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20 Dec 2007

Can Britain Feed Itself?

harvestersClearly, in the context of energy descent, this is a question we should all be asking, yet amazingly no one has really asked it in any depth since Kenneth Mellanby’s book ‘Can Britain Feed Itself’ published in 1975. In the most recent issue of the excellent publication [The Land](http://www.tlio.org.uk/TheLand/index.html), editor and planning reform campaigner Simon Fairlie returns to Mellanby’s report and attempts what he admits is a “back of an A4 envelope” update, and the results are fascinating. You can download the pdf. of his report here, it may be the most fascinating and important piece of reading you take away with you for the Christmas break. His conclusion is similar to Mellanby; yes Britain can feed itself, but the key is the amount of meat we consume.

The UK can feed itself organically, he argues, but the weak point is the production of meat. In the scenario he sets out which is of most relevance to Transition work, which he calls the “Permaculture approach”, he allocates land for meat (83 grams of red meat per person per day, the equivalent of a family roast on a Sunday, and about half what people eat now, as well as some pigs, chickens, fish and sheep), for intensive horticulture and fruit, for wheat (both for grain and for thatching), for textiles, firewood and for biomass, and argues that this can all be done organically, with 2.8 million hectares left over to play with.

If the entire nation were to become vegan, we could have 8.8 million hectares left, but it doesn’t feel to me to be at all likely that that is ever going to happen, although it does strengthen the case for the vegan diet. The key issue here is that the more people we put on the land, the more productive it will become, but as Richard Heinberg has argued, if the UK is to model itself on Cuba, we would need 8 million people to support a post-oil agriculture, at the moment we only have half a million.

Fairlie’s report is thorough and it poses some important questions. What it does very powerfully is to set out a tangible alternative to cornucopian techno-fantasists like James Lovelock’s vision of a nuclear powered future where, as Fairlie puts it, “a third of the land is given over to wilderness, and a third to agribusiness, while the majority of the population is crammed into the remaining third and fed on junk food”. This is the beginnings of really setting out how our countryside could become more diverse, more resilient and sustainable in the truest sense of the word, as in able to function, in a low to zero carbon way beyond the availability of cheap fossil fuels. This brilliant piece of work is the perfect riposte to those who argue that organics can’t feed the world, and is essential Christmas reading!

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

39 Comments

Mark Forskitt
20 Dec 9:30am

What a truly excellent article Simon has written.
It seems to concur with the sort of figures I have derived on a much less rigorous analysis for feeding our little island (Jersey). The question is raised about what to do with all the spare hectares in Britain if you have permaculture vegan diet. I wonder if anyone has detemined how much agricultural land would be lost to sea level rises over the next 25 to 50 years, and how much is therefore truly spare? My best guess about what to do with the ‘spare’ land would be to start proper long rotation hardwood coppices. Given that heating a reasonably insulated farmhouse can take a couple of hectares of sustainable coppice, you will need considerable more wood than the curent woodland areas can supply. Even if you can pursuade people to insulate and reduce that figure for firewood, you will need the timber for building and boat construction is a few decades time.

P.S. Is this the same Simon Fairlie who sold me my scythe?

Tom Atkins
20 Dec 1:09pm

Absolutely fantastic. The best thing I’ve read in ages. The thoughts on options for beef and dairy cattle are superb. Thanks for highlighting it Rob.

@Mark F – Yes this is the Simon who sold you the scythe – I can highly recommend one of his courses.

Tom Atkins
20 Dec 1:34pm

Can Ireland feed itself? I’ve just done a back of a envelope calculation (using land use and population stats from the CSO) for Ireland which shows that there is currently three times as much land in agricultural production per person in Ireland than there is in the UK (nearly one hectare per person compared to 0.3 of a hectare per person in the UK). Even if land in Ireland is on average slightly less fertile than land in the UK it shows that we should easily be able to feed ourselves over here! When I get time I’ll do a more thorough version for Ireland based on Simon’s methodology.

