Wessex and Londinium – the reckoning

I promised a bonfire of the numbers on my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex project in this post. Well, here goes. We shall also be taking a couple of side trips to the city state of Londinium – which, it turns out, is not without its peasant-like aspects – and to the Principality of Wales. So pour yourself a stiff one, pull up a pew, and get yourself some matches to help me light the flame.

First, though, a stop press from the Somerset County Council newsroom. What, you didn’t know Somerset County Council had a newsroom? Shame on you – I’ll have you know that Somerset’s a happenin’ place. And what’s happening, specifically, is that “Somerset County Council and partners across the South West have been working together to seek more power and budgets devolved from central government….in response to the Government’s interest in devolution from Westminster.” I bet those who said that the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex was an impossible dream are feeling a bit sheepish now, huh? Well, let’s have a look at what the County Council has in mind: “The detailed plan aims for higher productivity and better-paid jobs, improved road, rail and broadband links and more homes for the region’s growing population.” Oh.

Well, nobody said Rome was built in a day.

Anyway, back in the make believe world of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I think I’ve shown in previous posts that a population comprising around 20% of predominantly self-supporting smallholders and around 80% non-farmers could feed its expanded population circa 2039 using organic farming methods, powering its agriculture with non-fossil energy – and, more questionably, possibly its society more generally, though only with deep cuts from current levels of usage. I suspect that the 20/80 split is unlikely in reality – I’d guess there would either be a larger or smaller proportion of smallholders depending on the likely future course of agriculture’s negative experience curve. Anyway, it’s a starting position for debate.

The assumptions I made in projecting future food productivity in Wessex were, I believe, quite conservative. I think it would be eminently possible to grow a lot more food by relaxing or otherwise changing some of those assumptions. I worked up a spreadsheet along those lines, which involved plugging in higher confidence limit rather than lower confidence limit productivity averages, and also ploughing up the region’s major arterial roadways and growing apples and potatoes on them instead – which is the kind of thing you can do when you’re the supreme leader of a regional republic, even if said republic is merely a figment of your imagination made manifest in Excel. But, as I recently mentioned, I’ve started becoming a little bored with my plaything – an occupational hazard among narcissistic dictators – so I can’t really be bothered to outline my ‘abundant Wessex’ projections in detail. Suffice to say that if you relax your assumptions about the possibilities for growing more food, then it’s possible to grow more food.

Conversely, I suppose I should also run some projections using yet more stringent assumptions. At the limit, the most stringent assumption is that we’re all screwed and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it – except maybe listen to the earth died screaming on repeat play until a blessed insanity descends. But try putting that in an Excel spreadsheet… An alternative would be to project what our prime minister might call a ‘just about managing’ scenario – or what I, being a glass half-empty kind of guy, would be more inclined to call a ‘we’re all moderately screwed’ scenario. On that score, perhaps we could invoke a recent paper projecting that the impact of climate change in the USA will reduce its agricultural yield to pre-1980 levels by 2050. I’m not sure if anyone’s done a similar analysis for the UK and if it would be sensible to assume similar yield declines. As I say, I’ve fallen a bit out of love with my spreadsheets of late, so I’m inclined just to say that here in Wessex we might be able to feed ourselves in the future very comfortably, quite comfortably, not very comfortably or not at all. There. I’m glad I crunched through all that data in order to push at such far frontiers of new knowledge. If you want me to quantify a ‘moderately screwed’ scenario, you’ll have to twist my arm. Hitting the ‘Donate’ button would help – the lucrative returns for writing this blog seem to have dried up of late. Maybe I’ve been arguing too much.

So, I plan to leave my Wessex peasants and non-peasants there for now. But of course in a world where there’s a Wessex, perhaps we need to ask what of Mercia, what of Northumberland, what, indeed, of Londinium? Well, for the aforementioned reasons I don’t plan on cranking out a whole series of spreadsheets for every UK region, but nor do I want you to leave this post entirely bereft of quantification, so here’s a table ranking seven English regions (I’ve amalgamated the East and Southeast regions, which basically constitute London’s agrarian hinterland) plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland according to available agricultural area per capita. I define ‘agricultural area’ as cropland plus temporary grass, and exclude from it permanent grass and rough grazing – quite a stringent assumption, because there’s a lot of permanent grass in the UK (about 65% of the total agricultural land take) and some of it would be suitable for cropping, though some of it most certainly wouldn’t be.

