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15 Sep 2009

Two Reviews of ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’

foodfootprintsA couple of months ago we published the paper we’d been working on for a while, ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ We had hoped to stimulate a lot of discussion on its contents, but most of the comments ended up talking about human sewage and it potential use in agriculture.  Interesting, but not quite what we had been hoping for.  Over the last few weeks, two excellent analyses of the report have emerged.  The first is by Colin Tudge, author of, among other things, “Feeding People is Easy”, and it can be read here.  It is a fascinating take on the paper, in spite of suggesting that the whole exercise was largely a waste of time!  The second is a review by Patrick Whitefield, to appear in the next issue of Permaculture Magazine (see below).  Be interesting to hear what you think.

Can Totnes and District Feed Itself? Exploring the practicalities of food relocalisation, Rob Hopkins, Mark Turstain-Goodwin & Simon Fairlie, Transition Town Totnes/Transition Network, 19 pages, free. A Review by Patrick Whitefield.

This study is a milestone for the Transition movement. It takes it beyond the realm of general visions of the future into the realm of hard facts and figures. Visions and visualisations are very important. Anyone can take part in them and feel both empowered and inspired in the process. But on their own such visions are incomplete. We also need some number-crunching to answer specific questions and work out how we can turn our visions into concrete reality. To my knowledge Can Totnes and District Feed Itself? is the first document to attempt this. It asks whether our vision of living entirely on local food can, at least in this specific case, become reality.

Simon Fairlie, one of the authors of the study, has already asked such a question about the country as a whole in his paper, ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?’ in The Land, issue 4. He looked at a total of six scenarios: conventional, organic and permaculture regimes, each of them in both a meat-eating and vegan version. His definition of permaculture in this context is: “involving increased integration of lifestyle with natural and renewable cycles, rather than mulching, intercropping and herb spirals.” For the Totnes study the authors modelled the future on his permaculture scenario in the meat-eating version. It’s characterised by a great deal of recycling, with pigs and poultry living mainly off waste products rather than competing with us for grain, and meat consumption overall much lower than it is now. The authors felt a purely vegan diet would be too much of a departure for the general public.

One of the most interesting results of the study is that it calls into question whether its very title is the right one. Totnes lies between the much larger settlements of Plymouth and Torbay, both of which would see the Totnes district as part of their own hinterland. Not far to the north-east lies the even hungrier mouth of Bristol and its satellites, while the food footprint of London reaches out almost as far as Bristol itself. Whose local are we talking about here? Should a town like Totnes think of itself as an urban consumer or as part of somewhere else’s countryside? Is ‘Totnes and District’ the kind of unit we should be considering?

Assuming that it is, the district seems quite able to feed itself, in principle at least. The study looks both at the available land of different quality grades within the district, what is presently produced, and how this might be modified without any drastic changes to meet the needs of the population for all kinds of foods. It would require some cultural change, on behalf of both consumers and producers, and a considerable amount of reskilling, but it’s doable. But when the authors addressed the supplementary question of wood fuel they found that the answer was a resounding no. In my opinion they used rather pessimistic figures for both fuel requirements and yields per hectare of wood but even so the idea that we can heat ourselves to the temperatures we’re accustomed to off the land we have available is almost certainly a non-starter. This suggests that a more pertinent study would have been ‘Can Totnes and District Feed and Heat Itself?’ The authors acknowledge this and indeed they note that we need to include other products such as building materials and medicines. It’s impossible to look at food without also considering the system as a whole.

This document is an excellent first stab at the nitty-gritty of relocalising the food supply. Focusing the study on an actual locality seems to have brought out some of the realities which might not have raised their heads in a more general, theoretical treatment. As the authors point out, it’s very much work-in-progress and raises as many questions as it answers. One of these is the place of agroforestry in future food production. The substitution of nuts for present sources of protein and oil is touched upon but hardly figures in the conclusions. But this is only one aspect of agroforestry. The other is the integration of field and tree crops, which can create a system which outyields either one on its own and provides for much of its own soil fertility and pest and disease control needs. This is touched on even more briefly in the study and hopefully will figure more prominently in future versions.

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


15 Sep 8:36am

Good comment from Patrick. Obviously – this is the very first question to raise: ie would nearby cities regard land around Totnes as a resource that was at least partly theirs to use? Of course they would – dont doubt that. Obviously cities need to do their bit too – I certainly think rooftop foodgrowing is one possibility that doesnt seem to have been studied at all in Britain as far as I can see – and yet we do have plenty of flat roofspace. I think we need to look first at that roofspace – and certainly would be very upset at the thought of parks being used for growing food. It was one thing to dig up parks and grow food there in W.W.II – wars are temporary and we knew we would get our parks back soon. If we were to dig up our parks for food now we might never get them back again. I could look at rooftops being used and think “good use of resources that used to be wasted” – but to look at a recreational park that had been dug up for food would result in very mixed feelings indeed – as I thought every time “We wouldnt have had to do that if we didnt have too many people….grrrr!!!” and wondering whether to bother about even trying to do anything in the face of such obvious evidence of having had to adapt to the selfishness of those who demanded their “right to have however many children they wanted regardless”. I dont want to upset anyone – but we really do have to stop pussyfooting around this “elephant in the room”.

THE first and foremost question is the huge “elephant in the room” one – to which none of us, I guess, knows the answer – ie “Can we manage to do so with such a huge number of people crammed into Britain? and allowing for the fact that they tend to congregate in certain areas (ie the South-West of England is probably better able to feed itself all else being equal – but we have one of the highest concentrations of population”).

