What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.


Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…

54 thoughts on “What if we only ate food from local farms?

  1. I am told by someone who did try a ‘Locavore’ diet in Frome for a month that the Caffeine Withdrawal headaches are very unpleasant!

    So please lets allow coffee and tea

    • Hmmm…
      On this I’m quite conflicted. Once gave up coffee for Lent, or intended to, but less than 2 weeks in had to bail. Withdrawal was difficult enough on me, but apparently my ill behaviors were affecting those around me to the point that charity required I seek some relief, and caffeine won the day. So yes, VERY unpleasant.

      Allowing for exceptions is not the answer here. There was once a time in my life before a caffeine addiction. I managed quite nicely. And though I’d rather not suffer the withdrawal (and I presume many of us would be in a similar boat) there is the avenue that Necessity is the Mother of invention. What can be grown or harvested from the UK that might serve as a replacement? Also recall that the calories from tea and coffee aren’t required for a sustainable diet. I agree, this is not a friendly forbearance, but one that could ultimately be borne.

      • Last March, I harvested some particularly large dandelion roots (carrot-sized), grated them and roasted them until they were dark brown. This makes a very nice drink when you pour over some boiling water and I think it tastes a bit like coffee. But I’m not a coffee drinker, so I don’t know if it would be an adequate substitute.

      • Growing caffeine is difficult outside the tropics.
        To my doubtless incomplete survey, Ilex paraguariensis, Yerba Mate is the most likely choice. But still, Mate likes a Mediterranean climate.

        Ilex vomitoria is another choice, though I am a bit put off by its name. And its native range doesn’t come as far north as my house in Kansas. But I do have Poncirus Trifoliata fruiting here unprotected, so maybe there is some possibility for Ilex vomitoria.

        What we do have in seasonal abundance is Galium aparine. I harvest and eat it, but there doesn’t seem to be a full consensus as to its caffeine content.

        Theobromine is what I worry about more.

        • Given my coffee addiction as noted above, I’m still not frightened by the lack of a local alternative in the higher latitudes…

          •The retail value of the US coffee market continues to grow, reaching US$87-88 billion in 2018

          This from: https://scanews.coffee/2019/10/01/us-coffee-market-overview/

          This is just for the US market. For context, the US soybean market is roughly half that (though to be fair I’m comparing the raw, wholesale value of soy vs the processed, retail coffee value… so this isn’t exactly apples to apples). The soybean is not native to the US either. There are over a hundred soybean breeders in the US alone. IF (and I’ve capitalized deliberately)… IF for some reason we must only consume what we can raise in our backyards then I’d submit that coffee will find a rich marketplace for breeding and adaptation to more northern climes. Greenhouses in the near term, south facing slopes in the middle term, and eventually some sort of adaptation in the end. Tobacco can be grown in Ontario, Canada… and Sir Walter Raleigh would likely not have believed it. So place your coffee tree alongside the south facing wall of your shelter, and get on with it.

          Next question – would this be fair? Should we ‘take’ coffee from the tropics in the first place? Long before we started pumping carbon from the Earth to pollute our air our ancestors were quite capable of moving precious materials around the planet.

          As I said – I’m not inclined to worry about my caffeine addiction.

    • Caffeine Withdrawal headaches are very unpleasant! So please lets allow coffee and tea

      Camellia sinensis v. sitka grows fairly well here in Zone 8, although I haven’t been able to propagate the one plant that I have, cowering from the frost, next to the south side of the house, beneath a sheltering Japanese Silverberry.

    • Tea is currently being commercially grown in the UK. The plants (Camellia sinensis) can supposedly be cultivated in hardiness zones 7-9, which seems to covers a large portion of the country.

      In addition to the caffeine, tea contains some theobromine (instant cocoa samples showed theobromine concentrations from 39.5 to 79.5 mg/cup… imported black tea showed 4.4 mg/cup of theobromine.)

      “The Tea Garden Is Established
      By 1999, 20-acres of valley (where once potatoes, carrots and peas grew) had been cleared, and the first plantings were made using cutting material and some seeds that were imported from various tea regions… On a good day, about 20-kilos of leaf a day is plucked…. The short-term plan is to produce no more, nor any less, than a ton of tea per year by 2010. The long-term plan, however, is to develop business slowly, with the focus on quality and sustainability, and still be a successful private operation within a time frame of 500 years.”