Table 1: Agricultural land per capita in the UK

Region/Country Hectares agricultural land (excluding permanent grassland) per capita population
Northwest 0.04
Wales 0.08
‘Londinium’ (East + Southeast) 0.09
Northeast 0.09
West Midlands 0.10
Northern Ireland 0.11
Yorkshire + Humber 0.12
Scotland 0.15
‘Wessex’ (Southwest) 0.17
East Midlands 0.19

Source: Derived from http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/5559/84


I guess you could say the table suggests I’ve been making it easy for myself in construing the agricultural sustainability of my particular region (the southwest), since this has pretty much the highest per capita farmland availability in the whole country. So let’s look at Londinium (aka the East and Southeast regions), which has pretty much the lowest.

The first observation to make is that if we devote 40% of Londinium’s farmland to 20% of its population for the purposes of homesteading, as we did in the case of Wessex, then there are going to be some seriously hungry folk in the smoke. Besides which, I’m figuring that this region will mostly house metropolitan types who couldn’t tell a Gloucester Old Spot from a Wiltshire Horn, and probably wouldn’t much care. I daresay there’d be a little homesteading going on around the margins, but I’m not counting on it – quite literally.

Likewise, we’re going to come up short if we try to grow all the food in the region organically, as a result of both lower organic yields and lower proportionate land areas after correcting for leys. Actually, organic farming does hit its targets for five of my six nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) in Londinium – the exception being the rather important one of energy, where it can only furnish about 60% of total calorific requirements. Not bad for a population of 27 million (again projected to be 20% higher than at present), but not quite good enough (once again, I acknowledge the claims for higher-productivity forms of alternative agriculture, and once again I’m going to sideline them – not because I’m necessarily sceptical, though with some such claims I am a bit, but more because of my preference for under-estimating on the basis of known parameters rather than over-estimating on the basis of unknown ones).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve modelled agrarian production for Londinium along fairly similar lines to the way I did it for the non-peasant folk in Wessex – growing cereals, potatoes and beans on the cropland (but using conventional methods) along with a 25% grass ley. I’ve given over more cropland to growing fruit and vegetables than is currently the case in Londinium in order to prevent any unfortunate outbreaks of scurvy, and I’m raising dairy and beef cows organically on the limited grassland available (there’s a much smaller proportion of permanent grass in Londinium than in Wessex), supplemented with cereal and legume fodder from the cropland. There’s also pork and eggs in the diet, grown essentially from the same sources, and the same ration of fish that was available to the Wessexers. As with Wessex, I’m (controversially) growing grass silage to make methane in order to fuel the food production and distribution system. But I’ve left out of account the energy required to make the synthetic fertiliser – assuming about 150kg Nha-1 and a total energy production cost of 40 MJkgN-1, this amounts to the equivalent of about seven or eight litres of diesel per person per year (not that you’d use diesel to do it). Make of all that what you will – I’m steering clear of any more wrangling over energy futures for the time being.

For information, Figure 1 below shows the overall land use in Londinium and Wessex, comparing present reality to the projected reality of the self-sufficient futures I’m construing in the two cases.

Figure 1: Wessex and Londinium – Present and Projected Land Use

Land use

We now come to the all-important question of whether Londinium can feed itself on the basis of the assumptions outlined above. And the answer is – yes. Next question. Oh, all right – I’ll show you some figures. Table 2 shows, as in my previous such exercises, the ratio of production and requirement for my six nutritional indicators produced in Londinium’s agrarian hinterlands on the basis of the assumptions outlined above (the figures for Wessex shown in previous posts are included for comparison).

Table 2: Production/requirement ratios

Energy Protein Vitamin A Vitamin C Mg Fe
Londinium 1.09 1.59 1.31 3.31 2.00 1.52
Wessex (peasants) 1.10 2.22 5.06 6.24 1.87 1.44
Wessex (non-peasants) 1.00 1.96 2.12 2.47 1.55 1.06


So, on the basis of the assumptions outlined here and elsewhere, the neo-peasants of Wessex and their non-peasant counterparts, together with their metropolitan cousins in the neighbouring republic of Londinium all get an adequate diet – though the metropolitan one comes at a higher energetic cost. However, their respective diets aren’t identical. This is indicated in Table 3, which shows the weekly allocation of foods of different kinds to an individual in each of the three cases.

