Fermentation — the basis and solution for social and environmental change

This summer I’ll get together with a motivated bunch of people to do research and experiments on sustainable living, waste reduction and zero waste lifestyle.

We all share the common interest in fermentation and have practiced it in various ways as a natural process, which creates the conditions for good bacteria to interact, collaborate, multiply, and enhance the inherent nutritional value and taste of ingredients.

Most of us have experimented with kimchi, kombucha or ginger beer before and we are all amazed by the magic of fermentation to turn organic (surplus) ingredients into delicious foods and beverages.

We are keen to further investigate (biological) fermentation for transforming, recycling and upcycling organic wastes into new resources, such as fermented food, animal feed, compost, urban gardening, craft and building materials.

Together, we bring “Ferment the City” into being as an initiative to explore fermentation as a way to transform wastes into resources.

During the following month we will do research on fermentation through a variety of experiments and activities, we will reach out to other people and different fields to see how fermentation is transferable and applicable to other processes and we will hold joint events to raise awareness for social and environmental change and build a lively community of like-minded people.

Three dimensions of “Ferment the City” project

What is fermentation?

I would like to start here, with a brief look at what fermentation actually is and therefore share with you some of the definitions of the term “fermentation”, that I could find browsing the internet:

Fermentation (Noun)

“Any of many anaerobic biochemical reactions in which an enzyme (or several enzymes produced by a microorganism) catalyses the conversion of one substance into another; especially the conversion (using yeast) of sugars to alcohol or acetic acid with the evolution of carbon dioxide” — from wiktionary

“The transformative action of microorganisms.” — from The Art of Fermentation

“A state of agitation or excitement; a ferment” — from wiktionary

Further keywords:

“a state of agitation or turbulent change or development”; “the political ferment produced new leadership”; “social unrest” ferment, unrest, agitation, tempestuousness.

The origin of the term seems to be clearly biological and — simply said- is the by microorganisms induced action of transformation or as Sandor Katz, the author of the book “The Art of Fermentation”, describes it, the “transformative action of microorganisms”.

According to Katz biological process of fermentation and fermented foods are natural phenomena, not human inventions, that people observed and then learned how to cultivate.

Katz distinguishes between “wild” and “culturing” fermentation.

“Fermentation based upon organisms spontaneously present on the food or in the environment is known as wild fermentation.

The contrasting style of fermentation, in which specific isolated organisms, or established communities, are introduced to a substrate in order to initiate fermentation, is known as culturing.

Most fermentation cultures, also known as starters, involve simply transferring a small amount of an active or mature ferment into a fresh batch of its appropriate food nutrient (or substrate). “

Asmore as I personally dive into the topic and deal with the term “fermentation”, as more convinced I get, that the phenomena are transferable and applicable to many forms of transformation, change or development, that are actively induced by all forms of organisms.

The first thing that instantly comes to my mind is “upcycling”, as the “process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality and environmental value”.

Fermentation processes are driven by a so called ferments, any of a group of living organisms, fermenting agents, which in the case of biological fermentation are yeasts, molds and certain bacteria, that cause fermentation through enzymes.

Fermentation as most of us experience it mostly involve microbiological ferments.
But, as in the case of an upcycling process and the the fermentation of “inorganic” material, the transformation can not only be induced by microorganisms, but also by organisms of all scales, micro, meso and macro.
Humans and whole communities as ferments, “a human induced transformation” or “the transformative action of humans”.

I believe, that besides the microbial fermentation of “organic” resources, such as vegetables and fruits, there is also a fermentation of “inorganic” resources, such as timber, metal and plastic, where we humans can act as ferment and induce the fermentation.

Referring to the meaning of the terms in biology, one could distinguish between “organic” and “inorganic” fermentation, based to the substance that undergoes fermentation.

As an example for “inorganic fermentation”, I would put the term “plastic fermentation” on the table, referring to “plastic upcycling”, describing ideas such as Precious Plastic’s practices, world’s first open source plastic upcycling movement.

Of course there can also be points of intersections between “organic” and “inorganic fermentation”, for example processes that include both materials, like furniture that is grown with mushroom mycelium in combination with timber.

What all types of fermentation have in common, is that they are not carried out by individual organisms, but generally by communities of organism.

Thus, the state of a process induced and developed by organisms, is always a social process.

The whole process of fermentation often involves both, humans and microbes, and furthermore, brings people in connection with each other, with microorganisms and with nature. Thus, fermentation is always a social process.

Fermentation is impacted by a wide range of parameters, including physical, chemical and physicochemical parameters which impact the growth of microorganisms, but also economical, social and environmental parameters that include the people involved in the process.

For microorganisms e.g. temperature, pH, water, oxygen, radiation, pressure and ventilation are important, while for the people running fermentation projects it’s also about the cooperation in the community, the commitment, time, patience and creativity of the members, the skills of the different people, the financial resources, the quality of their equipment and the conditions of their work space.

Concept of Fermentation (by Stefan Simon)

With a focus on humans, thus people and communities, the term “social fermentation”, can be defined as „a state in which a group of people catalyses change and development; the state of social, collective agitation, change, transformation and transition; the transformative action of a group of motivated, excited and dedicated people“.

Gathering people to explore and experiment together to turn waste into resources, fermentation, this is exactly what me and my friends are doing at “Ferment the City”.

Social fermentation is the basis and key for every community-based strategy for change and any grassroots activities with the aim to transform our society.

As Katz says it: “Fermentation as engine for social change and all of us are starter cultures”.

Fermentation is not only a biological process that turns vegetables and fruits into delicious foods and drinks with the help of microorganisms, but much more than that, it’s also a social process where citizens take the lead to change their situations instead of waiting for political or economic leaders to take the initiative. Social fermentation is mobilization of the community and collective agitation practicing creative possibilities for change.

For environmental initiatives, such as COLLECTIVE GREEN, promoting eco-friendly and resource-saving ways of life with the intention “to catalyst collective change and development towards a more sustainable and greener society“, fermentation is the basis and solution for social and environmental change.

“Ferment the City” will explore how to expand the concept of fermentation to the society, with the concept of biological fermentation and its many potential interpretations, such organic, inorganic, and social fermentation.

How can society mimic the natural recycling process of fermentation to transform plastic wastes into new resources? How can co-learning fermentation and recycling techniques, between people of all backgrounds and ages, ferment social connections within communities? How these interactions and collaborations can also ferment new ideas and creativity?

Our goal is to investigate these concepts in order to develop simple examples and practices of recycling techniques that could be easily spread in urban areas and enhance the development of local recycling practices, out of the solutions proposed by urban governance. By bringing back fermented and living food into our stomachs, and bringing back plants into our cities, we aim at soothing the shock of contemporary cities. By valuing the fermentation skills of elders and indigenous populations in Taiwan, we hope to show that, as well as no organic material should go to waste in a kitchen, no people should go to waste in a society.

We hope that our work on “Ferment the City” will be a lively starter, spreading knowledge and enthusiasm from Taiwan into the world, eventually turning into a global movement and a wide network.

We invite you all to follow us on facebook, join our events and get in touch with us to further discuss the term “fermentation” or any other related topics.

By Stefan Simon for Collective Green and Ferment the City