    • Sweden did, but abandonned the policies in the late 1980s and is almost as global market embracing as Britain is with 50% of the food eating being imported. But last 4-5 years have seen a big change in attitudes even if policies have not changed as yet. Partly this has to do with the rise of Russia, partly the general lack of enthusiasm for even further globalisatikon and also worries over food supply in the light of climate change. On the surface, Sweden could easily feed itself if it wanted, probably even easier than Britain. Even today it produces grain for 25 million peoples basic needs (but exports and feed pigs).

  2. Great post Chris. I would also add that the rhetorical sleight of hand of “but Bad Thing X would happen if we were 100% local!” shouldn’t be left for granted. Like a conversion to an all agroecological system, localism simply could not happen over night, nor would we try to do so—that is, we wouldn’t do it that way, possibly we couldn’t, and we shouldn’t. (Even an ambitious, rapid phase change wouldn’t represent “overnight” outside of complete hyperbole.)

    Circumstances indicate we should make such shifts with all deliberate speed, but the challenges and problems and trade-offs we’d face, we should be prepared to face consciously and conscientiously. Which is to say, some objections/problems could slow or alter our plans or trajectory. But, say, rapidly doubling our local consumption would leave most of us in rich countries much short of 100%—let’s shoot for double, and evaluate as we go along. Hell, modernists’ professed belief in human ingenuity should apply just as much to a project of agroecológical localization as IndustroFood(tm). While I don’t share their cavalier belief in boundless possibility, I DO think part of the localism and agroecológical critiques come close to “but what if we didn’t actually do anything to address problems that arise?” Well, yes, in that case, it wouldn’t work well—kinda like how we do now.

  3. As you start out, definitions are in order, but assumptions also. Eating from a local farm is not much better or sustainable if fossil fuel and other inputs are still nonlocal. I think I see what you’re driving at, but I think we’ve only taken a single step by eating from our local food shed if it still relies on fossil fuels. As soon as you take away that external subsidy, what will the net yields be for wheat and potatoes?

    The answer to your question hinges on what this lower, more sustainable number is.

    Local recreation of logistics chains can be done, with the lifestyle changes they entail ( Eating seasonally, cooking from scratch, eating for sustenance instead of entertainment, and nutrient cycling as per the prior post on night soil), but the calories per hectare won’t be the same as they are now.

    Does local mean limited by the carrying capacity of the “local” ecosystem? Does local mean a radius scribed by the distance a horse drawn cart can go in half a day? High value, dense items will have a different transport incentive, so local will mean different things for different commodities.

    Currently, money and markets driven by comparative advantage send food and other goods all over the globe, but in an energy constrained future, I think populations will be the ones to move, to where there is rain and soil.

    Eating local is a good first step, but not at all the end point.

    • Great point Steve. It would be super if there were a nutrient dense legume that the Brits could raise in rotation with their wheat and potatoes. You know, something with a good degree of protein, and some oil for the calories. And with a nod to your notion that fossil fuels need to be brought in line (though the North Sea might push that future off a bit) this magical legume should be something easily managed by human labor.

      Hmmm… if only there were something… oh wait, I think there is 🙂 🙂

    • As soon as you take away that external subsidy [of fossil fuel], what will the net yields be for wheat and potatoes?

      I don’t know much about growing wheat, but potatoes can easily be grown without fossil sunlight inputs!

      We hand-dig our potato beds and mulch them with goat manure, using zero fossil fuel, and dug up 169 kilograms. If the Irish could live off them, anyone can!

      (Of course, as the Irish discovered, relying on a one-crop diet has its problems…)

  4. What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here.

    I think Chris’ answer is correct, so far as it goes, but what of another strain along this line – proper nutrition. Wheat and potatoes don’t cover the whole dietary need. He does address this question:
    That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety.
    And I think he is right here as well… but I also think there should be serious attention paid to this latter element. So speaking of elements, cobalt comes to mind. Vitamin B12, cyanocobalamin, is absolutely necessary. Someone might want to check to see whether the UK’s soils have sufficient reservoirs of cobalt for the future.

    However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity. Heartily agreed.

    Was there any discussion (or debate) on the Twitter feed about maritime sources of food? My thinking heads that direction from watching the longer term experience of another archipelago that has been incredibly over populated for centuries. If not for food from the sea, I doubt a certain group could have attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

  5. Thank you Chris! Community Supported Agriculture is on the rise and has already started to prove its value as a local/regional food source. It requires more involvement from the local population but produces, when grown oranically, a food that is more sustainable, much higher in nutritional value and much better for our immune system too.