Table 3: Regional diets (kg per person per week)

Peasant Wessex Non-peasant Wessex Londinium
Starchy staples 1.1 4.4 9.8
Vegetables 11.2 3.4 2.4
Fruit 3.3 0.2 0.0
Nuts 0.1 0.0 0.0
Beans 0.2 0.1 0.0
Meat 1.1 0.8 0.2
Milk 9.8 8.0 1.2
Fish 0.4 0.4 0.4
Eggs 0.2 0.0 0.3


The three main food groups are (1) the starchy staples, (2) fruit and veg, (3) meat and dairy. Meat and dairy is the most land-hungry form of production in terms of nutritional output for hectares of input, although in all three cases the strategy I’ve adopted is largely a ‘default’ one of fitting livestock production around the edges of producing vegetable matter for direct human consumption, rather than producing livestock in competition with direct production. That’s the case, at any rate, if we assume that the breakdown of cropland and grassland shown in Figure 1 is taken as a given, since you can’t really produce food from grass without the intermediary of livestock. But the crop/grass balance is an arguable assumption – really, this is a moveable feast, and you could turn over some of the grassland to cropland, or else do other things with it such as grow fruit. A couple of points to bear in mind in relation to that vegan argument, though. First, where we’re growing organically, we need generous grass/clover leys, which are conducive to ruminant grazing. And second, I think we need to have some oil and fat in the diet, which in this climate we can only really get from livestock – unless we grow oilseed rape, which I’ve avoided doing in these models.

Notwithstanding those points, there’s a certain convertibility between the three main food groups described above. We can choose to grow fodder crops for ourselves or for livestock, and we can choose to devote cropland to starchy staples or to fruit and veg. The diets of the Wessex neo-peasants and the metropolitans of Londinium are quite divergent in this respect – the neo-peasants get a lot of meat and dairy in their diet (well, actually not that much compared to current levels of US or EU consumption, but as much as they can feasibly produce). Their 10 litres of milk per week also sounds like a lot, but not when you convert it into butter for fat, or into cheese. Likewise, they have a lot of vegetables in their diet, and not much in the way of starchy staples. The Londoners, on the other hand, get little meat or dairy (fat is a problem here) and a lot of starchy staples.

Effectively (and a touch ironically) I think the diets of Wessex and Londinium tend towards what I’d call the two extremes of the ‘peasant way’. The Wessex diet represents the peasant way of abundance, the kind of thing you can do if you have access to adequate land and a light coercive touch from the state. I think I’d possibly be tempted to grow a few more starchy staples and a bit less veg, but essentially this diet strikes me as nutritionally and agriculturally optimal. The garden and the pasture predominate over the field – a good way to eat and a good way to farm. The peasant way of abundance is far from the norm in peasant societies historically, though it’s been more common than those who like dismiss peasant lifeways as a tale of utter misery are usually prepared to admit.

The Londinium diet, on the other hand, represents the peasant way of stress, which is probably closer to the historical norm. The stress factor historically has usually been one or both of: (1) a predatory state, which extracts as much surplus from peasant cultivators as it can get away with, or (2) a Malthusian crisis, in which population outstrips the productive capacity of the land in relation to current technical levels of production (though sometimes an apparently Malthusian crisis is a manifestation of a predatory state, which controls the availability of land). In such circumstances, cultivators necessarily adopt the strategy of producing as much macronutrient-dense food as possible for the minimum input of land and labour – which usually pushes them towards the starchy staples. In the case of Londinium, we have an unprecedentedly dense population, which has resulted from the geopolitics of a globalised and industrialised modern world not at all geared to local food production. Feeding it adequately from local resources is, arguably, doable – but only by pushing pretty hard towards a Malthusian limit. At the moment, such megacities don’t need to provision themselves locally. They typically rely on grain from the continental grasslands and labour-intensive luxuries from the labour-rich, money-poor economic periphery. In the long term, those tactics probably aren’t sustainable – not least because of the outlook for the continental grasslands alluded to in the paper cited above, and also in this excellent piece, another Small Farm Future trailblazer. So perhaps in the future places like Londinium will be reduced to scraping for their supper like any average hard-pressed peasantry.

But another way of looking at it would be that Londinium is probably capable of providing its basic subsistence needs from its immediate hinterlands, which puts it at some food security advantage in these fractiously neo-mercantilist times. I imagine its fortunes will start to decline in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that they’ll stay healthier than those in most of the rest of the UK, which might enable it to do what cities do best and pull in the productivity of less prosperous far-flung lands. Imagine all those beady metropolitan eyes, tired of their bread and gruel, fixed upon the pastures of Wessex where the milk and honey flows. Well, I have a few ideas about how to cope with that which I’ll outline in a future post, but I can’t deny it’s a sobering thought. So perhaps in the meantime we Wessexers should sharpen our pitchforks and summon the Duke of Monmouth’s spirit to our cause.

Well, I’m pretty much inclined to leave my quantitative analysis of Wessex and Londinium there, at least for the time being, though it’s a shame to end on such a conflictual note. There’s a certain London food activist, whose work I greatly admire, who may just possibly be reading this. If she is, and has ideas for brokering a peace between Wessex and Londinium, I’d be delighted to hear from her.

