Why Food and Farming Needs a Plan B
It is increasingly clear that we are moving from a time in history where our degree of economic success and sense of personal prowess are directly linked to our degree of oil consumption, to one where our degree of oil dependency equates to our degree of vulnerability. This is felt nowhere more keenly than in agriculture. In the US, the food system has been estimated to require 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie that lands up on our plates (Giampietro and Pimentel 1994). The UK can no longer rely on the assumption that cheap fossil fuels will continue to be available into the indefinite future.
The global economy is entering a world where, as a report commissioned by the US Department of Energy predicted in 2005, “liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically”, and the high prices of July 2008 (over $147 a barrel1) are predicted by many to be just the first of many such surges, attributed by some as being one of the principal causes of the current economic downturn (Rubin 2009). Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, stated recently that the economic downturn means that world oil production will be unable to exceed 89 million barrels a day (Hoyos 2009), and a growing number of observers argue that July 2008’s price spike coincided with the peak in world oil production (Oil Drum 2009).
Francisco Blanch of Merrill Lynch was recently reported as saying that oil companies must find another Saudi Arabia every two years just to maintain current production levels. Referring to the July 2008 price spike, he recently said, “the commodity supercycle is not over, just resting” (The Economist 2009: 76). It is clear that the next 10-15 years will see increasing price volatility, and possible interruptions to supplies of the liquid fuels that make our current economic model viable. Being oil dependent is already becoming a high-risk strategy, for individuals, businesses and whole economies.
Climate change is the second issue that underpins this paper. The government has set a target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050, based on the assumption that the aim is to stay below 450ppm. Recent research by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (Anderson and Bows 2009) argues that 450ppm actually has a 50% risk of runaway climate change, and is deeply inadequate as a target2. They argue that shifting the focus to cumulative emissions, leads to a shift from thinking of “long term gradual reduction to urgent and radical reduction” (ibid). What is needed, they argue, is the total decarbonisation of the economy by 2035-2045, which raises huge questions for the present-day food system. This was reflected in a 2008 Cabinet Office paper, which stated “existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource constrained-future” (Cabinet Office 2008). The task this paper sets itself the task of exploring what a pattern of food production that is fit for that future might look like, taking Totnes and District as a microcosm for that debate.
Based on the need to address these two issues, we might set out the following qualities of any system capable of feeding Totnes and District in the future;
- Fully contributing to the 80% or higher cut in carbon emissions by 2050
- Resilient: resilience (see further below) being the ability at all levels to withstand shock, must be key, embodied in the ability of the settlement in question, and its food supply system, to adapt rapidly to rising energy costs and climate change. UK Climate Projections 2009 estimate that by 2050, the climate for the South West in 2050 will be 2-3⁰ C warmer than present, with around 30% less summer rainfall3).
- Delivering improved access to nutritious and affordable food4
- Delivering far more diversity than at present, in terms of species, ecosystems, produce, occupations, etc.
- Providing a significantly greater source of employment than at present
- Enabling agriculture becoming a net carbon sink, rather than the net emitter it has become
- Being lower carbon in terms of transportation, at all stages in the growing, processing and delivering of foodstuffs
- Providing a much-reduced dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides and other agrochemicals
- Maximising the contribution of food produced from back gardens, allotments and other more ‘urban’ food sources, collectively referred to as ‘urban agriculture’5.
In essence, it is argued that the need to build a resilient food system goes far deeper than the UK Government’s interpretation of the concept of resilience. This interprets resilience as referring to the need to broaden the base from which food is sourced, rather than a focus on increased production of local food for local markets (Cabinet Office 2008) and which also sees resilience in the context of emergency preparedness, stating that resilience is about reducing “the risk from emergencies so that people can go about their business freely and with confidence” (Cabinet Office 2009). This paper argues that increased resilience is a potentially positive process, rebuilding food security, stronger communities, healthier food and more skilled and active communities. In the context of peak oil and climate change, the Government definitions of resilience could perhaps be seen as being about resisting change, whereas this paper argues that we need to fully accept that change is inevitable, and in order to develop a strategy to manage that change.
Increasingly, the concept of local food, and of the ‘foodshed’ (Kloppenburg et al. 2006, Hedden 2009, Peters et al. 2008), or the ‘urban foodshed’ (Getz 1991), is helping us to conceptualise a local food economy, focusing on the need to rebuild around our settlements the food systems which supply the bulk of their needs, designed to function beyond the availability of cheap liquid fuels. Peters et al. (2008) define a foodshed as “the geographical area from which a population derives its food supply”; while for Kloppenburg et al. (1996) it is “a more locally reliant, alternative food system that reduces the negative social and environmental impacts of agriculture”. It is this foodshed concept, along with that of the ‘foodzone’ (see below), and how they could be applied to assessing the potential food resilience of Totnes and District, using GIS mapping to estimate that underpin the rest of this paper.
- Seeley, T. (2008) U.S. Regulator `Closely Monitoring’ Nymex Oil Prices (Update1). Bloomberg.com. Oil touched a record $147.27 a barrel on July 11 2008 [↩]
- An argument also made in more depth in Public Interest Research Centre. (2008) Climate Safety: in case of emergency. www.climatesafety.org [↩]
- www.ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk/content/view/1334/543/index.html [↩]
- The concept of ‘food deserts’ is explored in, for example, Cummins, J. & Macintyre,S. (2002) “Food deserts”: evidence and assumption in health policy making. BMJ 2002;325:436-438 (24 August). [↩]
- See, for example, Drescher et al. 2000. Urban Food Security: Urban agriculture, a response to crisis? UA Magazine (2000) and Vijoen, Andre, et al. (2005), Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. Architectural Press, Burlington MA [↩]
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