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27 Jul 2010

Local Food and Relocalisation: a Totnes case study: a section from my forthcoming thesis…

I am hopefully now only days from handing in the PhD I have been doing, the closing stages of a gruelling marathon.  I posted a couple of weeks ago the contents and the layout of the thesis, which is called ‘Localisation and Resilience at the Local Level:  the case of Transition Town Totnes (Devon, UK)’.  I thought you might like to see a section of it, to give you a flavour.  Apologies to regular readers that this is written in a far more academic style than you might be used to here, but hopefully you will find it useful and relevant.  It comes from a section looking at the relocalisation of food, and draws from the different research I did.  I am importing this from Word, so some of the formatting might go a little wierd….

5.4. Food:  Can Totnes Feed Itself?

“… to draw in our economic boundaries and shorten our supply lines so as to permit us literally to know where we are economically.  The closer we live to the ground that we live from, the more we will know about our economic life; the more we know about our economic life; the more able we will be to take responsibility for it”  (Berry 2010:35)

5.4.1. Introduction

Sections 5.4-5.7 now explore the practical application of the concept of intentional localisation, starting with food, then moving to building materials, and then energy and transportation.  What degree of localisation is possible, and what degree is, in fact desirable.  5.4 starts by looking at food, the most fundamental of the four.  Of the four, food is the one people are most familiar discussing in the context of localisation.  5.4 therefore explores the question of the practicalities of relocalisation in the greatest depth, in order to draw comparisons across to the other areas of study.

5.4.2. Conceptualising Local Food Systems

Few areas of modern life are debated as vigorously as the food system.  There are those who argue that the globalisation of the food system stimulates competition and results in cheaper food and wider choice.  This view was summed up by former DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett (2006:unpaginated), who told a 2006 conference;

“…it is freer trade in agriculture which is key to ensuring security of supply in an integrating world. It allows producers to respond to global supply and demand signals, and enables countries to source food from the global market in the event of climatic disaster or animal disease in a particular part of the world. …it is trade liberalisation which will bring the prosperity and economic interdependency that underpins genuine long term global security”.

Conversely, there are also those (Schlosser 2002, Heinberg & Bomford 2009) who argue that our food system is becoming steadily less resilient.  The UK government’s take on food security is moving more in the direction of taking national food security seriously as an issue.  In 2003, DEFRA argued that “national food security is neither necessary, nor is it desirable” (DEFRA 2003:unpaginated).  This perspective had begun to change by 2008, when a  Cabinet Office Strategy Unit (Cabinet Office 2008) analysis of food issues argued that “existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future”.  DEFRA’s ‘Food 2030’ report (DEFRA 2010b:7) set out its vision for the future of the nation’s food and farming in 2030 thus

  • Consumers are informed, can choose and afford healthy, sustainable food. This demand is met by profitable, competitive, highly skilled and resilient farming, fishing and food businesses, supported by first class research and development.
    • Food is produced, processed, and distributed, to feed a growing global population in ways which:
      • use global natural resources sustainably
      • enable the continuing provision of the benefits and services a healthy natural environment provides
      • promote high standards of animal health and welfare
      • protect food safety
      • make a significant contribution to rural communities, and
      • allow us to show global leadership on food sustainability
    • Our food security is ensured through strong UK agriculture and food sectors and international trade links with EU and global partners, which support developing economies.

However, the gulf between the more localised food system of the 1950s, still with its roots in the ‘Dig for Victory’ culture of World War Two (Viljoen 2005, Kynaston 2007), (more intimately revealed in the oral histories featured in the following quotes, the first offering a sense of what a small proportion of food consumed was imported), and just-in-time, carbon intensive, long supply chain supermarkets (Hendrickson & Heffernan 2002) remains profound.

“Looking back, practically all our food came from this area.  We had a couple of house pigs that ate the rubbish.  A local chap would come by, cut their throats and cut them up, and make bacon and hams.  We used to preserve it in saltpetre, the wives would make a salt solution and baste it every 2 days, then it was put up on hooks in the dairy to dry.  I still have the hooks out there now.  I suppose we might have had an orange on very special occasions.  Our main meal was lunch, not supper, if the husband worked at home.  Evening meals were a professionals’ thing.  Lunch was normally roast beef, mutton, hot or cold.  Hot or cold chicken, stews, potatoes and veg, peas and beans, potatoes baked or boiled.  We ate meat every day, hot or cold, depending on how the husband and wife were getting on! For tea we had bread and butter, jam and cream.  For breakfast it was bacon and eggs.  Supper was just a snack meal, bits and pieces of what you liked.  For fruit we had apples, pears and plums.  Apples could be kept all year round.  They were kept in a cellar under the house.  Certain kinds of pears could be kept.  We had greengages and plums; we usually made those into jams”.

Oral History Quote 5.1. A Local Diet in Staverton in the 1940s.  (Source: author’s oral history interview with Douglas Matthews).

The major trends in food of the past few decades include the intensification of agriculture, accompanied by a concentration in the control of agricultural inputs, and a trend to larger farm sizes with hired labour globally, accompanied by increasing fragmentation among marginalised smallholders (Wilson 2007, Eriksen 2008), and globally agriculture is coming up against the pressures arising from increasing demand as well as the stresses caused by soil degradation, over-fishing, water constraints and the increasing impacts of climate change (Godfray et al. 2010).  These have been accompanied by increasing concerns over the economic dominance of large corporate interests (Shiva 1998, Pollan 2007, Lawrence 2008) and increased energy use in agricultural systems and food processing (Matson et al. 1997, Pfeiffer 2006).