Finally, and talking of Monmouth as I just was, let’s take a short trip across the Bristol Channel and pay a brief visit to Wales. As shown in Table 1, Wales has among the lowest ratios of cropland to population in the UK. On the other hand, it has among the highest ratios of permanent grass (including rough grazing) to population – at 0.49ha per capita it comes second only to Scotland’s whopping 0.88ha, with the highest English region being, you guessed it, Wessex, at a trifling 0.18ha. Recently, I was looking at George Monbiot’s critique of upland sheep farming, in which he has Wales very much in his sights. So I thought I’d look at Welsh food self-sufficiency on the basis of its current agriculture, which on the face of it seems to have a lop-sided focus on low productivity sheep. I’ve taken a figure for sheep meat produced in Welsh abattoirs – which I imagine greatly underestimates the potential productivity of the Welsh sheep industry. I’ve added a rough figure for beef, but ignored dairy on the grounds that it probably relies considerably on imported concentrates. Then I’ve added in all the cropland productivity. And the result of all that is that in calorific terms, Wales could be 61% self-sufficient. Bearing in mind that it’s probably a considerable underestimate, I think that’s an intriguing figure. You could interpret it as supportive of George’s position, or of Simon Fairlie’s view reported on my relevant blog post that there are too many sheep in Wales. Certainly, if you wanted full self-sufficiency for Wales you’d need to find a bit more cropland and probably practice more mixed ley farming as perhaps used to be the case before Wales turned to a more monocultural ovine export agriculture. But given the much-derided low productivity of upland sheep farming, my feeling is that a focus on upland pastoralism may not be such a bad way to go as a key part of a self-provisioning strategy in a relatively unpopulous and mountainous country.


I’m providing some additional figures in response to John Boxall’s comment below:

Population Perm Grass Rough Grass Cropland
Northeast 2,596,441 259,000 107,000 222,369
Northwest 7,055,961 540,000 118,000 250,915
Yorkshire and The Humber 5,288,212 339,000 107,000 645,407
East Midlands 4,537,448 285,000 30,000 866,621
West Midlands 5,608,667 397,000 14,000 542,969
East + Southeast (inc London) 22,719,609 562,820 33,650 1,931,717
Southwest 5,300,831 891,000 62,000 882,012
NORTHERN IRELAND 1,800,000 650,414 166,629 48,204
WALES 3,100,000 1,068,814 437,569 89,006
SCOTLAND 5,300,000 1,127,964 3,533,347 592,698

20 thoughts on “Wessex and Londinium – the reckoning

  1. Hello Chris, sorry if this comment is a little out of place (and to all the readers), but I wrote it in response to your article in the Land magazine that you have linked to in this post and to other posts you wrote on the same subject at the time. I did not get round to sending it to you then, but these are a some of my thoughts on perennial grains.

    Dear Chris
    I recently read your article in “The Land” magazine which stirred some thoughts. Why did large seed cereal grains evolve in Eastern Anatolia and not in other grasslands elsewhere? I will ignore rice and maize as neither originated in grasslands for the purposes of my line of reasoning. What makes the grasslands of eastern Anatolia different from Kansas, the Sahel, or the East African Savannah? Each respectively examples of temperate, subtropical and tropical grasslands. The major difference they have with eastern Anatolia, is the season of rainfall, with the heaviest precipitation at the warmest time of year, in summer, whereas in Eastern Anatolia the heaviest precipitation is in the winter as it is strongly influence by the Mediterranean climate. One of the accompanying photos to your article showed a field of tussocks, presumably from one of the Land Institutes field trials of perennial grains. My experience of grass left to go tussocky is that it is a magnet for big seeded weeds, mainly tree seeds. They can take advantage of the soft moist bare ground under the tussock (depending on season) to root down easily, while having sufficient energy reserves in the big seed to grow past the shade from the tussock before needing to rely on photosynthesis. The reason I am well aware of trees seeding around grass tussocks is that it makes bringing orchard grass back into good condition much more difficult with a scythe. The problem is very up close and personnel. I propose that having big seeds is an advantage in a tussocky environment.

