8 Nov 2005
National Food Self Sufficiency
The question of whether or not the UK could ever be self sufficient in food is obviously a question of great importance to the work of designing energy descent strategies. The subject was touched upon in a recent series of pieces on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme, for the week from Mon 31st – Friday 4th November. You can still hear it at Radio 4s Listen Again section.
What was particularly interesting was the amount of correspondence the programme had from people agreeing that it was important. Although peak oil was not mentioned specifically, it was clearly one of the motivations for the piece. It was amazing to discover that no study has been made of the potential for UK food self sufficiency since Kenneth Mellanbys study “Can Britain Feed Itself” published in 1975. He concluded that
>”with a proper planning, a little self sacrifice by the more carniverous, and a little joint effort by all sections of the community, we can build a better fed and more beautiful Britain in the future”.
Since then of course we have carpeted much of our agricultural land with housing developments and industrial estates. Here in Totnes there used to be market gardens in the town, with glasshouses, next to the cattle market, so that all the manure was thrown down into the gardens to make compost. Although Mellanby’s study into UK self sufficiency is useful, surely it is time for a new study, looking at how much food could be produced in the UK, using organic methods and also evaluating the potential for urban agriculture. The excellent new book ‘Wartime: Britain 1939-45’ by Juliet Gardiner, explains how the UK reached the point of producing 10% of its food from gardens and allotments. The city of Bristol, for example, had 150,000 allotments at the height of the war.
It is an ongoing area of research at the moment, how the country adapted. It is our best historical example of Powerdown, and there is much we can learn from it. Some of these lessons have been drawn out by Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation in his new book “Ecological Debt”. One of the important things he sees is that it is a great example of a government creating a culture of advocating thrift and conservation. “When governments really want to”, he writes, “they can do almost anything, including good things”. He quotes a sign that was posted in hotel bathrooms in 1942, which read;
> “As part of your personal share in the Battle for Fuel you are asked NOT to exceed five inches of water in this bath. Make it a point of honour not to fill the bath above this level”.
I will return to the lessons that we can learn from this period in history in later posts.