  6. I’ll second steve c’s point. The circumstance in which local food is really necessary is also the circumstance in which fossil fuels are not available.
    The issue is not whether X land can theoretically feed Y people, but how the food will be grown and then transported to the mouths of those hungry people.

    Global trade requires a global economic system, one that is now powered by high energy flux and mediated via machinery. As long as we have the energy and the machines we don’t need local food. When we don’t have the energy and machines we will need local food, but without the energy and the machines we can only produce food with muscles, both animal and human. And the only way to get the muscles to the land is with a large rural population, thereby leaving a very small urban population.

    Whether the farms are small freeholdings, large communes or feudal manors, lots of land based labor will be required. How to get that labor to the land in advance of necessity is one of the most important unsolved problems I know. Yes, people “might as well get going now”, but without enough money to buy a small farm, how exactly?

    • “As long as we have the energy and the machines [and global trade] we don’t need local food…”

      True, though government policies could nonetheless prioritize food security, with domestically produced food considered a national security interest, despite the current availability of the global markets.

      Regarding the future energy availability, there’s some middle ground, and transition potential, between ‘freely available’ and ‘unavailable’. A lot can be done with 50%, 20%, or even 10% of the energy consumed in the US (per capita).

      I’ve previously brought up the example of a country that uses only 10% of the total energy consumed in the US (per capita), yet produces enough food to feed itself, and has a wide range of manufacturing and industry. The country is India, which has been a net exporter of food in recent years.

      India has predominately small farms, and half the population working in agriculture. About two-thirds of the Indian population is rural.

      In the UK, only 17% of the population is rural. “How to get that labor to the land in advance of necessity is one of the most important unsolved problems I know.” Indeed.

      • The middle ground is freely available, but no rich country wants to go there (or go lower) and countries in the lower middle, like India, don’t want to stay there. India has 37 GW of coal plants under construction and another 30 GW either planned or permitted (current coal plants in operation total 229 GW). China has 100 GW of coal under construction and another 106 GW planned or permitted. China has 1,000 GW in operation.

        And that brings up the issue of carbon emissions. If rich countries were to actually do what is needed, their energy consumption would plummet even faster than eventual resource depletion will make it decline. The US is so proud of going in the wrong direction by throwing money at shale oil and gas. At least coal is declining a bit in the US.

        What is so disappointing is that the issues of over-reliance on fossil fuels, the earth’s limited carrying capacity and the effect of industrial civilization on the climate have all been well known for at least 50 years, yet virtually nothing has been done in the way of prudent mitigation of any of them. I’m still puzzling out exactly why that’s the case. Greed? Inertia? Maximum power principle? It’s got to be something.

        • “What is so disappointing is that the issues of over-reliance on fossil fuels, the earth’s limited carrying capacity and the effect of industrial civilization on the climate have all been well known for at least 50 years, yet virtually nothing has been done in the way of prudent mitigation of any of them. I’m still puzzling out exactly why that’s the case. Greed? Inertia? Maximum power principle? It’s got to be something.”

          The limited capacity of our collective decision-making institutions.

          I posted a related comment on Patrick Noble’s blog, over at http://www.convivialeconomy.com, last April:

          “I recently read an article that pointed out that we have known about anthropogenic climate change – and what to do about it – since the late 60s. Looking at it again, the article starts its narrative in 1979, but the point still stands: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html There have been international meetings ever since, trying to tackle it and continuously falling short of what would have been required (what is required is increasing every year).

          Why then, the widespread faith in international agreements, even to the dismissal of any other possibility? I think that it stems from a naive misunderstanding of the nature of transnational institutions. We are accustomed, in the wealthy countries, to thinking that our states (government, parliament, justice system) attempt to govern in the interests of the majority of their people. We have lost sight of the fact that there is no natural law dictating that states must govern for the majority and that in most times and places around the world, states have governed in order to protect the privileges of a minority. The perception is that dictatorship, oligarchy, corruption, imperialism, kleptocracy, etc is abnormal and that “we” are the normal ones – the reality is the opposite.