    Tussocks also reminded me of Alan Savory’s theory on grass behaviour in brittle environments, and grasses symbiosis with large herbivores. He defines brittle environments as those with long dry seasons where grass decay is dominated by the slow oxidation of organic matter. This creates large persistent tussocks which shade out surrounding vegetation creating bare soil, and also chokes the tussocks own new growth. Savory considers tussocking as the first stage towards desertification. Under wet and warm conditions decay is dominated by bacteria and fungi, which removes the dead grass quickly allowing new growth, and reduces shade to neighbouring plants. Dense herds of large herbivores counteract tussocking by their hooves smashing off the dead grass stems from the tussocks, and churning up the soil to bury grass seed increasing the sward density. The symbiosis that Savory’s holds for brittle environments is that without the large herbivores the grass would die, and without the grass the large herbivores would die. Eastern Anatolia is a brittle environment with a long hot dry season. Its rainfall is low producing a steppe type vegetation of forbes and grasses, and the rainfall is mostly in the winter when bacteria and fungi are less active. In the absence of large herbivores, the native grasses of the eastern Anatolia will be very prone to tussocking. The evolutionary way out is large seeds that can grow past the tussocks shade and the annualisation of grass species to minimise the effects of tussocking. A question to be asked is what happened to Eastern Anatolia’s native wild large herbivore herds? Evidence for modern humans in the Middle East dates to 40,000 years ago, and if Palaeolithic man did then to the native big herbivores of the Middle East, as he did elsewhere outside Africa to large herbivores, hunting many species to extinction, it may be that Palaeolithic man triggered the evolution of the large cereal grains that are the foundation of agriculture? 40,000 annual cereal generations from the first Palaeolithic man in the Middle East to the first farmer is a long time for evolution to get working in. As an anecdote the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka would use as one of his tools for weed control in his no till grain fields, straw from the previous cereal crop scattered over the seedling of the next cereal crop. A little shade did little harm to the cereal seedlings (barley and rice) while inhibiting the weed species.
    If my line of thought has any validity, what is its relevance to today? Eastern Anatolian cereal grains are annuals due to the long hot dry season and the need to minimise the effects of tussocking on the next generation. I suspect the ancestors of the cereal grains were short lived perennials which were pushed towards annualisation by the absence of large herbivore herds, in which case it should be possible to breed back to perennialism. In a temperate environment perennial grasses have two growth periods, spring to early summer, and early autumn, with seed set and dispersal between those periods. The absence of a long hot dry summer, plus the autumn growth period should give cereal plants sufficient energy reserves to get through the winter ready for growth the next year. Management practices would need to include mowing the tussocks in late summer, either during or after harvest and seeding into the mulch left behind to maintain sward density and exclude weeds in the autumn. I think breeding new species of perennial grain as the Land Institute is doing admiral, but does the whole wheel have to be invented again?

    Last thought, could farming come into existence before the last of the great herds of large herbivores had been hunted out of existence? Would you plant a field if you knew 100,000 wildebeest were going to amble through and eat your crop for lunch? Field agriculture is only possible once the big wild beasts have gone.

    Best regards Chris

    Philip Hardy

  2. I will read your article more carefully but want to commend you for the effort. I did calculate if Stockholm could feed itself with the land in the county of Stockholm. Well if ALL current ag land was dedicated to potatoes, it could, otherwise probably not. Of course, it doesn’t work out to only grow potatoes, even worse than only eating it! So in the end a diet close to your London diet would apply to Stockholm and then they would have to ship in some oxen and butter which they did also two hundred years ago. Which I think is just fine. As they are on water they can trade some food for….Well what do cities have which is needed in the countryside in times of want?

  3. Have you got any figures including permanent grassland, or is that the hilltop rough grazing that isn’t suitable for much if anything else?

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    John – I’ve appended the raw data to the end of the post in response to your question. Very little of the rough grazing would be suitable for cropland, but in my judgment a good deal of the permanent pasture probably would be. The cropland figure includes temporary grass.

    Gunnar – thanks for that. I’m eagerly awaiting your answer to the question you pose at the end of your comment…

    Philip – some very interesting reflections there. I may copy your comments over to the ‘Annual & perennials’ page, where they fit a bit better thematically. It’s been a while since I read this literature, and I’ll have to reflect further on your hypotheses. I’m sure you’re right about arable agriculture as a successor to wild ruminants – though of course the other side of that story is pastoralism, which often doesn’t get the attention it deserves in agrarian histories. Your thoughts on tussocking are interesting – maybe you’re onto something there. But I wouldn’t say that annual grasses predominate in southwest Asia or that it’s the only original source of edible cereals even if you (somewhat questionably!) exclude rice & maize – millet and sorghum also spring to mind. To be honest, I’m still more persuaded by the view I expressed in my ASFS article that annualisation is a ruderal trait associated with animal activity, rather than one that emerged in its absence, and that the trait was selectively favoured by the early agrarian peoples for various fairly obvious synergies between their needs and the life history of annual grains. The Land Institute line of argument is that the seed penalty of perennials is merely a genetic problem which can be bred out. I’ve not yet seen much to persuade me against the view I’ve outlined that really it’s an ecological problem which involves a hard trade-off between seed yield and perenniality – I think the LI dodge this by invoking an anthropomorphic notion of trade-off akin to economic opportunity cost, which flies in the face of the ecological trade-offs faced by plants in the real world. Anyway, thanks for your comment – it provides a timely cue to have a look at this literature again.