One study at Cornell University showed that in the mid-1990s the US used over 100 billion barrels of oil per year to manufacture food (Morgan 2008), and in the UK, the average distance travelled by food items is 5000 miles from field to plate (Pretty et al. 2005).  A study by Simil (1999) estimated that in the absence of nitrogen fertiliser, currently produced from natural gas and itself a resource with a depletion profile similar to that of oil (Darley 2004), no more than 48% of today’s population could be fed at the inadequate per capita level of 1900.  In the context of peak oil and climate change, the oil dependency of intensive agriculture is not sustainable, plus as Hirsch (2005) argued, the move from oil dependent systems to oil independent ones requires time, intentional design and focused effort.

In recent years farming has decreased in its perceived significance, and is no longer the dominant economic activity in the overall food system (Eriksen 2008).  The disconnect between communities and the source of their food has grown markedly.  As Hendrickson and Heffernan (2002:349) put it, “as people foster relationships with those who are no longer in their locale, distant others can structure the shape and use of the locale, a problem that is being explicitly rejected by those involved in local food system movements across the globe”.  As Morgan & Sonnino (2008:7) identified, “scientists and policymakers alike are beginning to realise that food systems hold the potential to deliver the wider objectives of sustainable development – economic development, democracy and environmental integration”.

For some, the concept of food relocalisation is central to notions of food security (Pothukuchi 2004), and also to the very notion of sustainability in relation to food. Terms such as ‘local food’, ‘food localisation’ and ‘relocalisation’ are used in the literature almost interchangeably.  For Peters et al. (2008:2) they all share the concept of “increasing reliance on foods produced near their point of consumption relative to the modern food system”.   For Seyfang (2008:5) defining local food is a straightforward matter: “localisation of food supply chains means simply that food should be consumed as close to the point of origin as possible”.  Kloppenburg (2000:18) argued that a sustainable food system embodies a deeper and more far-reaching transformation: “locally grown food, regional trading associations, locally owned processing, local currency, and local control over politics and regulation”, some of the themes explored later in this study.    The idea that food relocalisation will by necessity lead to more sustainable farming practices is also put forward by Renting et al. (2003:398) who believe that “a ‘shortening’ of relations between food production and locality, potentially [configures] a reembedding of farming towards more environmentally sustainable modes of production”.  For Feenstra (1997:28) “the development of a local sustainable food system not only provides economic gains for a community, but also fosters civic involvement, cooperation and healthy social relations”.  However, DuPuis and Goodman (2005:369) warned against what they called the “reification” of the local, arguing for the need to make localism “an open, process-based vision, rather than a fixed set of standards”.  The danger of local food becoming an exclusive, middle-class niche is, they argue, very real, a charge already levelled by some at organic food.  Former Minister David Miliband dismissed the health benefits of organic food and described it as a “lifestyle choice” (Jowitt 2010:unpaginated).

But what geographical and spatial form might a relocalised food system take?  Kloppenburg, drawing from the earlier concepts of the bioregional movement (i.e. Sale 1993) and Getz (1991) conceptualised the notion of a ‘foodshed’, defined by Peters (2008:2) as “the geographic area from which a population derives its food supply”, and perceived these as hybrid social and natural constructs (Feagan 2007:26).  The foodshed is linked conceptually to the watershed.  Kloppenburg et al. (1996:34) stated “how better to grasp the shape and the unity of something as complex as a food system than to graphically imagine the flow of food into a particular place?”

For some, the foodshed concept has much to recommend it.  Starr et al. (2003:303) believed that “foodsheds embed the system in a moral economy attached to a particular community and place, just as watersheds reattach water systems to a natural ecology”.  At the time of writing, much of the literature about foodsheds is conceptual, little has been written that explores the actual practicalities and potential obstacles of such a degree of intentional relocalisation.  A report associated with the preparation of this study has been published (Hopkins et al. 2009), entitled “Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ which set out to explore the potential of the local landbase to support the local population.   This built on Mellanby’s (1975) initial study which asked the same question on a national scale, and Fairlie’s (2008) subsequent update.  It also takes, by way of answering the question of what form of agriculture would be most appropriate within these foodsheds, Tudge’s (2003:357) model for a localised, what he called ‘Enlightened’, agriculture:

“The general answer (by and large) is to give the best, most suitable land to pulses, cereals and tubers (that is, to arable farming); to fit horticulture in every spare pocket – and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on it, and to invest capital for example in greenhouses; to allow the livestock to slot in as best it can …. in short, farms in general should be mixed: even the most committedly arable areas would in general benefit from at least some livestock, as all traditional farmers knew … the areas that are truly marginal – too high, too steep, too rocky, too dry, too wet – can be ideal for ruminants, notably sheep and cattle … some cereal and pulse can be grown expressly for livestock – but in general, only enough to keep them going through the winter, so they can make better use of the grazing in the summer”.

Tudge’s exhortation to “fit horticulture in every spare pocket – and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on it, and to invest capital for example in greenhouses” was a fact of daily life in Totnes until 1980, with the presence of three working market gardens within the town, as described in Oral History Quote 5.2.

