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10 Jul 2009

Announcing the Release of ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’

foodfootprintsWe are delighted, after many months of work, to finally announce the release of a major piece of groundbreaking research developed by Transition Town Totnes, Transition Network and Geofutures, with support from Land Share CIC, entitled ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself: exploring the practicalities of food relocalisation’.  You can download the paper here.  The report is a key part of the Totnes EDAP, taking Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain Feed Itself paper and applying it to Totnes and District. Such studies are starting to emerge in different places, Stroud have done one, Sustainable Frome (a Transition initiative) have started using GoogleMaps for food mapping, and Transition Norwich have done a ‘Can Norwich Feed Itself?’ study using a different methodology (which I will post when I have a link).  This Totnes study is, we think, the most comprehensive look at this question thus far, and is the first step in developing a national project and tool around the ‘Can Britain Feed Itself’ question.

This paper has had input from a number of people, including Simon Fairlie and Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust.  We are deeply grateful for a grant from Landshare which made it possible.  The paper looks at the degree of food self reliance that might be possible, based on the quality of the land available, and on how it is presently used.  It reveals large gaps in our knowledge, the difficulty of establishing yields for the more complex, bespoke food production systems such as agroforestry, the potential impacts of climate change, and also the difficulty of obtaining affordable access to the range of datasets that doing this work in more detail would require.  However, we think that what has been produced is something you will find fascinating, illuminating and even somewhat sobering.  It is the first stab at research that is vitally needed across the world.

On a personal note, I would like to thank Mark Thurstain-Goodwin and his team at Geofutures for the work they have done on this.  They have put a huge amount of time into it, for little by way of financial gain, but because they passionately believe in this work.  The discussions and debates during the editing of this paper were almost as fascinating as the paper itself.  Also, working with Simon Fairlie on this has been very illuminating.  Many thanks all who have read drafts, commented, or been involved in any way.

As an interesting aside, when I showed an early draft of this to my supervisor at University of Plymouth, he looked at me across the table with a serious look and said “but Rob, this is how wars start”.  After being somewhat taken aback, I responded that actually, it was when communities entered periods of food insecurity and economic meltdown without having done this thinking sufficiently in advance that wars tended to start.  ‘Can Totnes Feed Itself’ is not about isolation, exclusion and the putting up of barriers, rather it is about the building of resilience, the building of surge protectors into our highly networked and highly vulnerable world.  This paper holds not the seeds of a return to feuding feudalism, but rather the seeds of a more localised, resilient and skilled world where we have a far stronger relationship with our food from, as Tim Lang so poetically puts it, “from farm to fart”.

Please feel free to spread this paper, tell your friends and do let us know any comments, thoughts, observation or feedback.

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


11 Jul 1:18am

Regarding the proposal to return human sewage to productive land. Human waste in developed countries contains harmful chemicals and hormones that are not broken down by the biological treatment process. In the case of urban sewerage systems These harmful substances are discharged to the environment through the outfall pipes or are concentrated in solid waste that is a biproduct of the treatment process. The solid waste should not be applied to land that is used for growing food. The discharges from the outfall accumulate these harmful in bottom sediments. There was a case in a western country where people became ill from eating food grown on land fertilised with human waste.

The chemicals that end up in the waste stream come from a wide range of pharmaceutals and products such as shampoo, domestic cleaners etc. Research on the internet will provide scientific and detailed information

11 Jul 1:29am

With regard to my earlier comments on harmful chemicals in human waste here are some of my sources. Dated but still relevant.

Henderson Alden K. Ph. D. Moll Deborah M. Ph D. Frick Elizabeth A. Zaugg Steven D Ph D. Presence of Wastewater Tracers and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in Treated Wastewater Effluent and Municipal Drinking Water. Crentres for Disease Control and Prevention, Altlanta, GA. Also by same authors:

Presence of Pharmaceuticals in Treated Wastewaster Effluent and Surface Water Supply Systems

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: ToxFAQs for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

Pollutants in Urban Waste Water and Sewage Sludge: Final Report: Prepared by ICON LTD London February 2001 for the Directorate – General Environment, European Commission Published by Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001 ISBN 92-894-1735-8 (available on the internet)

The Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals published in January 2003 by the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Environmental Health Division of Laboratory Sciences Atlanta, Georgia 30341-3724 NCEH Pub. No. 02-0716

Eutrophication, Water Borne Pathogens and Xenobiotic Compounds: Environmental Risks and Challenges. R.S. S. WU Biology and Chemistry Department, City University of Hong Kong.

