Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?

Patrick Whitefield | Tuesday, 26th January 2010
Patrick Whitefield takes a look at this new study, published by the Transition Movement, looking at food self-sufficiency on a township basis
Author: Rob Hopkins, Mark Turstain-Goodwin & Simon Fairlie
Publisher: Transition Movement
Publication year: 2009
RRP: £0.00

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

Simon Fairlie, one of the authors of the study, has already asked a similar question about the country as a whole in his paper, 'Can Britain Feed Itself?' in The Land. He looked at a total of six scenarios: conventional, organic and permaculture regimes, considering each from both a meat-eating and vegan view-point. His definition of permaculture in this context is: 'involving increased integration of lifestyle with natural and renewable cycles, rather than mulching, intercropping and herb spirals'.

Meat plays its part

For the Totnes study the authors modelled the future on his permaculture scenario in the meat-eating version. It's characterised by a great deal of re-cycling, with pigs and poultry living mainly off waste products rather than competing with us for grain, and meat consumption overall much lower than it is now. The authors felt a purely vegan diet would be too much of a departure for the general public.

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

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

The authors acknowledge this and indeed they note that we need to include other products such as building materials and medicines. It's impossible to look at food without also considering the system as a whole.

A bold first step

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

Patrick Whitefield is an author, permaculture practitioner and teacher