Gills Nursery was one of three market gardens in the town (Heath’s and Phillips being the others).  The nursery was run by Jack Gill until 1973, when his son Ken took over, who managed it until the nursery closed in 1981.  Running a series of glasshouses which were kept warm all year round required a lot of energy.  Initially they were heated using coke, which required 10 tons a year, but they later moved to the less labour intensive oil, necessitating the burning of 2000 gallons of oil a year in order to generate sufficient warmth.  The site behind the shop was not the only site Gills managed.  They also had a site on Harpers’ Hill, where they grew potatoes and sprouts, and one on North Street, where, Ken recalls, “we grew raspberries, in spite of it being north-facing, somehow it was warm enough for raspberries”.  Later they also acquired a 3½ acre site beside the bypass, which was used for field scale vegetable production.  The main nursery was kept fertilised with manure from their own pigs topped up with manure from a local farmer.   “We had no complaints with our fertility”, he told me, “one year we grew 20,000 lettuces”, an extraordinary output from a small piece of ground.  Running a market garden and a shop was hard work.  Ken Gill recalls working 12-14 hour days, seven days a week during the summer months, and David Heath describes his father’s choice of career as ‘bloody hard work’.  Unlike Heath’s, the closure of which was forced by retirement, Gill’s was driven to close by a less predictable challenge.  “A Highways engineer from Devon County Council came into one of the greenhouses one day, and told me and my father “you won’t be picking many more tomatoes here, we’re going to build a road through the place”.  Although the proposed road linking South Street and the newly built Heath’s Way was never built (part of the road building phase which saw Heath’s Nursery opened up), it created enough uncertainty, hanging in the air as a possibility for at least 10 years, that when Jack Gill died, it fell to his son, Ken, to decide whether or not to invest in modernising and expanding the Nursery.  Given the degree of uncertainty, he decided it would be unwise, and the nursery was slowly wound down.

Oral History Quote 5.2. Gills Nursery, an urban market garden in the centre of Totnes: (Source: author’s oral history interview with Ken Gill).

5.4.3. Empirical Modelling of Local Food Systems

Within the Transition movement, a few initiatives other than Totnes have made attempts at answering this question using a variety of approaches, such as Norwich (Transition Norwich 2009), Frome (Sustainable Frome 2009) and Stroud (Transition Stroud 2008), which in turn pick up on earlier work which explored the ability of different regions of the world to feed themselves under various future scenarios (Penning de Vries et al. 1995, WRR 1995).  What such studies have in common, argued Cowell & Parkinson (2003:223), is that they are “based on a belief that regional self-sufficiency of food production and consumption is more likely to increase the food security of individuals than a globalised food system”.  Food security, it is increasingly argued is decreased as the cheap oil that enables our current concept of food security becomes increasingly scarce or subject to volatile prices (Hopkins 2008, Heinberg & Bomford 2009).  The hypothesis explored here, and in the Totnes paper, was that, provided diets were changed to feature predominantly seasonal local produce, less meat, and more grains and pulses (as set out in Fairlie 2008), Totnes and district would be able to produce the bulk of its food requirements, while still being able to export some produce.  It is important here to make the point, as did Hendrickson and Heffernan (2002:361) that localisation does not refer to self sufficiency:  “These alternatives”, they wrote, “require a notion of community self-reliance, rather than either dependency or self-sufficiency”, which echoes the concept from resilience science of modularity (Walker and Salt 2006).  Tudge (2003:378) reinforced this point, arguing that self reliance ought to become a general principle for global agriculture:

“… it makes sense on all levels – ecological, nutritional, gastronomic, financial, social and strategic – for almost all countries in the world to become self-reliant in food.  Most are perfectly well able to do so.  ‘Self-reliance’ simply means that each country should strive to produce all the basic foods that it needs, so that it could feed its own people in a crisis, notably in times of political or economic blockade.  It stops short of total self-sufficiency, which implies that a country produces absolutely all of its own food, including the kinds that it cannot easily grow at home in open fields”.

Using GIS mapping technology developed by Geofutures in Bath, ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ defined its area of study as being the Totnes and District boundary as defined by the Market and Coastal Towns Initiative.  This boundary choice combines some useful and some arbitrary elements (see Figure 4.1.).  Aside from its northern boundary, it reflects the town’s original market town catchment, the boundary within which growers would choose Totnes as the market town of choice and convenience, reflecting Kloppenberg et al.’s (1996:34) earlier description of a foodshed as allowing one to “graphically imagine the flow of food into a particular place”.  In this regard, as a ‘foodshed’ it encapsulates the catchment from which the bulk of the town’s diet would have ‘flowed’ into Totnes town.

The northern boundary is that of SHDC so is an artificial political boundary.  The area was also the area boundary when Totnes was a Borough, which as Chapter 6 will explore, may yet prove to be a more suitable political model for relocalisation.  Although the Totnes and District boundary is not perfect as a foodshed, or as a bioregion, the fact that, in the main, it reflects the historical boundaries of a more localised market town catchment, makes it useful for this analysis.  The question of what is ‘local’ in a geographic sense, has been the subject of much debate.  Hinrichs (2003:6) observed that the ‘local’ is not neat or easy to define: “specific social or environmental relations do not always map predictably and consistently onto the spatial relation”.  For Feagan (2007:34), local food systems “must bear in mind with respect to spatially bound concepts like foodsheds, that the types of food grown, how it is grown, where it is grown, by whom and according to what sorts of cultural, social and economic needs are tied, in complex and somewhat indiscernible ways, to sociocultural factors at the macro economic and political levels”, which in turn links back to DuPuis & Goodman’s (2005) notion of ‘reflexive’ localism.  In the Totnes and district context, the study focused purely on the physical ability of the area to meet its food needs, without also looking at the other elements necessary to a reflexive localism, although this is not to dismiss their importance.

