainable food future?

Are we brave enough to love what is ugly inside and transform it? Are we brave enough to imagine a food system that does not involve old paradigms of poor farmers versus conscious consumers? Can we imagine a chain of production that is truly diverse and integrative? Or are we committed to what we call “the reality we have to reckon with” and unable to dare ourselves to take bigger risks both in our personal and public lives? Vivien Sansour, THE UNSEEN AS FERTILE GROUND FOR NEW WISDOM.

As our cities continue to grow and expand, our further dependence on rural / peri urban agriculture increases. Not only is this stress on the land to produce the food we use to make new food, but also the stress on people and energy and other resources like water to grow this food for us. Over the past decade or two, in India we've seen exciting ideas for solutions like urban agriculture, with rooftop gardens, hydroponics/aquaponics and other innovative systems being designed to take some of the stress off our traditional agricultural lands and help cities feed themselves.

But let’s imagine grains being produced in our cities that didn't need to be sown or harvested. Imagine, the grain also came as low carb, high fibre and protein, to fit all those trending dietary needs. Imagine it was malty, nutty and added interesting texture and flavour to your favourite flour based recipe.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And all it takes for this imagination to become reality is to take a hard look around.

Our cities are filled with leftover food. This conversation moves way beyond kitchen scraps or what gets left over on our plates. Our cities are full of thriving food businesses that generate a fair share of by-product - coffee shops - coffee grounds, juice shops - peels & pulp and microbreweries - spent grain.

As part of the brewing process, malted grain (barley & wheat) is soaked in hot water. This “mashing” phase extracts the sugars, carbohydrates from the grain into liquid, which then goes on to ferment and becomes beer. What’s left behind is this high fibre & protein gruel known as “spent grain”. The word spent is used to refer to the grain being “spent” of it’s carbs & sugar - the good stuff. Quite ironic, because spent grain has a pretty impressive nutrient profile and is quite delicious.

On an internship with Bread Historian William Rubel, I learnt that brewers and bakers dating back centuries worked very closely together. Mostly because their ingredients were common - grain, yeasts, water - one made beer the other made bread.

And by working in such proximity they created this “closed loop”, what we know as a “zero waste circular system”. Bakers gave brewers their leftover bread to use to ferment into beer and brewers gave bakers the spent grain and yeasts to make bread.

Fast forward a 1000 years > So what happens with this spent grain today? Larger breweries outside cities either distribute the grain in its wet form or have systems in place to either dry out the spent grain and sell it as cattle feed.

Microbreweries in cities have a slightly harder time with this distribution of the by-product. Some responsible breweries find farmer friends and make sure their grain is disposed off responsibly, but for others it’s easiest to send it to landfill.

A typical microbrewery produces around 8,000 litres of beer every month and there are over 200 microbreweries in India today. This results in approximately 320 tonnes of spent grain every month.

I highly doubt we’re going to stop drinking good-fresh beer anytime soon –One can only imagine what that figure would look like in 2030?

So how might we imagine a new life for this by-product? How might we change our perceptions towards leftovers or so called “waste”?

I’d say the first thing would be to make delicious tasting products that offer eaters a new kind of reality towards this leftover grain. There’s a fun term for it - Upcycled Food! “Upcycled products prevent food waste by creating new, high quality products out of surplus food.” Upcycled Food Association.

Tasting, eating, experiencing the spent grain as a new ingredient in itself, enables it to become a new available food source that’s being produced right here in our cities, that has a great nutritional profile and could be manipulated and incorporated to meet requirements of people who need it the most.

At Saving Grains, we’re daring ourselves to take risks and do what, at the moment and as per our knowledge, no one in the country is doing. We’re working to build a community centred approach to upcycling this delicious spent grain. We’ve started to make flour, and other products from this upcycled brewery by-product like granola, biscuits, bread, chapati, treats for pets and humans alike!

We also work with bakeries and chefs to create new recipes and incorporate this upcycled flour into their processes.

We want to imagine a chain of food production that is collaborative, integrated, transparent. Along with our current collaborators who are Saving Grains with us, and future potential ones, we’re building up the courage to “love what is ugly inside and transform it” and build out a system that has impact on a community level and Saving Grains is just the start!

SPENT GRAIN IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE THROUGH SAVINGS GRAINS. SHOP HERE. Elizabeth Yorke is the co-founder of the newsletter on signals from the Indian food system, Edible Issues, and runs Savings Grains as a community-driven initiative out of Bangalore.

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