          The roots for this misapprehension lie, for me, in the successful externalisation of the costs of development onto people outwith the population of the wealthy countries: i) people in other places, through colonialism, imperialism and globalisation, ii) people as yet unborn, through industrialisation and the use of fossil fuels which causes pollution and climate collapse that will only be felt in the future. This allowed the wealthy states to develop a social contract in which they could argue that they were governing for the majority and in the “Trente Glorieuses” after WW2, this actually materialised and convinced their populations that this was just the way things work.

          Arguably, this social contract was mainly set up in order to preserve the privileges of a small minority. It was unusual in that it allowed the 1% to become ever wealthier, while simultaneously assuring a rising standard of living to the population as a whole.

          Back to the main thread: We thus mistakenly assume that transnational institutions (UN and related bodies, WTO, IMF, G7, G20, OECD) are simply an extension of the unusually benevolent form of governance we live in (used to live in?) in the wealthy countries. The evidence suggests otherwise – with those institutions’ failure to tackle climate change as one of the largest failures amongst many to put the interests of the majority of the world’s population first.”

    • the only way to get the muscles to the land is with a large rural population, thereby leaving a very small urban population.

      Before the widespread use of fossil sunlight, it took a dozen or so people on the land to support just one in the city.

      Today, a single farmer supports about 700 in the city, on average.

      A reversion to the mean is inevitable.

      people “might as well get going now”, but without enough money to buy a small farm, how exactly?

      I’d recommend our model, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well. 🙁

      My idea was that older people with more resources and fewer muscles would team up with younger people with strong backs who could not afford farmland, in exchange for equity in the farmland.

      But today’s young people want to be “free,” and we haven’t had anyone take us up on our offer.

      • For most, self-sufficiency isn’t remotely within reach, though I inderstand “might as well get going now” to also mean supporting your nearest growers by buying from them, for the sound reasons given, basically accentuating the positive while chipping away at eliminating the negative. As to why we haven’t done much to address global warming, there seem to be no rules to human behaviour – just ask Björk:) … wait, does that count as a rule?

  7. Good post. I also make arguments like yours, but I think the free traders really don’t care – for them the question is not if Britain/Sweden/India CAN feed itself – but rather WHY?

    Trade is not only a response to market demand, it creates demand and therefore recreates the need for it; trade becomes its own justification. The argument goes along these lines:
    “Development makes people happy. Trade is good for development. We need free trade in order to promote more trade. Thus, free trade makes more people happy”
    I have written extensively about this, e.g in

    On the research side I find that Jenifer Clapp makes quite good analyses, Food self-sufficiency is, however, widely critiqued by economists as a misguided approach to food security that places political priorities ahead of economic efficiency. In the paper Food self-sufficiency: Making sense of it, and when it makes sense, in the journal Food Policy, Jennifer Clapp makes the case that policy choice on this issue is more than a choice between the extremes of relying solely on homegrown food and a fully open trade policy for foodstuffs. All countries rely on imports for at least some of their food consumption, including large food exporters that produce far more food than they consume. Even, North Korea, the country with policies that most approach autarky, still imports food and accepts international food assistance. Clapp recommends that we should instead realize that there is a continuum between the extremes and that there is not one correct policy response for all countries at all times.

  8. Good piece.Figures on UK arable always useful to see.Arable is the big one and how we do it remains important.System Chameleon drills,precision undersowing and more diverse grains and pulses offer hope.Conventional arable is wrestling with no-til/glysophate use but does seem to have grasped org.matter/worms/soil structure.In comparision resolving fruit+veg feels small beer.Relatively small protected cropping areas make Mediterranean diets possible for a fair chunk of the year.Even after giving up on Gr1 S.Lincs reregionalising field crops is not really any loss.

  9. Thanks for all these interesting comments. Pressures of work are such that with regret I think I have to pass up talking about coffee, legumes, India, Sweden, seafood, CSAs, arable, graduated localism and probably other things too, fascinating as they are. But I’d like to say a bit about perhaps the more critical strand of the discussion about localism, fossil fuels and population movements.

    First, while I agree with Joe that “the issue isn’t whether X land can theoretically feed Y people” that’s pretty much exactly how James Wong and many of those who commented on his tweet framed it, and how people continue to frame the question of local food with misleading references to Britain’s historical import-reliance, World War II, the potato famine etc etc. My post was aimed mostly at clearing away those weeds, not at charting detailed routes towards sustainable localism – but I did allude to that at the end, because that’s the context in which import dependence has now become problematic, as has the view that global food trade buys us out of famine.