Figure 5.1. Food footprints of settlements in the South West of England with a population of over 800, note location of Totnes and district (Source: Hopkins et al. 2009)

The study analysed land use types, and current levels of productivity, from the most recent data available from DEFRA in 2004.  Initially it looked at Totnes in relation to other settlements with populations of over 800 in the South West, mapping their ‘food footprints’ and how these overlap (Figure 5.1.).  This process confirmed McCullum et al.’s (2005:278) observation that “food systems operate and interact at multiple levels, including community, municipal, regional, national and global”.  The overlaps in the case of Totnes were with the food footprint of Torbay from the east, and Plymouth from the west, highlighting how locations cannot conceptualise food security in isolation from their relationships with neighbouring settlements.

Figure 5.2. The Growing Communities Food Zone Diagram. (Brown 2009)

The paper then looked at the ‘food zones’ model developed by Julie Brown (Pinkerton & Hopkins 2009) at the Growing Communities project in London (Figure 5.3.), which attempted to define the percentages of food that a low carbon London might be able to produce for itself, how much it would need to import, and from what distances.  This ‘dartboard’ approach is stylised, but still gives some insights into what proportion of food production could be more locally produced. It raises the question of what percentage of imports might be feasible in a more localised model.  The Fife Diet initiative in Scotland[1] aims to support people eating a more local diet.  It promotes an 80% local diet, the remainder imported.  When asked where this ratio had come from, Fife Diet founder Mike Small replied:

“It was about saying we didn’t want the eat local movement to be a parochial retreat inwards because we believe that eating locally is an act of solidarity with the developing world in terms of climate change and climate justice. We wanted to show solidarity by buying stuff that we just couldn’t get here. We also wanted tactically to say to people “look this isn’t too scary – you can do this!” Of course people say they couldn’t give up things like bananas or chocolate or red wine. 80-20 make it seem less scary, that’s the thinking behind it” (Small

Julie Brown of Growing Communities, who created Figure 5.2, also advocates an 80/20% ration (but as a UK produced/imported ratio), but is less clear about why that figure was chosen, emphasising the work-in-progress nature of this debate:

“Its a hypothesis, and it needs proving.  It’s an aspiration.  It feels right.  Broadly speaking, in terms of what we’re sourcing for our box schemes, which is all fruit and veg, that’s what we manage to do, but we’re playing around with that.  I am struggling with how we measure this” (Brown

Figure 5.3. Composite Foodsheds for the four largest settlements in Totnes and District, showing how they do not accord with the ‘foodzones’ model (Source: Hopkins et al. 2009)

In the Totnes study, the findings of overlaying food demand on top of the available soil types are shown in Figures 5.3. and 5.4.  The conclusion drawn was that the area could feed itself in most of its key food needs, although not all on land immediately adjoining the town.  Some staples, such as lamb, would need to come from further afield, as appropriate soil types do not exist close to the town.  Questions were also raised about the need to also address changes in climate, the kind of diet that could be supported, and so on.  What was clear was that much of what is currently considered to be available ‘local food’ tends to be seasonal vegetables and high value speciality foods, while bulk carbohydrates, in particular wheat and other grains, are grown at a considerable distance from the area.

Figure 5.4. Foodsheds for the four largest settlements in Totnes and District, broken down into agricultural production types (Hopkins et al. 2009)

At this point the question arises as to how local is ‘local’ food?  Peters et al. (2008:2) argued that, in relation to food, ‘local’ refers to “the concept of increasing reliance on foods produced near their point of consumption relative to the modern food system”.  For Hinrichs (2003:34) it is “a banner under which people attempt to counteract trends of economic concentration, social disempowerment, and environmental degradation in the food and agricultural landscape”.  The question of what is ‘local’ in relation to the Totnes and district food system is clearly important to this discussion.  To what extent does peoples’ sense of ‘local’ overlap with the tentative ‘foodshed’ identified above?  The survey found that 40% felt that for food to be considered local it would need to have been produced within 10 miles of Totnes (see Table 5.2. below).

Oral history interviews conducted for this thesis showed that historically, the bulk of food consumed within the area would have been sourced from within the Totnes and district boundary, which is around 10 miles at its farthest from Totnes.  Val Price, one of the interviewees, recalled the first time she became aware of the idea that food was something that could actually come from further than the local area, when in the early 1950s she was asked to do a school project which involved collecting the paper sheets that oranges came wrapped in at that time and compile a list of where they had come from.  Until that point the idea had never occurred to her that food came from anywhere outside the local area.  Andy Langford relates (see Oral History Quote 5.3.) how much more the casual work then available on farms was a part of young peoples’ lives, especially during the summer.