Graham
20 Dec 9:37pm

Great piece of work. Now we need a Pathway to outline how to achieve it. Education and training has to become a big part of the transition: in Cuba in 1991 they already had an extensive network of agricultural colleges which were able to ratchet up the number of trainees quickly.
I think it’s important to do more bioregional versions of this plan- food production will be localised and there will be wide regional variations on suitable crops, population etc..

Ian
21 Dec 10:07am

Hi

Unfortunately, humans have not evolved to be vegans. There are no long-term vegan societies anywhere on Earth, because the practice leads to extinction of the group over time.

The Brits might be better off considering how to lower their population… :-)

cheers, Ian

[...] at Transition Culture reflects on the possibility of Britain feeding itself here. I adore Rob and his projects, though I’ve never met him personally. I do however, think that [...]

mike
22 Dec 9:02am

Good stuff, but…
This information will be used against organic or permaculture alternatives to chemical farming – it will not be used to swing to veganism, because that would be considered silly by the majority at the mo.
However, in its support, those organic and permaculture options should be assessed on more than calorific sustainability of the output. The total energy intensity problem will support a move to organics and more people on the land surely? It’s all very well saying chemical farming is more able to feed the populace because of the boost from artificial nitrogen sources, but what of the sustainability or eroei of those imputs? How does that tie in with peak oil…
Also, I read recent reports on the total nutitional value of organics exceeding the denuded chemical crops by in excess of 20%. Again, it’s not all about calories.
Cheers

Tony Weddle
22 Dec 8:35pm

Ian,

From Rob’s summary, the population doesn’t need to become vegan, just vastly reduce its consumption of meat products. I don’t think that’s going to happen without a struggle, but it’s misrepresenting what Rob has reported to imply that veganism is the only way 60 million people can feed themselves in Britain.

Martin Doyle
25 Dec 1:20pm

I think that the most natural diet for humankind is a ‘mostly’ vegan diet. Masanobu Fukuoka advocated this. The only possible nurtition that is lacking in an exclusively vegan diet is vitamin B12, although there are those who argue otherwise (ie that you can get it from eating vegetables etc straight from the ground). People should also look into the work of John Jeavons who grows ALL he needs in 4,000 sq feet – no external inputs at all.

People also need to be more open minded towards veganism!

More on Jeavons: http://www.ecraftsmen.co.uk/blog/2007/12/25/the-man-who-would-feed-the-world/

Kenneth Morton
25 Dec 2:55pm

The only problem is that humans are genetically programmed to eat a diet of 65% meat and 35% fruits veg and not eat cereal in any meaningful way…………

pete
25 Dec 3:50pm

His estimate can probably be improved a lot, specifically with respect to the sheep and pigs. Using multi-species grazing you can increase the carrying capacity of the land.

For example, you can add 1 sow for every 2-4 cows for free (they live on the cow manure and some grass). You can also add sheep to the same pasture. Sheep and cattle don’t eat exactly the same stuff, so you can add a few sheep without decreasing your cattle stocking rate.

He can eliminate the fruit tree acreage and replace some of the woodland with coppiced orchards. These same orchards can also carry cattle, sheep, but preferably pigs.

That is just the start…

Stephen Wordsworth
30 Dec 2:21am

Veganism would decrease the land available for production. Because there is alot of land that is unsuitable for growing crops but makes good pasture. Animals can also eat things inedible to humans such as stalks. Good crop rotation also leave land falow to be fertilised by grazing animals.

Lucy Skywalker
30 Dec 1:20pm

Rob
This is a really important report as you say. Therefore it needs to get “peer-reviewed”, assessed, challenged, modified, by people competent to do so – otherwise the whole UK TT has a very flimsy self-sustainability argument, and with that, the whole TT credibility goes down. I was therefore sorry to read in the report how the Soil Association (who’ve recently hosted Heinberg) just sat on it. Perhaps Graham has contacts in universities etc?

RESEARCH IS REALLY IMPORTANT!

Everyone needs to do a share of this! And we really need a good place for everyone to collaborate and check, as well as distill and present the essentials in user-friendly bites, like Rob does. Could we actually start to USE the Transition Web forum to build this up, to move it on?? Or there’s the Forum on my own website, waiting for such use…

Josef Davies-Coates
2 Jan 11:46pm

I wonder where Kenneth gets his genetically programmed to eat “65% meat and 35% fruits veg and not eat cereal in any meaningful way” from?