  5. You lament:
    I think we need to have some oil and fat in the diet, which in this climate we can only really get from livestock – unless we grow oilseed rape, which I’ve avoided doing in these models

    And I share your concern to rely on only oilseed rape for a vegetarian oil source. What to do? It would be REALLY cool if one had to hand an annual plant species that could build up a supply of nice fat seeds (and within those nice fat seeds a very nutritious supply of oil – say 20% oil on a dry matter basis). You know, a seed with size on the order of a corn kernel or a pea. And if this oil source could bring along with it some nitrogen fixation – such as one might collect from the legume component of your ley – wouldn’t that be fantastic? Oh to dream.

    Snark? (perhaps – to be sure you might want to install the WordPress snark detector; I believe Ruben has this feature – he even claims it can be configured to go up to 13!) If not a snarky thought, might it be the coy ribbing of a legume aficionado wanting to offer a potential solution to all the hand wringing here abouts?

    I do have to allow the complaint (offered here at SFF earlier) that such a leguminous addition to the self preservation plant tool box comes from a non-native source. But to my side of the argument, Homo sapiens is not native to the island either. So there.

    Another source of complaint could be that food made from the legumes in question is somehow not favorable to the palate (or to the general digestion). To which I’d offer two thoughts:
    1) foods made from these legumes are known to have been consumed for more than 3 millennia (and some evidence suggests 5 millennia); and 2) in the face of starvation one might be more tempted to survey their choices a bit less critically.

    I’ll further confess I don’t have atmospheric composition data readily to hand, but it’s been my personal belief that the concentration of N2 in the planet’s atmosphere does not vary considerably between the continents, islands, oceans or other zones. Thus if a legume were to be employed to do some nitrogen fixation in Wessex, it should enjoy a similar resource base to draw from as it has in other parts of the planet.

    Am I not then a broken record? Repeating my message at every opportunity… low I suspect you might have even set a timepiece to see just how long before I’d barge in and leave just such a comment. Well, I’d say it’s just in my blood – but more accurately, it’s in my pulse.

  6. I am having trouble grasping the point of your exercise. One might say I have a dearth of grasp. My confusion is centered on a calculation in which you are steering clear of any more wrangling over energy futures for the time being.

    Energy is the crux of the matter. With enough of it anything is possible, even conventional agriculture. Given enough energy, Londinium could create a Mar de Plastico and produce multiples of the calories it needs and even have local strawberries in January. With enough energy, the global market economy keeps chugging along just fine, allowing Londoners to eat a fabulously varied diet imported from all over the world. Small farms will never be perceived as a necessity as long as one assumes conventional agriculture and is not worried about energy.

    I think small farms are important because I don’t make those assumptions. But, how you will get Londoners to take a good hard look at their eventual food insecurity and make realistic plans for a low energy future is an issue about which I have not just a dearth, but zero grasp.

    Turn off snark-o-meter…

    Perhaps we can sneak in small farms on some other pretext, a medieval theme park perhaps or a new religion of compulsive cultivators. There must be some way to find a seed that will grow small farms in the infertile soil of our modern civilization. We’re going to need them sooner than we think.

  7. Interesting post, especially concerning the varied forms of regional diets. Concerning the envious eyes of the Londoners, presumably it’s also possible that in addition to trying pull in some Wessex produce, some people will choose to strike out west in search of a better life. What are your thoughts on migration (and therefore a rising Wessex population) in this context? Would it exert a downward force on the proportion of Wessex’s population that could live as neopeasants? Is more number crunching on such a scenario warranted (or desirable)? Is the peasants republic part of a larger open borders area or have you gone full Wexit?

  8. Joe – the fact that I want to steer clear of wrangling over energy futures just now doesn’t mean that I think energy futures are irrelevant. Far from it. It’s just that any scenario short of mass annihilation and complete civilisational breakdown easily invites the charge from some of over-optimism, and to my mind there’s nowhere useful the debate can go from there. Assume a world in which there’s pretty much only the incident biotic energy available, and there’s just no point discussing whether London can feed itself. Whereas I think there is a point to it – and nobody really knows what energy futures are in store. I agree with you that it’s hard to see how to create a small farm future without a lower energy future, but I don’t see a precise equivalence. For one thing, as discussed in my previous post, there are reasons to think that the capitalist growth economy is hitting the buffers for reasons quite independent of its ecological dysfunctionality, so that’s one reason to be thinking about a more localised small farm economy independently of energy futures. There are numerous other reasons to think small-scale localised farming is a good way to go independently of energy – not sure about a medieval theme park, but the religious dimension you raise, for example, isn’t so wide of the mark, and is something I’ll discuss soon. The other side of it is that even assuming a low energy future, a small farm future isn’t guaranteed – manorial economies, slave-based latifundia and the like are all well established models in those circumstances. So for those of us who think a small farm homestead-style economy may be the best bet in a low energy future, there’s still a lot of political work to be done. Or to put it another way, a small farm future may depend on a low energy future, but the former is under-determined by the latter.