Andy Langford recalled picking up lots of casual work on local farms from the age of 13 onwards.  In the late 1960s there were “lots of small family farms all over the place.  The average farm size would have been 30-40 acres, 120 acres would have been considered quite upper class sort of farming”.  Many of the farms were short of labour during the summer, especially during hay making and straw baling times.  His favourite was one at East Allington.  “We were out there a lot.  We used to go out there and the farm was pretty much run by the young people.  Andy Strutt was a classmate of mine.  He had 6 sisters, which was part of the attraction. Suddenly I found myself in charge of a little tractor moving around the farm picking up haybales with all these young women about and these big lunches and suppers where you could eat as many roast potatoes as you could get in yourself, that was very lovely.  We basically ran the place.  The children from Andy, 16, down to the rest of us, would man the potato harvester.  That’s what we did.  We’d go out there for the weekend and harvest however many tons of potatoes needed picking, take them, riddle them, sort them into this size and that size, then get in the Landrover and deliver them to the chip shop in Kingsbridge.  It was great”.

Oral History Quote 5.3. How local farms were a source of casual labour for the people of Totnes.  (Source: author’s oral history interview with Andy Langford).

So, what did the word ‘local’ mean for Totnes and district residents?  The findings in Table 5.2. would seem to support the usefulness of the Totnes and District boundary, in relation to the traditional food economy of the town.  60% of respondents felt that ‘local’ meant between 10 and 30 miles from the town, more embedded in the wider South Hams.

Number (%)
Immediately adjoining the town 9 (4)
As far as 10 miles 83 (40)
As far as 30 miles 42 (20)
As far as Plymouth 17 (8)
Within the South West 45 (22)
British produce 7 (3)
Don’t know 5 (2)
Total 208 (100)
No answer given: 11

Table 5.2. “Within what distance of Totnes would meat or vegetables need to have been grown/produced for you to consider them “local”? (Source: author’s questionnaire 2009).

Figure 5.5. The Index of Food Relocalisation. (Source: Ricketts Hein 2006).

This echoes Padbury’s (2006) and IGD’s (2003) observation that UK consumers generally understand ‘local’ to be either within 30 miles, or within the same county.  The Totnes data could be interpreted as inferring that within the culture of the town, the fact that it still holds regular markets, and still has a strong commercial presence from local growers, means that people feel, on some level, situated within the kind of ‘foodshed’ that Kloppenburg (1996) refer to (see above). The role of markets historically in Totnes was also explored in the oral history interviews (see Oral History Quote 5.4).  The continuing presence of a strong culture of the importance of local food is supported by the ‘Index of Food Relocalisation’ produced by Ricketts Hein et al. (2006) which found that Devon was the county in England and Wales with the most local food activity, and that the bulk of the activity was focused in the South West of England (see Figure 5.6.)

Ken Gill recalls how the Cattle Market was what brought farmers and their wives into the town, while the husbands traded, haggled and drank, the wives would go shopping, providing a vital boost for the town’s economy.  Although it created a certain degree of nuisance and put a huge strain on the town’s traffic infrastructure, the Cattle Market’s passing was, for some, a loss.  Ken Gill told me “once you took away the Market it wasn’t the same”.

Oral History Quote 5.4 Totnes Cattle Market: From the oral history interviews.

5.4.4. The Food Culture of Totnes

The concept of the intentional relocalisation of food in the way explored in ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ sits within a wider food culture which is arguably in crisis (i.e. Lawrence 2009).  Fewer people cook with fresh produce or have the time or income to source local produce.  So what is the current Totnes food culture?  In the survey, 97% of respondents stated that they ‘always’ or ‘often’ cooked the meals they ate at home using fresh produce”, but the question was unfortunately sufficiently vague as to not yield much of value.  43% of respondents stated that someone in their household grows some of the food that is consumed there, and 8% have an allotment, above the national average: a study by the University of Derby in 2006 showed a national average provision of 7 allotments per 1,000 population (Crouch & Rivers 2006).

The experience of shopping for food has clearly changed greatly over the past 60 years, as revealed in Oral History quote 5.5.  Respondents were also asked to rank their choices when they went food shopping.  The list of priorities was, in order of priority; good quality, local, low price, organic, fair trade and brand.  This emphasis on ‘local’ is borne out in Totnes High Street, where food retail shops are highly visible, often stressing the local provenance of some of their produce.  The third placing of ‘low price’ is reflected in the focus group on food, and the decisions families make on a daily basis. In Hinrichs’s (2002) study of the Kansas City Food Circle, the “unacknowledged privileged position of the group” (Hendrickson & Heffernan 2002:365) was acknowledged, a charge, they state “that can be levelled at many alternative food movements” (ibid). So to what extent did participants find the local food available in Totnes accessible?

“I used to go to the grocers and I could sit down, lovely.  They’d go through your list and say, “yes, yes, we’ve some new whatever it is, would you like to taste some?”  You’d have a little snippet of cheese or something, “great, yes, we’ll have that”.  “Now we’ve got a tin of broken biscuits, but they’re not too bad (half price you see), would you like them?”  As soon as you put a biscuit in your mouth it’s broken isn’t it!  Then they’d say “now Mrs. Langford, you’re going to the butchers, yes, yes, and going to get some fish?  Yes, yes, and paraffin?  Yes, yes… and they used to say to me now bring any parcels in, we’ll put it in the box with your groceries and bring the lot up for you.  And they did.  They’d come and deliver and you’d go through it and say that’s fine and would you like a cup of tea….”

Oral History Quote 5.5. A trip to the shops in the 1950s. (Source: author’s oral history interview with Muriel Langford).