Sounds like nonsense to me.

My understanding is that the vast majority of the world’s population is and always has been largely vegetarian with some fish.

Eating meat everyday is a rather new, flamboyant luxury that cannot be sustained (and is only possibly now because of cruel, energy intensive, factory farming)

And not eating cereals? Hasn’t that been what we’ve mainly eaten for the last 10,000 years?

vera
27 Jan 11:47pm

I am confused about all the claims re veganism. Plough agriculture is horrible for the soil, and the grains need barren ground to grow in… ergo catastrophic erosion over time. I heard they did some calculations in Australia and said that to get a pound of wheat you loose four pounds of soil or some such number.

On the other hand, animals convert cellulose into food for us, and the land they live on is not stripped bare but remains covered with vegetation, and if managed well, with manure and moving the cows from paddock to padock so that grass can recover and build up the soil, is a great strategy. The cows can be followed by the chickens who eat the fly maggots etc… a pretty notable system practiced eg by Polyface Farm in Virginia.

In any case, was soil loss and other losses (eg the disadvantages of tilling) incorporated into the equation mentioned above? What if we grew biointensive gardens instead, incorporating the animals and orchards into the system, how would it all add up?

P.S. Not to mention that growing a bit less food every year would lead to a gradual decrease in population (unless people are imported). I would like to see more effort to be put into not “how can we feed all these people,” but into “how best to feed them all AND decrease them over time.”

Martin Doyle
28 Jan 1:18pm

Vera – I agree with your comments about population reduction – whether a voluntary reduction is something that people will engage in is another question though!

Many agricultural ‘visionaries’ advocate no-till and there is no reason why this can’t also be no-animal. In Wales (UK), the Welsh College of Horticulture teach students using a ‘stock-free’ system without the need for any animal manure inputs.

Thinking about global warming – everyone knows that methane is worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas – cows are of course a major problem here (as are all ruminent animals). Animals are also protein factories in reverse – typically a cow consumes 10 times the amount of plant protein than it produces in meat.

But all of this is academic. You either accept the vegan argument or not. I realise that it can’t be practised everywhere, so it comes down to personal choice. A recent Italian report into human health, the environment & animal consumption concluded that an organic vegan diet was the best, by far, but the biggest obstacle was people’s culture and unwillingness to change!

Tony Weddle
28 Jan 8:59pm

As Martin points out, “growing” animals for food consumes far more resources than growing plants. Industrial agriculture may not be feasible for some no-till methods but that doesn’t mean some other approach to growing our food can’t be used.

vera
28 Jan 9:10pm

Yes, I do know that ruminant gases are a problem. I would not mind a reduction in farm animals. In fact, I would like to see a return to semi-wild animals populations that are culled by humans (like reindeer with the Sumi).

But as a person with grain digestion problems, I will never be vegan even if the arguments made sense. You gotta face the problem that grains are bad for many people, and grain growing is bad for the soil, as long as grains are grown as annuals on naked soil which keep eroding. Soil erosion is one of the biggest problems facing humanity in the future.

Ann R Parker
29 Jan 11:19am

I can recommend Colin Tudge’s, So Shall we Reap, dealing with these issues.
Are there any agri colleges at present, not tied in to universities and currently acceptabled economic practices?

Dom
1 Feb 2:52pm

Of interest: Research by Cornell University found that a diet with a small amount of meat / dairy feeds the most people, despite requiring slightly more land, as it makes use of poorer quality pasture:

http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Oct07/diets.ag.footprint.sl.html

RS
2 Feb 12:58pm

Interesting comment re Cornell, although I suspect that people like Jeavons are capable of devising a gardening plan that would produce more food in less space than the Cornell research suggests.

Looking at things on a more holistic way, plants and animals supply a lot more than just food. I think we need to consider the other outputs of our agricultural systems as well as food; clothing, heating and cooking, medicines, material for crafts and containers and chemicals for “industry”.

The alternatives to animal products used by vegans are often either petrol based (clothing, footwear and chemicals) or have travelled long distances. Neither are sustainable.