Marcin Gerwin
11 Jul 1:50pm

It was a really interesting reading, however, I’m sorry to say that, I have a feeling that the conclusions were presented in a bit dishonest way. The honest answer for the question “Can Totnes and district feed itself?” is “no” rather than “yes, if”. Why? Because Totnes is located near other cities, such as Torbay (population: 134’200) and Plymouth (population: 250’700) and, as you pointed it out yourself, if these are factored in things get complicated (meaning: impossible). What’s more, the amount of fuelwood that you assumed makes it impossible to grow any food at all (again, as you pointed out yourself).

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m myself a supporter of local food economies, but we need to be honest about it. If things can’t be done, then it means that they can’t be done. Having read your research my conclusions are that people from Totnes can certainly produce large quantities of their own organic food (if they have the alternative to fuelwood), however, full self-sufficiency in food production is not possible due to lack of sufficient area of arable land. It leaves you with three options: importing food from other areas, malnutrition or migration.

julian duggan
11 Jul 9:44pm

Maybe if you factor in a shift away from nuclear family households to a more communal system thus drastically reducing fuel wood demand,increase protein derived from pigeon,rabbit,deer(horse?),made better use of recycling existing(massive)textile stock, the equations might be more favourable.Furthermore as population/urbanisation is an out of balance response to an out of balance economic/social model I imagine that any meaningful Transition would over time restore balance.I think this all serves to illustrate just how massive any ‘transition’ will need to be and that tinkering at the edges is unhelpful.Unfortunetely we are dealing with Politics and Power with very capital’P’s
….O.k maybe ‘unhelpful’ is too strong but it is still tinkering.
As an aside do you think if we say carbon capture,carbon capture enough times we can make it real,like carbon trading?

Steve Atkins
12 Jul 9:35am

I attended the Geofutures workshop at the 2009 Transition conference. The speaker, Mark Thurstain-Goodwin from Geofutures made it quite clear that this is very much work in progress.

Rob says …”It is the first stab at research that is vitally needed across the world.”…

I haven’t noticed DEFRA doing this kind research in so much detail, have they? Please enlighten me if they have.

12 Jul 4:43pm

It’s great to see the level of work that has been put into this, but I have to agree with Marcin — the conclusion would certainly appear to be that it can’t really be done, given what we know so far.

And if this can’t be done, then Transition Brixton seems less likely yet… no?

12 Jul 10:54pm

Really interesting work Rob. In response to the scepticism, I suppose it shows us that while we could make substantial progress in this area, current thinking and technology will only provide part of the answer. But human ingenuity has achieved amazing things. The very fact that I am able to take part in this discussion, for example. So this throws down the gauntlet to our greatest minds to apply themselves in this field. Could advanced permaculture techniques, for example, enhance yields significantly?

[…] Totnes on Friday. Their report “Can Totnes and District feed itself?” can be downloaded here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Round up of the weekGetting out there!!All […]

Steve Atkins
14 Jul 4:07pm

Allan – it appears that you are referring to spreading toxic human sewage…by this, I presume you refer to the process of mixing human shit with toxic chemicals? ie, like most households do at the moment…shit into drinking water, mix it up with harmful chemicals flush it off for a company to treat with even more harmful chemicals, flush it into the environment and pretend every thing’s ok…

That’s a real waste of healthy shit.

The ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself’ paper says:
• returning human sewage to productive land

I presume this means not mixing human shit with toxic chemicals in the first place, perhaps via a similar process as detailed in ‘The Humanure Handbook’ by Joseph Jenkins ?

14 Jul 7:43pm

I am not sure that we are on the same frequency. However this is what I was trying to say.