    So I agree that the really tricky questions revolve around how to move towards sustainable localism. This is what we should be focusing on, not the red herring of land capacity – this was the point of the post.

    Nobody has any magic bullet solutions to creating that sustainable localism, partly because it’s impossible to specify outside given local contexts and politics, but let me venture briefly into this territory. First, I deliberately included very low organic yield estimates in the post to head off the kind of criticism levelled by Steve C. These yields are eminently achievable with minimal fossil fuel inputs, albeit with much larger labor inputs – but in low energy situations agricultural labor intensity is an advantage, not a disadvantage.

    Second, if we assume the slow crash of urban, high-energy civilization then I think we’ll find a lot of interesting things going on with the relative prices of farmland, city housing and financial investment that can help to birth a small farm future – including the positive aspects of rich folks buying small rural holdings that Joe’s discussed in previous comments here. On such issues, my experience has been a bit different to Jan’s – I’ve found there to be a large and growing number of young people wanting to get into small-scale local agriculture, and a large number of older investors looking for ways to support it. I suspect it may all prove too little, too late, but I don’t think it’s true to say that there are no models and no movements.

    Likewise with figures about the high levels of urbanization locally or globally. Again, I don’t mean to understate the difficulties – I think they’re grave and possibly insurmountable – but bear in mind that many definitions of urbanism include settlements down to 10,000 inhabitants. There’s plenty of opportunity for creating local rural-urban linkages in such situations. In fast crash situations the chances of violence and misery are high, but so too are the chances of rapid rethinking and reallocation of land use along the lines of what Rebecca Solnit calls ‘a paradise built in hell’ or the civic republican procedures that I’ve previously discussed. So I don’t think the situation is irredeemably hopeless. But nor do I think prospects are bright.

    Gunnar makes some interesting points about trade, and I think he’s right to emphasize the continuum aspects of it. If we’re growing a lot of our basic food locally, then I’m not so bothered if we’re buying in a bit of coffee – but there may be issues about what’s going on where the coffee’s coming from that are effaced in the money price we’re paying for it. That’s why I don’t have much truck with the arguments of the economists Gunnar mentions when they advocate trade on economic efficiency grounds – to me economic efficiency is a secondary goal after ecological sustainability and social equity. Still, trade and monetary exchange do have their upsides so long as we don’t let them enslave us. I talk about all these points a lot more in my book.

    • well talking about other areas of the planet round here ( west central TX ) you would eat meat , there are no farms producing veggies within 200 miles ( gulf coast ) , very few people garden and are looked on as ecentrics , without electricity there would far fewer people , relying on wind pumps and the few solar water pumps ( gallon a minuite tops water is 100 to 400 feet down and the rain comes now , february / march with very little in summer ) there would be little iwater to irrigate gardens , and few who know how to garden , this is a dificult climate with temps from – 15 C in winter to + 50 C in summer few plants can stand that , as with the Comanche , staple foods were meat and pecan nuts they are the reliable crop .

  10. Thanks for the further comments above. I can see I need to offer some further cogitations on coffee, among other things. But I’m up against my next editing deadline … Hopefully, I’ll be back in action on here soon, maybe next week…

  11. Given the value and volume of coffee traded globally, plus of course that increased prices will reduce demand I dont necessarily see that meeting demand by sailing ship/overland transport will be an issue

  12. Finding this conversation a bit late, a few things came to mind: a comment by George Monbiot regarding Knepp’s meat production: “as a general model, a formula for starvation” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/veganism-intensively-farmed-meat-dairy-soya-maize#comment-119748600; the Harvard study showing that the UK could be self-sufficient in food *and* sequester the carbon equivalent of 9 years of the UK’s current emissions, whilst rewilding much of the land, by shifting to/towards plant-based diets and using all the pasture land (https://theecologist.org/2019/apr/17/converting-animal-farmland-forest); the summary by a Oxford Uni project of all the studies that have shown that to reduce our climate footprint, what we buy is far more important that where we buy it from (https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local); and various information on the potentials of agroforestry to be both highly efficient (though labour-intensive) and highly resilient – and easily done without animal inputs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_m_0UPOzuI). So my own take on this would be: yes to pushing for far more food to come from local sources, but together with a move towards far more plant-based foods, with their well-established record of being best for both human and planetary health: thus a lot more horticulture, more perennial crops, including fruit and nut shrubs/trees (also for starches – from sweet chestnut and oak), a lot more legumes, more mushrooms, etc.