The focus group on food supported many of the survey findings, as well as uncovering many of the choices that people make in relation to food.  One participant, MW, a family counsellor, opted for supermarkets for most of her food shopping “for easiness and cheapness”, but claimed that “if I had more time, and even more money, then I would make the effort to buy local food.  I do believe it’s important, but I don’t think I can afford to do it to be honest, because I think money comes first”.  These findings are also supported by a study of Totnes food culture conducted in parallel to this research (Pir 2010) which found that “while Totnesians have a high level of awareness of environmental and food-related issues, this is not matched by their patterns of behaviour.  First, producers and consumers seem largely motivated or constrained by the costs involving the production or consumption of foods.  Secondly, the convenience of food, i.e. shopping, cooking and consumption, seems to be a priority for most consumers” (Pir 2010:92).

Taken together, this appears to back up Hinrichs and Kremer’s (2003:37) findings from Iowa, US, which showed that local food movement members tended to be “white, middle-class consumers and that the movement threatens to be socially homogenised and exclusionary” (DuPuis & Goodman 2005:362).  Follett (2009:49) warns that “alternative [food] networks can lead to myopic and exclusive decision-making that only benefit the most educated and elite members of society”.   The question of not having enough time is also picked up by Hendrickson & Heffernan (2002), who identify the advantages and disadvantages of the time issue:

“Time may indeed be one of the biggest barriers for alternatives, yet one of the greatest strengths.  Many alternatives do take more time, and thus are less attractive to people squeezed by work and family responsibilities, which has important class-based implications.  However, that becomes a reason alternatives are difficult to replicate by the dominant firms”.  (Hendrickson & Heffernan 2002:361)

Kollmus and Agyeman (2002) however, refuse to take arguments of ‘not enough time’ at face value. “What”, they ask, “are the underlying factors of ‘not having enough time’”?  There would appear to be a direct link between the requirement to establish alternatives and people with time available, and the predominance of middle class participants.  As Kollmus and Agyeman (2002:244) add, “people who have satisfied their personal needs are more likely to act ecologically because they have more resources (time, money, energy) to care about bigger, less personal social and pro-environmental issues”.

Another participant, an 18 year old female student, had a high level of understanding about organic food and local food due to working part time at a local organic farm, but her mother shopped for the family.  “When we go in (to the supermarket) I know what’s local as its lots of the same products where I work, and I point it out to Mum, but she says “that’s so expensive!””  When asked about their attitudes towards growing their own food, their responses supported the surprisingly high figure from the survey of those who claimed to be good at gardening.  66% had claimed to be either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ at food growing.  An initial perception might be that growing fresh fruit and vegetables is a dying art, in spite of the recent revival in interest (Birchley 2009), but the Focus Groups reveal more complexity than whether people are ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at it.   For example, both DO and MW live on the Follaton Estate, and DO told me “Mum’s got a little vegetable patch in the garden, and she grows them all year round.  So we eat all our own vegetables”.

MW was a newer convert to food growing.  Both families were inspired by a young couple of the estate who garden very visibly in front of their house.  MW was clearly impressed; “they both work and yet they still manage to provide endless amounts of vegetables”.  MW enthused about how she had taken to gardening.  “I got really silly about it, and took people to look at my little plot.  “Look at what I grew!”  But I think my daughter was impressed with it for about two weeks!  “Do you have to keep talking about courgettes mum?” Part of her excitement stemmed from a glimpse at what being more self reliant could be like.  She continued, “one day I came back down the motorway.  I hadn’t been shopping, and it was Sunday so the shops were closed, but I managed to make soup from my garden. I was really excited that it hadn’t cost me a penny, but I’d managed to make really nice soup.  I think that’s really important, the fact that you can sustain yourself if you really need to”.  She also found that it brought other qualities to her life.  “It’s very therapeutic.  In the summer, it’s really nice to go down there and I like looking at it and seeing what’s growing”.

For most people, growing some of their own food was just a fact of life and the landscape of the town reflected this.  Ian Slatter recalled his father’s passion for food growing, a passion he never himself came to share.  At the bottom of his garden were allotments, of which his father had two, as well as a large garden, similarly dedicated to food production, but focused on fruit, whereas the allotments grew vegetables.  Val Price remembers every garden in the street being used to grow food, mostly done by the men of the households.  “Dad grew all our food in our garden”, she told me.  “Potatoes, runner beans, beetroot, carrots, onions, raspberries and strawberries”.  Gardening was, she recalls, the main topic of conversation for the men of the street who would “stand around, leaning on their forks, and telling each other they were doing it all wrong”.  In the late 1960s, the need for productive gardens began to diminish, and the new generation began to see it as boring and unnecessary.  Andy Langford, whose father was a keen gardener, and who initially kept an allotment at Copland Meadow (now housing), and subsequently a very productive third of an acre home garden at the top of Barracks Hill, told me “we used to consider gardening to be something you did because he’d caught you!  My generation was the one that broke the link with gardening.  It was much more fun to take your bicycle to bits, put it back together again and go off racing around the countryside”.  Similarly Val Price recalls never being taught to garden, as gardening was “something Dads did”, and that by the early 60s it had become something that young people only did if they had to.

Oral History Quote 5.6. The Rise and Fall of Back Garden Food Production (Source: the author’s oral history interviews).