Martin Doyle
2 Feb 2:17pm

As ‘RS’ says, the Cornell Study looked at on area of New York state and applied ‘traditional’ farming practices to work out land usage – I’m sure people would be able to get much more from the land with appropriate thinking (such as Jeavons).

The Vegans vs Leather issue is a tricky one as leather alternatives are mostly oil-based (but recent developments with Hemp footwear look interesting), but to balance it out, typical leather production is highly polluting using such nasties as Chromium.

I am a vegan, but I don’t think the world will ever become totally vegan – things are produced on my behalf (such as metals where workers have to wear leather protective aprons etc) that use animals, but the key is that meat needs to consumed less, for human health, for environmental reasons and (arguably) for ethical reasons. The path that mankind has taken to get us where we are today shows us the errors of our ways – everything needs to be re-thought.

[...] Can Britain Feed Itself? » Transition Culture – Clearly, in the context of energy descent, this is a question we should all be asking, yet amazingly no one has really asked it in any depth since Kenneth Mellanby?s book ?Can Britain Feed Itself? published in 1975. In the most recent issue of the e [...]

Simon
14 Feb 8:29pm

From Simon Fairlie’s report: “In the absence of supplies of imported rock phosphate, phosphorous rather than nitrogen might become the main constraint upon crop yields, in which case we would have to ensure rigorous recycling of animal manures, human sewage, slaughterhouse wastes etc — a further reason for dispersing population around the countryside. A vegan system in particular might have problems maintaining phosphorous levels.”

The traditional source of phosphorous fertiliser is burned animal bones: which is presumably what is meant by “slaughterhouse wastes”, and why a vegan system might have problems. However, even in a vegan system there is one supply of animal bones. It might require a considerable change in the mortuary habits of our society, though.

Potassium might also be a problem. A possible solution for both potassium and phosphorous might be seaweed — but I have no idea of the availability of this resource, or how much damage it would create to the marine environment if it were harvested in quantity.

corneilius
14 Feb 9:16pm

I have always maintained that if we changed our values so that quality and quantity of joyful time spent with our families, our community and walking in our environment were our main aims, we could do it if we were to mostly grow our own food, and more people could live on the land and away from the cities…

Cuba has shown what can be done. The only losers would be the banks and corporations and the ridiculously rich. Which would be fine, as they cause far more trouble than they are worth.

We do not need Premier Leagues, SKY TV, MOBILE PHONES, private transport that destroys the environment more than we need loving relationships, clean food and time to enjoy being who we are.

The ‘work’ ethic is a myth of empire..

People will make the change, because it is in our natural interests, and it will benefit our children, if the change is explained in meaningful ways – “if the truth be told in ways that it can be understood, it will be believed.”

The hard work will be breaking down the ‘conditioning’ and the sloppy thinking that our education ‘gifts’ everyone with.

corneilius
14 Feb 9:18pm

As for the meat/vegan diet, for many hundreds of thousands of years we have lived and thrived as hunter/gatherers and the gathering was definitely the largest part of the diet…. by a long shot.

vera
15 Feb 7:08pm

Simon, I have been thinking of writing an article called “Compost me please!” — the mortuary habits of our society are absolutely insane. Now Sweden is pioneering a process whereby human remains are rendered into some white dust that can be applied to fields, of course at a sizable cost and via chemicals. Nuts. Composting has worked for gazillion years and is free (or, practically speaking, the cost of a truckload of woodchips).

<The ‘work’ ethic is a myth of empire..<
Go Corneilius!

Keep in mind, re paleodiets, these ancestors ate a lot of fish, they needed that to develop the brain and keep it in operating shape… :-) — I figure most other meat was mostly scavenged until fairly recently. Although I am betting an apple against a turnip that they ate a fair number of bugs. Cheers!

corneilius
15 Feb 10:23pm

A friend of mine had the idea of creating a cemetery forest, whereby one was planeted standing up, with a tree sapling above ones head……as cemetery it would be protected, and ones future descendants coulds stroll in your woods, grateful for your final gift.