People consume or apply to their bodies, clothing and homes products that contain small amounts of harmful chemicals. The residue or left overs products and the chemicals they contain end up in the waste water system. The typical sewerage system does not treat the harmful chemicals but concentrates them in the effluent discharged to the environment and in the solid wastes that our left over. There are hundreds of different harmful chemicals now found in the end product of sewerage treatment . These chemicals include heavy metals, contraceptives, drugs used for the treatment of heart disease, diabetes, chemicals used in a wide range of household goods such as shampoos, insecticides, cleaners etc etc. The Centre for Disease Control in the States is a leading researcher in this field. Years ago gardeners were invited to help ourselves to the treated solids from our local Wastewater Treatment Plant. Not anymore the stuff is too dangerous. It is buried in the forest and the chemicals allowed to break down over a long period. The answer? – reduce the harmful chemicals in consumer products, reduce the amount of these untreatable chemicals getting into the sewerage sytem, close down centralised sewerage systems and return to the modern version of the septic tank or similar method of handling manure. A final note. Before we were obliged by council to hook up to the new mains sewerage system in my neighbourhood we all used septic tanks. None of the grey water was put into the septic tank because it tended to flood the field drain – only manure went in the septic tank and when the tank was full, the manure was put on the garden ( It took several years to fill by the way) In conclusion we were only getting in our vegs our own recycled pharmaceuticals.

15 Jul 11:02am

One of the most efficient techniques of separating the liquid from the solid, which is essential to making use of the human wase on a widescale, is a vortex system whereby the two are separated immediately. As nature has designed, the two have to go in separate directions. It is by mixing them up in our current toilet systems, that the resource becomes a major source of pollution. Once the vortex system has separated the liquid from the solid, bacterial treatment, i.e. cascading between the 5 Kingdoms of Nature, can help turn the humanwaste into a fertiliser. Of course the separate pooring of chemicals and such need to be stopped. Also see digester systems. Most importantly, for a quantum progress, the spirit of humble cooperation, rather than righteousness, needs to prevail.

Adam Polczyk
15 Jul 4:20pm

FYI “The Humanure Handbook 3rd Edition” by Joseph Jenkins is available free online here:


16 Jul 11:13am

Interesting stuff. I think more could be made of fish / products from the sea in the paper as a factor. As an island nation we cant ignore the incredible productivity of the sea.

Steve Atkins
16 Jul 11:36am

Seems we all agree on the basic issues – Toxic bad / safe human compost for growing food, good

I think the real difficulty is doing this on a large scale, especially in cities, and also at a time when we’re looking to use far less fossil fuel energy for treatment and transport.

Yesterday we were in a supermarket looking for some Ecover washing liquid… and then we started reading the labels on the non-eco product… really nasty ingredients.

I wonder, why on earth do we need all this toxic product when there are natural options available to us?

17 Jul 5:36am

The Humanure Handbook proposes depositing humanure in household tanks and the desposits taken to a community compost site by the local council. What a good idea! I imagine this will be a challenge in a large city like London. Special arrangements would have to be made for large hospitals which would tend to fill their tanks with poo full of pharmaceutals including residual contraceptives.( Unless it is a Catholic Hospital of course) In my neighbourhood, everyone has enough land to do their own composting. The biggest challenge to making this transition is learning to love ones own and others poo. In my culture when some one farts someone always calls out “Speak up Brown your through!”

[…] research team out of the UK has released a paper examining whether certain locals can feed themselves through local food […]

18 Jul 1:31pm

It’s good to see that the report refers to the need to “explore the thorny issue of population” which generally the Transition movement generally fails to address.

Pretending it’s not an issue or simply sweeping it under the carpet won’t make the issue go away. With the UK population increasing by 400,000 a year the pressures will only increase as the consequences of climate change increases and the affects of peak oil occur.

20 Jul 4:40pm

The discussion on this paper seems to have got rather stuck in an excrement-filled rut, of just debating the pros and cons of using sewage in farming. The paper itself goes far deeper than that, and raises many fascinating questions. Anyone else who read it have any thoughts on it?

20 Jul 5:15pm

Perhaps a lot of people didn’t want to go further here because there’s no easy place to go.