    • Thanks for commenting, Annie. I largely agree with your conclusions – we’d certainly need to eat less meat if we aimed for food self-reliance, though efficiency would be improved if we kept some livestock – but I’m not really on board with the links you cite.

      I agree with George about the generalizability of Knepp, but that’s not relevant to my analysis here. I find the Harvard study highly problematic, especially because the sequestration ends after just 35 years. The upshot of its proposals is that, as Simon Fairlie puts it, “Britain’s entire pastoral heritage and the wildlife and the farms associated with it will have been sacrificed so that some people can continue flying and burning fossil fuels for another three decades”.

      And ourworldindata continue pushing their ecomodernist agenda in their latest on local food. True, the ecological footprint of a product isn’t necessarily lower just because it was produced locally, but that’s not what’s at issue in my post. What’s more at issue is whether we’d be wise to continue assuming that global commodity markets will keep us from hunger. I suggest not.

      But yes, more horticulture, more perennial crops, legumes and mushrooms … with you on that. Not sure about oak though. I’m still planning to sow wheat in between my oak shelterbelts…

  13. Claims of self-sufficiency for a given region (such as Britain) need to be carefully qualified. Plants need water and nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium to work their photosynthetic magic, so let’s examine the question bit by bit, taking those as the top-level components. They all need to be yesses for the top level question to be answered with a yes.

    Let’s assume we’re OK for rainwater.

    Most of Britain’s agricultural output currently depends on nitrates derived from the the air via the energy-hungry Haber-Bosch process (and hence derived from coal and natural gas, much of which is currently imported). Do you claim that sustainable organic N sources (e.g. the legume-rhyzobium symbiosis) would be sufficient? or is the claim that British coal mines and gas reserves could be used to power the Haber-Bosch process (until such time as their finite reserves are consumed)?

    Turn to phosphates. Could Britain be self-sufficient for phosphates? If so, how? Most of Britain’s agricultural output currently depends on phosphates imported from Morocco and Western Sahara. There are no known phosphate rock reserves in Britain. It is true that it could be used less wastefully (e.g. by spreading composted poo on the fields instead of flushing it out to sea, and by respecting the role of arbuscular mycorhyzal fungi in nutrient uptake) but I find it hard to see how this can be truly sustainable (rather than merely postponing the problem). It never was sustainable, but the pre-industrial population was so small that this un-sustainability did not manifest itself as a problem.

    The potassium situation is similar – we can’t make any more of it but we could use it more wisely. There are some potash reserves in Britain (famously Sirius Minerals’ find in Yorkshire) but currently most are imported from Saskatchewan or the Ural Mountains. Could you elaborate on your British self-sufficiency claim from the potassium perspective?

    [For the avoidance of doubt – manures and composts are not an answer to the primary question because they get their nutrient content from past plant growth and that growth was dependent on sufficient N-P-K.]

    I’d be interested to hear your views on this. Can there ever be truly sustainable agriculture, or is it simply a matter of differing speeds of inevitable resource depletion, with the slower ones (e.g. Farmers of Forty Centuries) being ‘sustainable’ on relatively longer time scales and the rapacious ones (e.g. Big Ag in the USA) being ‘sustainable’ only for a few generations before the land is spent?

    • Can there ever be truly sustainable agriculture, or is it simply a matter of differing speeds of inevitable resource depletion

      If “sustainable” means able to be sustained in relative equilibrium for many thousands of years, then the short answer is “yes, agriculture can be sustainable”.

      To explain why, we need to first consider how people interact with the environment without agriculture. Like all predators, human hunter-gatherers live off the plants and animals they gather from their surroundings. They appropriate part of the net primary productive capacity of autotrophic (plant) biota. When a hunter kills and eats a deer, he is consuming food that previously gathered its nutrition from plants. If the environment is relatively stable, the deer population has then been reduced below it’s original carrying capacity and deer biomass has been replaced with human biomass.

      There is really no difference for environmental sustainability whether a human is appropriating the stored primary productivity from a deer body or whether a cougar is doing it. We would never ask whether predator/prey relationships in nature are “sustainable”, so why would we consider human predation differently?