In terms of where both households learned the skills needed, there were several sources.  The first was the gardening couple on their street, followed by other neighbours, elderly relatives and the internet.  They found that their enthusiasm for gardening was contagious.  MW told me “it’s (food growing) gone along the street and across.. the people behind me…”.  It was interesting to observe that although she could grow things, she felt underequipped in terms of basic gardening skills, so although she could grow, so was reluctant to describe her skills as ‘good’. It is useful to compare this present-day culture of back garden food growing, and the figure of 66% of respondents believing they are ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at growing food, with that of the 1950s when food growing was much more commonplace, as revealed in the oral histories in Oral History Quote 5.6.

One older participant in the focus group on work and skills, however, countered the enthusiasm for back garden food growing expressed above.  She told another member of the group who had expressed an interest in gardening, “I had your experience of planting vegetables, and it put me off completely.  As a child I spent a lot of time on my Dad’s allotment, I was born and brought up in cities, trying to grow things, but it put me off completely”.  The root of her disillusionment was twofold, firstly her lack of skills (“I felt it was my ignorance”) and secondly…. slugs.  “I catch them, with a torch, and then take them up to the Arboretum, but what a waste of time and effort, to try and grow a lettuce which is dead by the morning because the buggers came along and got it”.

Many ideas have emerged about how to make this relocalised model a reality through World Cafe events and the process of creating the Totnes and District EDAP.  One key driver of this has been the TTT Food Group, which has been in existence for over 3 years and draws together food activists from across the community.  An MPhil dissertation by Pir (2010) offered a qualitative study of the TTT Food Group, based on surveys and interviews. It acknowledged the diversity of initiatives that have been initiated and maintained by the group, which include:

  • Garden Share, matching the owners of unused back gardens with keen gardenless gardeners (over 40 families now have access to growing land through the scheme)
  • ‘Totnes: the nut tree capital of Britain’, a volunteer-led programme which plants nut and fruit trees at locations through the town.  At the time of writing, over 180 trees have been planted
  • a gardening training course
  • links with Dartington and Sharpham Estates, both of which are on the edge of the town
  • Healthy Futures: aiming to engage people with chronic health problems in learning how to grow and cook food
  • A proposed ‘Food Hub’, a community-owned initiative to make local food available to people at supermarket prices.

However, Pir concluded that “contributions for resilience building at this stage have a symbolic meaning, largely manifesting themselves in considerations or mindsets and not in attitudes and patterns of behaviour… the overall perception of the TTT Food Group has shown that it was best known for raising awareness” (Pir 2010:93).  He also noted that “even though the scale of practical manifestations seemed symbolic, they have been described by some to have had an important psychological effect on the local people”.  From personal experience, many of the longer term, farther reaching initiatives like the Food Hub project, take longer to bring about, and that, as suggested by Pir, much of the initial work of Transition takes place at a deeper level, building networks and momentum.  Pir’s statement that thus far, the TTT Food Group “has not been able to enthuse the average person” is however not borne out in the survey data relating to the wider impact of TTT, explored in Chapter 7.

The dangers associated with ‘unreflexive’ localism for Totnes and district, and whether the ‘foodshed’ approach set out in the ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ research could actually lead to some of the dangers outlined above deserves reflection.  As the focus groups revealed, at present, local food consumers in Totnes tend to be wealthier, middle-class people, often with more free time.  Given that Totnes and its surroundings already have a strong local food culture with many producers, and is one of the leading centres in the country for this, there is no obvious sign of Winter’s (2003) ‘defensive localism’.  On the contrary, its local food culture emerged in interviews as something that contributes to the town’s perceived ‘uniqueness’.  DuPuis and Goodman (2005:360) suggested that “there may also be a cost to alliances with local elites that stand to benefit from localisation”, and certainly the realisation/implementation of the foodshed model would necessitate engaging with large landowners and some of the potential risks DuPuis and Goodman suggest.  However, the positive and constructive engagement of the Sharpham and Dartington estates, stemming from a TTT event ‘Estates in Transition’ held in June 2007, suggests that such a ‘cost’ would be minimal.

Following an event in Totnes in May 2009 which introduced the ‘Can Totnes and district feed itself?’ report referred to above, a World Cafe session was held (the full notes from the session are in Appendix 3).  It began by inviting participants to list the elements of a local food system that are already in place, and then to suggest ways of increasing demand for local food.  Suggestions included a Food Hub, a local food festival, local authority and school local food procurement, more education and the less constructive suggestion “burn supermarkets”!  Asked to list elements that could help, suggestions included training and support, enabling more people to have access to land, and “economic hardship”.   Finally, the groups were asked to think of some future events.  Suggestions included “2020 – slugs in Totnes become extinct”, “2014, allotments for all!”, “2020: local food production soars” and “2015: school certification for all in food growing and cooking”.  Some of the more useful information fed into the Totnes EDAP which was, at that point, being edited.

In terms of the views of SHDC with regard to its role in this area, interviewee Alan Robinson argued that they do not see themselves as being able to do much to support the relocalisation of food.  “Apart from an enabling role where we can, I’m not sure where we’d actually plug in.  We’d never be able to say we’ll only procure our sandwiches from somebody who’s actually growing stuff only a hundred yards away in Totnes.  I know that’s a silly example but I’m not sure we can ever define it quite that tightly”.


Brown, J. (2009) The Growing Communities Food Zone Diagram.  Unpublished.

Brown, J. (2010) Personal interview.

Cowell, S.J, Parkinson, S. (2003) Localisation of UK Food Production and an Analysis Using Land Area and Energy as Indicators. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 94. 221-236.