All question of whether Britain can feed itself becomes academic if our answer is “Yes – but only provided the population doesnt grow any bigger” – at which point we have to start raising those very thorny topics of overpopulation AND preventing all except political migrants from coming into the country. Any lifeboat will sink if there are too many people trying to clamber on board – and that applies to both those already here needing to restrict themselves to 2 children per woman and not allowing any economic migrants into the country.

andrew ramponi
15 Sep 10:38am

Sharon Astyk makes the point that local food is already feeding between 2-4 billion people without massive fossil fuel inputs. You can read the post

And wartime rations in the UK seemed anecdotally at least, to have kept people healthier than now though the population was perhaps only 75% of current level.

My feeling is that one way or another market forces are going to push more of us to produce food. Like it or lump it. Maybe we’ll get enough of what we like, maybe not. Probably we’ll change what we like! Maybe producing more of our own food will be a healthier process than what has socially driven us to produce more money.

As for elephants in the room, whether climate change or population movements; who knows? Plenty of material for conversation and debate.

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robyn Morris. Robyn Morris said: Two Reviews of 'Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?' » Transition … […]

Sharon Astyk
15 Sep 1:27pm

I’ve been meaning to write a piece about your excellent effort. Whitefield puts his finger on my biggest concern (which you acknowledge) – the question of whether you’ve fully explored your relationship, both voluntary and obligatory, with the surrounding urban areas. I’ve done lighter investigations for my own region, and while there’s no question that the greater Albany, NY and surrounding rural areas can feed itself and the cities of Albany and Schenectady, neither is there any point in denying that the Hudson River travels to NYC, where higher prices are likely to be paid for agricultural goods. So our “ability” to feed ourselves is only relevant if we can also meet our other needs, and if the food stays local. What are the odds of this? Small, I think. So I’ve found it personally more productive, at least in the case of places where there are natural bonds between regions, to talk about larger areas.


dave prescott
15 Sep 2:10pm

I fully share the concern point about ‘overlapping foodsheds’ (in the jargon), or more frankly, the risk that a self-sufficient rural area would be ‘required’ to feed nearby cities. But maybe this requirement doesn’t necessarily imply conflict.

For me one of the strengths of a more localised (i.e. rather than regional- or national-level) mapping is that it throws a very highly theoretical into sharp relief. When you get down to the level of what type of food will need to be grown on particular farms or particular tracts of land, it definitely makes people sit up and take notice – even if the question remains somewhat academic and subject to various caveats.

Here in Transition Hay-on-Wye we are struggling to find a credible reason to talk to the agricultural community, which constitutes a large and powerful constituency in this rural area. If we could put a report like this on the table as a conversation-starter I think it would be incredibly valuable. Volatile as well probably but that would be no bad thing.

As a secondary but possibly no less important point, the report is written in non-technical language that anyone can understand. In the normal course of events a report on food security would not have me riveted…

Tom A
15 Sep 2:40pm

I’m with Colin Tudge mostly on this. Some things just make much more sense on a big scale – especially forestry and cereal growing (including drying storage and milling). Peak oil will not mean that the UK can’t run a few hundred large combines and forest harvesters if we prioritise those things.

Horticulture does make more sense on a small scale and should be actively encouraged.

As for heating: burning wood is madness in a country with the size of the UK with a population of 60 million (not to mention terrible air pollution and waste of a valuable resource). All houses should be made air-tight and insulated to nearly passive levels as a matter of national urgency. I think this is more urgent than the food production issues and should be right at the top of Transition priorities in cold countries.

15 Sep 4:49pm

Regarding upgrading insulation to near-passive levels, an Englishman’s home is his castle, and he doesn’t take kindly to government busy-bodies telling him what to do with it. However, if a neighbour invites him round to take a look at his nice new energy-saving gadget, he might be interested. This word-of-mouth from a trusted friend with practical experience is where people in the transition movement could make a difference. What is now only done by early adopters could become mainstream.

John Mason
16 Sep 1:02pm


In my opinion they used rather pessimistic figures for both fuel requirements and yields per hectare of wood but even so the idea that we can heat ourselves to the temperatures we’re accustomed to off the land we have available is almost certainly a non-starter.


A relevant point I’d like to make here is that very warm, centrally-heated conditions are something of relatively recent advent in human history. I’m afraid that I’m a bit puritanical with heating – to the extent that the dry, lifeless air in centrally-heated buildings leaves me very snuffly after a few hours. I burn logs when it’s cold in winter but even then I sleep with the windows open unless exceptionally cold conditions (e.g. like last January when the Dyfi Estuary froze over) prevail, which mostly they don’t.

People will hate me when I say you can become acclimatised to much cooler conditions, and that if you feel the cold you should just put a few more layers on! Obviously there are certain sectors to whom this does not apply equally e.g. the very elderly and the infirm, but for the majority of us I would suggest over-warm centrally heated homes to be another of the pre-Peak Oil luxuries that we will find we have to cut down upon, just as going for a drive for the sake of it will become a luxury that many will not be able to afford.

Where the focus needs to be is not only on insulation but also on technology to prevent damp occurring in buildings, something that IS serious and is currently tackled by central heating in many cases. A dry but cooler home environment is no problem once you get used to working with it.

Cheers – John

16 Sep 5:11pm

Colin Tudge, in “Feeding People is Easy”, doesn’t seem to consider the problems of transporting food to where it is needed in a time of peak oil. How will London import enough food?

John Mason
17 Sep 4:52pm

Re – transportation: electrified rail seems the best solution for the longer-range stuff. Would require a lot more infrastructure than available at present but that goes for a lot of things. Remember, post-peak does not mean an immediate & perpetual critical shortage (so long as one defines “critical” carefully!)….

Cheers – John