      Now consider the appropriation, by human gatherers, of plants from the wild. It makes little difference in sustainability whether a human is eating a plant or whether rabbits or insects are eating it. The human biomass is increased and the rabbit and insect biomass is decreased. Rabbits and insects return their nutrients from excreta and dead bodies to the environment. As long as people do the same, the relationship between plants and animals remains stable and sustainable.

      Now we get to agriculture, which has human animals disturbing the environment by replacing one set of primary producers with another. As long as the relationship between the overall photosynthetic productive capacity and the heterotroph biomass utilizing that capacity remains the same, the process is sustainable. Humans increase their biomass by using the plants they have grown and all the other animals and insects that would have foraged on the plants that were cleared away by humans (for plants they prefer) lose biomass in roughly equal measure. Again, as long as all the nutrients from the cultured plants are returned to the environment, the altered circumstance is sustainable.

      If the disturbance caused by human appropriation of net primary productivity is so substantial that the overall level of productivity is reduced, perhaps by the diminution of critical pollinators or soil dwelling microbial life, then the human population must either decrease for an equilibrium to be re-established or the land must be left alone to recover its primary productivity. Swidden agriculture is an example of the latter technique and it has been used sustainably for thousands of years all over the world.

      Likewise, humans have used fire to alter the composition of the net primary producing landscape for thousands of years, even if they didn’t use the land for agriculture. In North America, the midwestern prairies and the northwestern douglas fir forests are landscapes that were created in large part by human caused fires.
      These changes to the character of the primary producers allowed people to more easily gather that productivity by hunting and gathering. Even so, the changes from fire were replicated over and over for thousands of years.

      I also believe the techniques used in Asian agriculture for “forty centuries” were sustainable. Once you get to practices that lasted for four thousand years, the burden of proving that they are not sustainable in the very long run gets pretty darn high.

      So, there are lots of examples of human interaction with their living environment that are sustainable indefinitely, including some kinds of agriculture. Industrial agriculture could potentially be one of them, but only if the energy and other inputs used were from sources that were indefinitely sustainable, something that is certainly not the case now.

  14. Thanks for the further comments. Only time for a quick response atm as unfortunately I’m still flat out on the book.

    Regarding Paul’s comments:

    Generally, I’d say that water isn’t currently a problem in the UK (it certainly bloody isn’t at the moment). It is, of course, a problem in many other places, and set to become a worse one. I think we’ll see population movements in the future from more to less water-stressed areas. That may create problems. Whether they’re manageable, I don’t know. But if they are it’ll probably be via my usual shtick – small-scale farming, local ecological base, resource cycling, greater social equality, economies of small scale etc.

    Yes, I’m claiming that sustainable N sources would be sufficient.

    With P & K, I don’t entirely agree with Paul’s claim about composts & manures. Plants extract P & K from the soil. Composts and manures are where the P & K ends up from agricultural plants. Therefore, cycling them back to the soil in theory closes the loop – this is a major argument for distributed, rural populations. Maybe there’s some leakage out of the system – there isn’t an awful lot out of natural ecosystems. The regen-ag crew claim you can extract all the necessary nutrients in perpetuity through cover-cropping that makes soil minerals plant available. As I’ve written before on here, I find this implausible – but I think we can get a long way through nutrient cycling.

    Paul’s closing question is a good one – can there ever be truly sustainable agriculture, or is it simply a matter of differing speeds of inevitable resource depletion? Neither I nor, I think, anyone else can answer that convincingly, though I’m interested in anyone’s further thoughts on it. What I would say, though, is that it’s a very different question, and a more interesting one, than asking whether Britain could feed itself from local farms and concluding that it couldn’t on the basis of the spurious historical reasoning that I criticize above. I’d argue that the net global resource depletion in a world of non-local agricultures will be higher than local ones for various reasons – therefore, if there can’t ever be a truly sustainable agriculture, we’ll starve sooner if we don’t farm locally.

    And in relation to David’s question about Ourworldindata I guess in general their bias seems to be strongly ‘neo-optimist’ (eg. in the Roser-Hickel debates) and specifically on the local food article it doesn’t go much beyond the argument that transport costs are a small proportion of the overall emissions associated with food – implicitly taking the entire economic and energetic structure of global food commodity chains as a given.

    • I also only have a second… but do want to make a point about water. We needn’t presume that too little water is the only issue around water supply. Too much is also a difficulty. Granted, I’d rather the latter problem to the former… but there is a reason the majority of us don’t inhabit swampland.