Crouch, D, Rivers, P. (2006) Urban Research Summary No. 23.  Survey of Allotments, Community Gardens and City Farms. Department of Community and Local Government.

Fairlie, S. (2007) Can Britain feed itself? The Land 4 (Winter 2007-08)

Feagan, R. (2007) The place of food: mapping out the ‘local’ in local food systems. Progress in Human Geography 31 (1) 23-42

Hendrickson, M, Heffernan, W.D. (2002) Opening Spaces Through Relocalisation: locating potential resistance in the weaknesses of the global food system. Sociologica Ruralis 42.

Hinrichs, C., Kremer, K.S. (2002) Social Inclusion in a Midwest Local Food System Project. Journal of Poverty 6 (1). 65 – 90.

Hinrichs, C.C. (2003) The practice and politics of food system localisation. Journal of Rural Studies. 19:33-45

Hopkins, R, Thurstain Goodwin, M, Fairlie, S. (2009) Can Totnes and District Feed Itself? Exploring the practicalities of food relocalisation. Working Paper Version 1.0. Transition Town Totnes/Transition Network.

Hopkins, R. (2008) The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience. Green Books, Dartington.

IGD (2003) Local food comes from our country, say consumers. Press release 1 May 2003.

Kollmus, A, Agyeman, J. (2002) Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour. Environmental Education Research 8 (3) 239-260.

McCullum, C, Desjardins, E, Kraak, V.I, Ladipo, P, Costello, H. (2005)  Evidence-based strategies to build community food security. Journal of American Dietetic Association 105 (2) 278-83.

Mellanby, K. (1975) Can Britain Feed Itself? Merlin Press.

Padbury, G. (2006) Retail and foodservice opportunities for local food. IGD, Watford.

Penning de Vries, F.W.T, van Keulen, H, Rabbinge, R.  (1995) Natural Resources and Limits of Food Production in 2040.  In: Bouma, J, Kuyvenhoven, A, Bouman, B.A.M., Luyten, J.C, Zandstra, H.G. (eds) Eco-regional approaches for sustainable land use and food production. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Utrecht.

Pinkerton, T, Hopkins, R. (2009) Local Food: how to make it happen in your community. Transition Books/Green Books.

Pir, A. (2009) In Search of a Resilient Food System: A Qualitative Study of the Transition Town Totnes Food Group.  Dissertation for MPhil in Culture, Environment and Sustainability. Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.

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


Shane Hughes
27 Jul 11:35am

I hope this is recieved as constructive…. in the opening section you pose the question;

“What degree of localisation is possible, and what degree is, in fact desirable.”

You beautifly explore the question, demonstrate a breadth of understand backed by a wealth of evidence. My only tweak – I’d find it more readable and concise if the question was answered at the outset, even if only to state that the question is unaswerable. The reader is then given a context for the rest of the text.

It’s the old;

“# Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them.
# Tell them.
# Then tell them what you told them.”

27 Jul 12:47pm

Thanks Shane, very helpful….

Amir Carmel
27 Jul 1:02pm

In which academic department are you doing your Phd?

27 Jul 1:06pm

Human Geography, University of Plymouth.

Steve Balogh
27 Jul 1:47pm

Rob, I would love to read your thesis. Either after your defense/revisions, or even before.

We have a local foodshed study – at the county level, soon to be published in a book by David Pimentel.

Steve Balogh, Ph.D. Student
Environmental Science – Env. Systems and Risk Management

27 Jul 3:59pm

Looks good. What a huge piece of work.

In section 5.4.2 one of the paragraphs starts…

One study at Cornell University showed that in the mid-1990s the US used over 100 *billion* barrels of oil per year to manufacture food (Morgan 2008)

Shouldn’t the “billion” be “million”?

27 Jul 11:30pm

Thanks for sharing this section of your work, it’s great to read it in one go. Very stimulating.

Best wishes for your submission.

(I’m @puerhan on twitter)

Raven Gray
28 Jul 6:01am

Wow. This is a serious piece of research and writing. Fantastic.

Thank you so much for working so hard on this, for putting it all together so beautifully, and for making it available for people like me.

I particularly enjoyed the quotes from the oral histories you’ve done. They take me right back to my(now sadly deceased) grandparents, who despite growing up in central London, lived without electricity and gas, and grew most of their own food in the back garden, and on a nearby allotment.

I would love to get a hard copy of your finished thesis.

Pranav Bihari
29 Jul 1:15am

Really liked your well researched piece. I would urge you to take a look at some of the work from the following website on local development planning: the Water and Land Management section from this book:

[...] a national average provision of 7 allotments per 1,000 population (Crouch & Rivers 2006). Excerpts from a forthcoming thesis by Rob [...]

Simone Wilkie
8 Sep 8:09pm

Excellent…a taste of a really crucial piece of work Rob. I think you are well hitting the mark here :-)

30 Sep 4:31pm

Hi Rob,
Fantastic topic! I’ve almost finished a reasonably simlar thesis here in Melbourne. Seems to be something that it fortunately gaining more attention in political discussions, but perhaps not as much as it truly deserves. Best of luck!

Howard Silverman
10 Nov 6:46am

Hi Rob,

Congratulations on this work. I hadn’t noticed this post until today’s about your thesis.

In the US, my colleagues and i worked on a similar spatially specific analysis: “How many people could Ventura County (California) feed?

That project and other N. American research are summarized in this post about foodsheds.