    Clem – I’ll happily concede leguminous expertise to others such as yourself. In the models I’ve presented in this series, legumes are either consumed directly by people or used as livestock fodder, but not used to make oil – and this I believe corresponds to the current state of play in British legume farming. But it may be that in a less commercially-driven agrarian future here, there’d be scope for growing soy and making oil from it (I assume this is what you’re referring to…?) Maybe so, I’d be interested in any further thoughts on yields and cultivation…though I may have to submit it for approval from Paul, my local Wessex neo-peasant soy sceptic.

    Andrew – Wexit, I like it! Well, I’ll be writing more about this soon, but yes now that we’ve established the principle here that political sovereignty is more important than economic prosperity, I hope we’ll see the break up of Britain into numerous small regional republics. To my mind the reality of Brexit means that there can be no logically consistent arguments from Westminster against further secessions – and that certainly goes for the spurious nationalism that I critiqued in my previous post. Perhaps the fact that the government will inevitably be increasing the tax burden while decreasing public services suggests that a parting of ways may eventually occur. Regarding immigration and regional borders, it’s an interesting question. My projections already include a 20% increase on present population, so there’s a cushion there. I don’t have a firm view at present about how best to manage intra-regional population flows, but perhaps it’s something I’ll focus on more directly in a future post. Considering them in parallel with intra-regional capital flows would be my starting point.

    • Yes, Paul. For him I included the bit about invasive species and how we ourselves are not native to your island. But to the notion of soy as a contributor on several fronts – as a legume, top notch; as a protein source, hard to beat (do you have another plant based food crop in the UK that can produce 40% protein on a dry matter basis?); as an oil source it competes rather well with canola (your oil seed rape). As I have no UK soy production data, please allow me to share some data from Canada where the two crops are currently competing head-to-head:


      The article mentions high-oleic soy, but for the organic aficionados among us almost all the high-oleic soy currently on the market is GMO (there is some non-GMO high oleic, and more to come, so this isn’t a deal breaker).

      Yields of an adapted soybean in the UK would only be a guess at this point. But then I’ll suppose guessing shouldn’t be prohibited given the way the other arguments are constructed here. Given the competition that soy is making against canola in Canada suggests to me the yield potential is real. The larger seed size of soybean vs oil seed rape could actually favor it for a peasant system quite nicely as it could be far more easily handled. Soy has an additional advantage over canola in that the immature seed can be eaten as a fresh vegetable crop (edamame) which is very tasty, nutritious, earlier in maturity, and allows the flexibility of timing a crop harvest short of full season production if some environmental difficulty were to arise (very early frost, drought, that sort of thing). Harvesting edamame can be done with equipment, but is very favorably accomplished by hand – just as other garden peas and beans (so is quite peasant friendly).

      So what’s not to like? The only difficulty I can see from soybean adoption would be the technical issue of separating the oil from the mature dry seed. This is less peasant friendly, but still not impossible. Large scale oil extraction is accomplished by hexane extraction (not peasant friendly by any stretch). However it is possible to expel the oil through mechanical means. While still not easy, expelling is more peasant friendly, is organic, and within the reach of kit resembling mills used to grind cereal grains into flour. And before we get even the least bit cross with the thought of expelling and its attendant costs there is the question of why one might want to bother separating the oil in the first place. Just eat the whole bean (tofu, miso, soymilk, natto, boiled beans, edamame, etc) and you get the protein and oil all without the hassle of expelling the oil. If you want the oil for all the other niceties (cooking oil, margarine or shortening manufacture) then go the trouble of expelling. Your choice. Choices are good, right?

      • Rejected. Very poor omega fatty acid ratio and unstable when heated. Nasty stuff.
        I never intended to make the argument that Clem is responding to. My point is not about native v non native but about cultural appropriateness. I am not a writer and don’t want to try and lay out an argument here but simply ask you to compare and contrast the age old cultural practices associated with soy consumption the ones likely to prevail in Wessex. How should we mitigate the many negative nutritional consequences of soy consumption when we are not used to it?
        Chris – nuts are better if you need to grow oil.