There would be a choice of trees so as to mimic a proper range of trees to recreate an ancestral forest…

That would be a good way of composting the bodies, leave a fitting memorial for future generations and re tree our lands…

Great idea!

As for fish requirements, the omega3s would also have come fom fish, as you alluded above, from game, and from various seeds… all in moderation.

Rowena Moore
15 Feb 11:16pm

Your idea for a natural cemetry is spot on – there is a small inspirational family owned such cemetry near Bristol call ‘Memorial Woodlands’- google it. Looks good to me.

corneilius
18 Feb 4:13pm

Thanks Rowena. I am really glad to have found that the idea is actually manifest….when my time comes nothing would be finer!

And having eaten organic for most of my life, I imagine I’d make good compost! lol!

The way they present the idea on the site is tactful and has genuine humane warmth to it.

Nice!

Mark Fisher
28 Feb 10:13am

I was stunned when I read Simon’s article since he had attempted something that although I felt needed doing, I couldn’t begin to think how to do it. I was also gratified to see my website (www.self-willed-land.org.uk) given as a source in the references to the article.

What surprises me though is that the discussion in these comments has only picked up on the vegan thread in the article and not one of the key issues for me in the article of a significant difference in the landscape cover in the Permaculture options. Simon was able to include a massive increase in woodland in the landscape getting us away from the oppressive hegemony of grasslands in the UK, and in the vegan Permculture option, he was able to allocate IN ADDITION a whopping area of land back to wild nature albeit that Simon envisaged it being a largescale savannah/rangeland with free-living herbivores in amongst open canopy woodland, scrub etc.

This is the vital recasting of our landscape that we desparately need – it is about having a three dimensional vegetation cover with vastly increased range of yield, but as importantly it will go some way to reintegrating humans into the community of the land along with all the other species of land users.

Energy descent is one aspect, our transition is to break out of failed concepts of land management and use and our domination of wild nature.

corneilius
29 Feb 11:02am

Mark, you’re spot on! We must change our value system from one that says we are to dominate and exloit nature (becuase we are the most intelligent, etc etc blah blah blah) to one that says we must live in nature, work with nature and respect the existence of all creatures that make up the bio-diversity of our land.

There’s a movement that describes a disease state, calling it Nature Deficit Syndrome, which holds that we humans have evolved to grow up in nature and that as such children have a basic right to do so. Growing up in nature, developing a sensing of nature is essential to becoming fully matured as an Earthling.

The trouble I have with all the religions and with the established secular science is that all pretend, for th emost part, that we are the supreme beings on Earth.

We are not, we are one part of a huge plethora of interconnected, interdependent living entities and any aboriginal, indigenous knows this and lives accordingly.

I hold that once we have food, and decent shelter, our only true needs are the spiritual, psychological and emotional joys of living in community, of watching the youngsters grow in beauty and joy.

There is nothing that mankind has ever manufactured that is more beautiful than the beauty of healthy community. That ought to be our aim, as parents, as peoples.

Tony Weddle
29 Feb 8:25pm

Secular science doesn’t hold that humans are the supreme beings. It is scientific endeavour that has shown us that we most certainly are not the supreme beings (for example, ongoing evolution or the vastness of the universe) and has given us the tools to understand how biodiversity is essential. It doesn’t need respect for the existence of all creatures (after all, all species go extinct and there is an “background” rate of extinction – even if we weren’t contributing to it), but it does need an understanding of the interconnectedness of the elements of the biosphere.

Mark Fisher
1 Mar 10:44am

If I understand Tony correctly, his is a utilitarian view. E.O Wilson, who coined the term biophilia, was mindful that his innate love of wild nature was influenced by his membership of the human species, and so he sought to view the natural world through the eyes and motivation of another species.

The example that he gave of the termite showed that all species have a basic motivation that does not necessarily reflect benevolence to other species. He thus argued that for humans our respect for the species around us was thus best described as an enlightened self interest.

That enlightenment has to be more than an understanding of interconnectedness since it is what we do with that understanding, and the limits we put on ourselves, that is important for us and the species around us.

Chris Marsh
3 Mar 2:45pm

Simon’s article is useful theory, and thought provoking, but theory is often a long way from practice. I came across Mellanby’s book recently when embarking on an overdue indexing of my library. Next to it was Andrew O’Hagan’s The End of British Farming (London: Profile, 2001), describing the author’s travels around Britain to witness ‘the death of farming’. Put that with solutions being put forward by food technologists, such as cloned cows (Observer, 2/3/08, pp.16-17), and public apathy: the same article says that ‘More than 30 per cent of people claim to care about companies’ environmental and social records, … but only 3 per cent reflect these beliefs in their purchases.’ The latter provides an interesting rule-of-thumb for any descent from ideas, theories or intentions to doing anything about it. My own back-of-the-envelope examination of how permaculture could engage with feeding Britain was to start with our one million or so acres of gardens (private-house-and-garden-owning being really big in Britain), and apply one of the very few measures of yield in edible biomass per unit area: Michael Guerra’s tiny urban garden (on 80 square metres 250 kilos per annum can be grown, [over five times the yield typical of Standard Farm Practice] using methods such as intercropping and stacking), suggests – astonishingly! – that we could grow all the food we need, ten times our body weight p.a., on tiny amounts of intensively cultivated land, and if permies had aimed at educating the garden or allotment owning people in this country twenty years ago, instead of … [won’t go into that], who knows, we might have all Britain’s gardens crammed with food by now. And, remember, Bill Mollison originally said the aim was hugely to increase the yield of food per unit area in order to release most of the land back to the wild and other species (Permaculture [the big book], p.7) – and also help the land regenerate because it’s been so buggered it can’t do that on its own. People like Ken Fern and Chris Dixon have shown how, with a bit of help, ecological diversity, biomass and soil depth regenerates to natural abundance in less than 20 years.

Trimnut2
5 Oct 7:45pm

A concern:
If one examines European farm production up to the beginning of the 1900′s is there any evidence for the assertion that “one hectare of arable and one hectare of pasture feeds 10 people”? I can find no evidence to support that view. Or putting the question in another way: without factoring in a factor for the production component produced from crude oil aren’t these considerations relatively meaningless.
I have reservations about the methodology used in this report.

Chris Marsh
6 Oct 9:17am

I hadn’t met before “one hectare of arable and one hectare of pasture feeds 10 people”, but doesn’t everyone know about the Elizabethan Poor Law ruling that every cottager family with no land of their own should be provided with three acres? (Googling got the hit below.) If a family is 4-6 people that’s about 2 to the acre, and the other rule-of-thumb gives the same, thus supporting the idea that, given creative permie methods for producing food on traditionally unsuitable terrain, we certainly should be able to feed Britain’s population on our one acre each, and leave room for wild nature.

http://www.localhistorylink.com/books.html
THREE ACRES AND A COW is about the life and works of one of the greatest rural philosophers of the nineteenth century. He was a true successor to William Cobbett, being the seventh son of an agricultural labourer born into poverty in the village of Ewhurst on the Surrey/Sussex border.
Self educated, he wrote to all the leading politicians of the day such as Bright, Gladstone and Chamberlain about his radical ideas for land redistribution. He felt that if every family had ‘three acres and a cow’ then poverty would be eradicated.

corneilius
6 Oct 12:27pm

The fundamental is thus : we are of nature, and looking at nature we can see that nature provides all living entities with what is required for each to grow, to thrive and to flower.

In the process of that thriving, all provide resources to be shared. Many are eaten, but not all are. Hunters never hunt beyond their direct and natural needs. The ‘waste’ or excess is always returned to be recycled down to the billionth part, to the molecular level.

we human beings, and in particular, we ‘civilised’ human beings must redesign our processes to mimic that basic fundamental. It can be done, and so it must. William NcDonough is one architect who is espousing this approach effectively. He calls it cradle to cradle.

And this must be done not just for survival, yet for natural justice and for expressing a true appreciation of the great gift of life.

This is not something the elites, be they political, economic or religious will accept, for it means the end of their power OVER others, a power they are addicited to, psychologically.

This is something we have to build up from grass roots so that those who exercise power over others have no-one and no creatures to exercise that power over….

Bob
5 Feb 12:03pm

Tbh Britain has plenty of pizzas and burgers