Start running the numbers different ways. What could the entire population get? If not a full ration, then what? If not 2,767 calories, how many? It seems all necessary veg could be produced, and if so, how do you rejig so as to use the spare capacity wisely?

The government should be lobbied to make available all the needed data.

How much extra yield is possible from agroforestry?

Research on integrated systems is needed — but what is the best guess of people who know something about this? How much more could be done with a more integrated approach?

The fuel problem is really the biggest thing in a way; there needs to be a lot more thought going into that right now. How much less fuel you need if more people move in together?

Plus a (maybe) silly question: is it possible to grow crops on walls?

20 Jul 8:31pm

The coverage on food waste in Sunday’s ‘Observer’ was an eye opener – suggests we could do without a lot of food so does that get us any closer, or are Rob’s calculations based solely on what we EAT, not what we buy?

[…] of my readers sent me this news item from southwestern England: Announcing the Release of ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’. That got me thinking. Perhaps they can feed themselves. But if things fall apart, how can they […]

Jon Cranfield
22 Jul 2:45pm

An interesting study which I haven’t read all the way through yet. Its time to think the unthinkable – its time to abandon farmed meat! As the UN has also stated that we need to shift our diets away from meat

We need to look at removing the farmed animals out of the equation to release the majority of the land back to nature and bringing back the wilder landscape.

I remember the statistic that the veggies often spout – 25% of the available land would be necessary to feed the whole population if it was strictly vegetarian.

Until we can stop intensively farmed meat we aint got a chance of making any progress to combating climate change…..


23 Jul 11:10am

Jon Cranfield: I remember the statistic that the veggies often spout – 25% of the available land would be necessary to feed the whole population if it was strictly vegetarian.

If true, I think we would all have to admit that is a seriously interesting statistic.

Is it, in fact, true? Does anyone know? ‘Facts’ like this are never likely to be uncontested and uncontroversial, but is this basically true? It’s hard to confirm it on a quick google, which is all I gave it, and I also came up with this about veganism, from wikipedia:

A 2007 study which simulated various diets’ land use for the geography of New York State concluded that although vegetarian diets used the smallest amount of land per capita, a low fat diet which included some meat and dairy (less than 2 oz of meat/eggs per day— significantly less than consumed by the average American) could support slightly more people on the same available land than could be fed on some high fat vegetarian diets, since animal food crops can be grown on lower quality land than crops for human consumption.

… although what ‘some high fat vegetarian diets’ means, I couldn’t really say.

Those who ran the numbers for this report must have a clue about this question? 🙂 More of a clue than I have anyway.

julian duggan
23 Jul 9:13pm

the basic case for the 25% thing is that for example take a field of wheat grain turn it in to bread and this will have 4x calorific value of feeding the grain to cattle and eating the meat.Just think how much energy an animal uses when moving etc. and it’s not hard to imagine that the veggie fact is near enough correct.

dave prescott
28 Jul 1:52pm

I have finally read through this paper and I think it is a genuinely pioneering piece of work. Obviously it touches on some massively difficult areas but we are going to have to face them one way or another so we might as well get the discussions going.

Some of the implications I can think of are as follows:

1) it starts to give an idea of what kind of targets a Transition food group needs to work towards in their local area – i.e. it’s one thing to encourage local allotments and local growers, it’s quite another to knows how many allotments and growers you are likely to need to help increase local food resilience

2) it provides a great conversation-starter for Transition groups when they are talking to local farmers

3) it offers a really practical model for others to follow. The Geofutures post here,
proposing that the Totnes work could pave the way for a national roll-out suggests to me that this work could lead to doing for food what David Mackay did for energy in his book ‘Sustianable energy: without the hot air’

4) it provides a fascinating new angle on ‘food security’ discussions which otherwise appear to me to be focussed almost exclusively on developing countries. Which also raises the prospect of learning from developing countries about how they handle local food security with minimal resources and massive and increasing disruption.

5) it provides a really concrete example of the use of GIS for Transition discussions and suggests that it could be used for other subjects e.g. fuel, building materials, possibly transport.

I will certainly be looking at ways to use both this paper and the model it has followed here in Transition Hay-on-Wye. Very well done to Rob, Simon and the team at Geofutures.

