Friday, 19 October 2012

Local food webs and competition for resources

Recently I've been two Transition Town meetings that have mentioned mapping out food resources within a local area, usually defined as within at most 30km from the centre of the town in question. The first was a passing mention at Loughborough's Food & Gardens sub-group meeting a few weeks ago when we were discussing supporting local agriculture.  Then last night at the Transition Stratford AGM it was suggested that looking at a "30:30 Challenge" might be interesting - sourcing all your food from within 30km for 30 days.

Both of these got me thinking on several fronts:

  • What food resources are actually grown/raised/processed within 30km?
  • What are the energy costs of these crops, compared to crops produced further away?
  • What foods will we have to do without if we restrict ourselves to a 30:30 style diet?
  • If we all did 30:30 diets, who would we be "competing" with for food resources within the 30km radius?
The first item on that list is going to need a bit of solid research, as its not always obvious what is grown locally or how the average consumer can access it.  For example just because we can see a field of wheat down the road, it doesn't mean that we can actually buy flour locally made from just the wheat - it might well be harvested and then shipped many miles away for milling, getting mixed with other wheat in the process.  Local flour mills do exist, but all too often they use grains shipped in from smaller, specialist farms elsewhere!

The energy costs one is another interesting topic.  Just because we can grow something locally does not necessarily mean that its carbon footprint is lower than something grown further away. The classic example is soft fruits that need lots of heating and nutrients to be grown under glass in the UK, whereas the same fruit grown in the Mediterranean can benefit from the warmer climate, which offsets the carbon cost of the delivery journey.  Of course if most of your fruit and veg can come from Grow Your Own beds in your back yard, community garden  or nearby allotment, you stand a good chance of having a low footprint, which will really help in a 30:30 Challenge.

"Doing without" sounds like something from wartime rationing, but we'll need to realise that there are some foods that we just can't grow in the UK.  Common ones would be rice and tea in commercial quantities (although there are some small tea plantations down in the South West we will have to have a lot more climate change induced warming to get them going in the Midlands!). For an artificial 30:30 Challenge we'll just have to grin and bear it; as Peak Oil starts to really bite we might find that foods that have become staples over the last 50 years go back to being rare treats.  What will go and what can we substitute for it?  Will acorn "coffee" make a come back?

However its the last item on the list that really intrigued me.  If a single Transition Town does something like a 30:30 Challenge now, its a great way of encouraging people to think about local food webs, growing their own and promoting such things to the wider population.  But if the fossil fuel dependent food distribution system does buckle and everyone has to get down to doing this, there'll be a heck of a lot of people competing for those local food resources.

And its not just the people you share your town with: those 30km local food webs will be drawn around every population centre.  If you're in a small market town surrounded by rolling fields you might think you'll be OK, until you realise that the other side of those fields are surrounded by large towns and cities with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of hungry mouths to feed.

Lets take Stratford-upon-Avon as an example.  Here's a Google Earth map with a 30km yellow circle centred on Stratford's public library (which is pretty much in the centre of the town).
Lots of lovely green space around the area, and plenty of agricultural activity within that, so Stratford looks like its got a good chance to source lots of its food from the local area.  However now lets look at the 30km local food webs around nearby towns and cities.  We'll limit ourselves at this point to just the towns and cities that are at least as big as Stratford-upon-Avon in population; that's over 25,000 people roughly:
Hmm, each of those purple circles is somebody else's local food web - notice how there isn't any of Stratford's yellow circle that doesn't intersect with at least one purple circle - often more than one.

So there's going to be lots of competition for these local food resources in the 30km radius.  Its also worth being in mind that those 30km circles don't show you the relative population that's going to be seeking the food.  Stratford's yellow circle will have just over 25,000 townsfolk looking to acquire locally grown grains, fruit, vegetables and livestock.  However the Coventry circle has over 300,000 people with in it and around half the area of their 30km local food web is coincident with about half the Stratford one - that's roughly an order of magnitude more people just from that one city alone looking to be supported by just under half the area of Stratford's local food web.  And just up the road from Coventry there's Birmingham with over a million souls to support.  That's just two of the 11 competitors I've generated circles for - that's ignoring the thousands living in smaller towns and villages in the area as well.

So what does this tell us? First that, whilst a 30:30 Challenge is a good bit of PR and helps people think about local food, it obviously isn't a mechanism for preparing for a post Peak Oil world where we will be more heavily dependent on local resources.  Who is planning for these sort of issues? Central Government?  Local councils?  Community groups?  Transition Towns can play a part in that  but we will a'll really need to step up our game.  If its a slow decline this can be done, but what happens if the oil crisis hits more rapidly?  Could well be very unpleasant.

Secondly, I think it indicates that a fixed 30km radius is a fossil fuel world's view of "local".  In a future world where we'll need to be more frugal with our energy use and thus where that is heavy competition for the agricultural resources found between settlements, we'll have to potentially look at a radius dependent on population density.  The carrying capacity of the land will depend on what is grown and how, but densely populated urban areas will need to access a bigger "hinterland" than smaller, less heavily populated rural towns.  Thus whilst a large city might be looking 30, 40 or 50km away for food resources to feed its citizens, smaller towns and villages may well have to focus on a far more localised food web, as the resources further out will already be being claimed by the large towns and cities.  10km?  Maybe less than 5km? 

Thirdly, we need to remember that we are living in a post-industrial country with over 60 million people, not a mostly agrarian medieval society with a few million stomachs walking about. Industrialised agriculture and imports keeps us fed at the moment and those rely on fossil fuels. Maybe we need to move beyond just thinking about locally grown produce, artisan bakers and community gardens  but also be actively looking at low energy ways of mass producing food and providing low carbon bulk shipments from where there is plenty of unpopulated land.  

Tricky big problems.  And really, hiding the shadows we come back to the unpopular question that we all so often try to avoid: do we have too many people for a post Peak Oil world?  If we do, how can we "solve" that problem before nature and simple maths starts to solve it for us?