    • It feels like Paul’s P and K questions (throw in Clem’s cobalt concern from earlier as well) were not fully addressed. Perhaps my own naivete is the problem though.

      Chris’ P and K paragraph talks about nutrient cycling thru manure, composting, and regen ag practices virtually closing the loop. However, off premises consumption seems like it would represent more than “some leakage”. Google tells me a single potato contains almost a gram of potassium.

      Is the argument mineral losses to consumption leaks are negligible relative to the bioavailable minerals cycling can deliver? In other words, efficient use of naturally occurring minerals is enough to achieve effective sustainability.

      Or is it implied distributed rural populations would close the loop by minimizing off premises consumption?

      • Thanks for the comments – much to agree with.

        I can’t claim expert knowledge in this area so I’m interested in people’s views, but to answer Rob’s question I’d say that his first proposition is the one that’s commonly made by regen-ag proponents – loss is negligible relative to bioavailable minerals through regen-ag practices. But I’ve never seen this demonstrated convincingly by anyone, rather than simply asserted – and I suspect that in the long-term it’s unfounded. However, I don’t know what ‘long-term’ means here.

        My argument is the latter – distributed populations would close the loop. Currently, the UK does a pretty good job of returning sewage waste to land, but that’s on the basis of an energy-intensive infrastructure. Long-term, I suspect people will need to spread out and cycle plant nutrients carefully in situ. If all the other arguments for agrarian localism fall by the wayside, maybe that one will ultimately be the telling one – unless people crack abundant, concentrated renewable energy. Few signs yet on that front.

      • Cobalt can’t be dismissed altogether, but it needn’t keep anyone up at night either. A single kilogram of cobalt, if judiciously supplied, will meet the needs of millions for years. If there were absolutely no cobalt on the British Isles the deficit could be remedied without employing any fossil fuels.

        P and K are required in far greater doses, and therein lies the difficulty. But Joe Clarkson’s comment above is very relevant… most of what we’re talking about is trading one form of biomass for another. Fewer deer and antelope… for more of us. Leakage is relevant, but a lot of that can be minimized. There are smallish additions to the habitat in the form of mineralization of parent materials. If leakage is held down to the level where it’s equivalent to mineralization then the cycle can go on and on. If the nutrients are taken like so many seats in a round of musical chairs, then those species we’ve chosen to ignore end up with no where to sit. Best strategy for non-humans… be domesticated and delicious. We’ll keep a chair for you.

  15. Pingback: February readings – Uneven Earth

  16. Pingback: For Whom the Bell Tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 Special - Resilience

  17. Pingback: For Whom the Bell Tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 Special – Enjeux énergies et environnement

  18. This thread is a bit old now but I’ve just come across David Fleming’s take on the P-K depletion issue so I thought I’d post it here for the record. It’s in the ‘Lean Food’ entry of Lean Logic. Fleming says that composting all wastes and respecting mycorrhizae and soil health are very important “And yet, none of this really deals with the loss of phosphates, potassium and the micronutrients from the land.” So he shared my worry. He doesn’t provide an answer but being a practical man, encourages something very close to Chris’ small farm future as the best thing to do in the circumstances.

    Perhaps my question (“is there ever truly sustainable agriculture or just different time horizons before collapse?”) is an overly theoretical one that we need not worry about. The sun will burn out eventually but we don’t seem to have any street protests about that. It seems obvious to me that local production, local consumption and local nutrient cycling are the only way to go if you don’t want collapse to come within the lifetime of your grandchildren or sooner. And, as Wendell Berry says so eloquently, that’s a convivial way to live a decent worthwhile life. So I agree with Chris that Wessex can feed itself locally, for as long as we need worry about it.

    I dismissed water shortages as of little concern in Wessex but Chris pulled me up on that – globally it is a big problem. What is the overshooting population of Africa and the Middle East going to do? Maybe they’ll take Aldo Leopold’s advice and re-green their land. Or maybe they’ll take Norman Tebbit’s advice and get on their bikes. I know which one I’d do in their shoes. Still convivial?

    By the way, the leakages of P and K from the cycle are not totally final – they haven’t been fired up into space by Southern Water in a rocket. They end up in the sea, via rivers or sewers. So the loop can be closed – to a small extent – by adding seaweed to the land (as people have done in the west of Ireland for a very long time). Clearly this can only be done on a relatively small scale (compared to phosphate and potash mining), supporting a small coastal population.

Leave a Reply

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