        • Hazlenuts or walnuts Paul? Have you ever pressed your own oil? Interested to hear more re method, equipment etc… I was considering pumpkin seeds for oil, the hull-less ones (pepitas?), though local walnut oil is also available in central Europe.

          • Both but I eat the nuts whole and have no experience of extracting the oil. I just wanted to remind Chris that there are useful perennial sources of dietary fat.

          • Useful, undoubtedly – but sufficient to provide culinary oils? Well, maybe – going up a trophic level to get it from animals is a big loss of efficiency. Then again, there are many other things you can get from the animals, and not so much from hazels. If we went for nuts we’d have to grow and process a lot more than I’ve provided for here. My gut feeling is that it would be a bit marginal, but certainly worth a look. Of course, in a peasant economy fat from ruminants also derives mostly from perennial sources…

    • The other side of it is that even assuming a low energy future, a small farm future isn’t guaranteed – manorial economies, slave-based latifundia and the like are all well established models in those circumstances.

      Agreed. In fact, despite their unappealing aspects, those paradigms are probably more likely than our preference for a democratic association of small holders. Once our present nation states disappear, rural folk will likely have little say in how the land they work is controlled (if they do now) or the nature of the political entity that does the controlling. Whatever the outcome, at least they will have a chance at life and where there’s life there’s hope.

      The only politics we have even the slightest chance of affecting relates to a near term process whereby agricultural land is repopulated, despite all the present-day economic factors that encourage the opposite. If collapse is as rapid as cascading financial crises could make it, only the people who have already secured a place on agricultural land and have at least a bit of knowledge about how to help it produce sustainably will have much of a chance. So I frequently think about possible methods of repopulating rural land with knowledgeable farmers, especially in ways that don’t depend on the potential farmers having a lot of money, but the roadblocks are very broad and solid.

      I certainly think that transitional solutions, even if they depend on resources that will not be available indefinitely, would be very valuable if they can get people out of cities and onto rural land. I would prefer something that goes straight to a low energy future, but it is still a lot easier to transition from a tractor seat to horse-drawn plow than from a keyboard in a cubicle. Although we need to keep the end in sight so as to optimize any transition, any transitional step is better than nothing. I eagerly await your future suggestions.

      I just didn’t see how your demonstration that Londinium could still be kept alive, even if conventional growing methods are restricted to nearby arable land, supports any kind of transitional agrarian repopulation effort. What did I miss?

      • Well, I’m not sure you missed anything, but what seems to me more likely than an orderly repopulation of the countryside on a land per capita basis in a situation of resource constraint is the retrenchment of urban power centres. In that sense, I think the ability of London to just about feed itself on the basis of its near hinterlands is an interesting datum – I suspect it’s at an advantage there compared with many other large cities.

        I think some interesting questions flow from that – could London retain its population density and make the rest of the UK serve its needs, which is more or less the case at present, or would the regions be able to assert more economic autonomy (bearing in mind also the likelihood that resource constraint would be accompanied by economic crisis)? Could the meat-and-veg lifestyle of a neo-peasant in a less heavily populated part of the country come to seem more agreeable than the bread-and-gruel lifestyle of the average city dweller? And so on.

        The answers depend a lot on the way that people construe their political community, as well as on the nature of the resource constraint. I hope to write more about that soon.

        In the short-term, I agree with you – repopulating the countryside with small-scale, low impact farmers is probably the most urgent task. How that plays out will have a big impact on the shape of future polities longer term. My feeling is that without a numerically substantial class of small-scale farmers/homesteaders who organise themselves politically, and without also the retention of certain aspects of contemporary political thinking, then manorialism of one form or another is quite likely. I plan to talk more about this soon.

    • Thanks Ruben. Interestingly, they want a 25% oil content… and very few soybean cultivars are going to hit that threshold. At least for now. But the great white wave of soy seems unstoppable. Eating everything in its path. Ahhhhhh

  9. Chris – you asked about data for soy, and earlier I shared a link for soy vs. canola in Canada. Here are a couple links for soy production in Europe:



    I hope two links per comment is not over the limit.

    Of interest to me is the listing of soy as an oilseed only. Unless I missed it I didn’t notice any stats for the protein contribution. There is mention of crush margins comparing rape, sunflower, and soy where the crush margin does reflect the contribution of the meal (which allows soymeal its chance to shine) – so there is that. I believe both articles discuss something called “Voluntary Coupled Support and Ecological Focus Area eligibility” which passed over me but sounds like it takes into account the legume (and thus N fixing) aspect of soy. Good stuff.

    Most of the current soy production in the EU is at lower latitudes, and of course with Brexit a comparison to the EU is quite meaningless now. But for anyone not overly invested in age old cultural practices these data might be of interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *