20 Dec 2007
Can Britain Feed Itself?
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 excellent publication The Land, 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!