Dave Dann
10 Aug 12:03pm

Some belated observations from me…(anyone else read the Independent on Sunday’s feature yesterday on developed countries buying up land elsewhere for food production?)
I agree that many more landworkers would be required if carbon neutral agriculture were to be practised. I keep telling myself that I must do some building work to allow people live in my outbuildings, but the influx of a much increased population will need to be supported by investment. The problem is that the British countryside does not have the housing or infrastructure (education, medical facilities, transport) to support a much increased population. I suspect that for at least the last generation rural areas haven’t had the investment funds that they deserve.
Transport is interesting. Food must be delivered to its consumers. We have lost our network of railways that used to support trade between the cities and the countryside when agriculture wasn’t so fossil fuel based. Have a look at the railway network of Devon a hundred years ago.
Of course the total population of the nation is an essential factor in deciding whether it can feed itself. I understand that this is a fairly ‘taboo’ subject in Transition circles. Surely if population is ever-increasing (either naturally or by immigration) then we have no chance of feeding ourselves.
I believe that DEFRA land classifications may give a pessimistic picture of the potential for arable farming. W G Hoskins in ‘Devon’ records the fluctuations in land use between arable and pasture over decades and it seems that given suitable economic incentive much more Devon land could be given to arable than you might expect. My own sheep farming neighbour has surprised me in the past by telling me that he used to till land that I now consider permanent pasture. I’m not sure what assumptions are being made about the motive power being used to till the land. Is it fossil fuel based? If not then the land needed to feed animals producing the motive power would need to be factored in (one quarter of all U.S. arable land in 1900?), as would the need for considerable re-skilling of the population, along with a horse breeding programme and production of necessary equipment.
I have an observation about consumption of vegetables. When I was growing up in London fifty years ago the local greengrocer sold U.K. produced food, potatoes, root veg, cabbage, ‘greens’ and so on with beetroot, tomatoes (from Guernsey), lettuces, water cress and celery for salads. That’s probably what we need to revert to now. Don’t expect baby sweetcorns, capsicums and so on and a big variety of salads out of season. Cookbooks available in bookshops today are a sort of ‘food pornography’ with photos often covering more of the page than text. Food snobbism is surely a major new part of British culture. It may be psychologically difficult to reverse this.
As a Devon organic gardener myself I’m always astonished to see the lack of attention given to the growing of peas and beans. These are taking up an ever increasing part of my garden because they fix nitrogen, enjoy the rather cool Central Devon climate and can easily be frozen or dried. As far as I know peas and beans were historically a much bigger part of the peasants diet than they are now and this suggests that they can be grown economically on a large scale without fossil fuels. They would seem to not be as fashionable as the author’s preferred hazelnuts and walnuts. I’d like to know the species of walnuts recommended (regia? cinerea?) and some more about the technology involved in the large-scale extraction of oil.
I don’t understand the section about alcohol at all – but then I’m a keen cidermaker. I have in front of me now the ‘Treatise on Cyder-Making’ by Hugh Stafford, 1753 which comments on the excellence of the South Hams for making cider. Also…“Notwithstanding the accumulation of evils arising from the production, use and abuse of cider, the men of Devon are more strongly attracted to it than even those in Herefordshire. Their Orchards might well be styled their Temples and Apple Trees their Idols of Worship” (William Marshall, 1806). Cider orchards are recognised as being excellent wildlife habitats as well as also allowing for the grazing of chickens and sheep. Cider can be, and is, made without the use of fossil fuels. It is a drink made entirely without additives and its by-products are returned to the land. I can’t think of anything more obvious to the Devon permaculturalists than the growing of eating, cooking and cider apples. I can only conclude that there is some deep seated prejudice in action here. As for the historical need for the Totnes area to import apples, I would suggest that this is because of the high reputation of South Hams cider and that it was being exported out of the area. A similar process has been happening recently with the export of English apples to Ireland to make cider that is then sent back to England for drinking ‘over-ice’ (
I’m glad to see the inclusion of heating, as well as eating, as a requirement with an obvious impact on land-use.