Proposal for a ‘one planet’ food revolution

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Posted Feb 13 2018 by David Thorpe of The One Planet Life

This is the third in a series of articles about ‘one planet’ living – the first in rural areas, and the second in cities. Now we discuss the situation as regards food production.

A revolution in the production and consumption of food would dramatically improve health, soils, and the state of the planet. Here is how it could work.

Why we need it

I don’t think that this can be said often enough: in 80 years time, unless we’re hit by some cataclysmic catastrophe, there will be over 11 billion souls on our little planet. If current trends continue, around 85% will live in cities and we will have passed the safe limits of several of our planetary life-support systems: climate change, biodiversity, soil loss, ocean acidity.

How can we support and feed everyone without trashing the planet?

It’s not that far off. Babies born now will probably still be alive in 80 years. If you’re under twenty, you might well be yourself.

We need a revolution in the way we think about food because right now food is the hardest part of our ecological footprint to reduce. Just take a look at these cities’ footprints, expressed in global hectares per person:

Diagram courtesy Global Footprint Network.

No matter the overall size of the footprint, if we look at the footprint’s individual components, food stays pretty constant and becomes relatively larger  proportionately as the overall footprint shrinks.

To reduce it we need a revolution in the way food is produced and consumed. This is what is being proposed by various food manifestos being developed in England, Wales and Scotland. I don’t disagree with any of them, I just wonder if, radical though they are, they are yet going far enough.

As Gunhild Stordalen, of the EAT Forum in Sweden puts it: “We need action to end the disconnect between consumption and production” because food is the main issue around which coalesces many others: climate change, poor health, social inequality, soil loss, biodiversity loss.

Anyone who knows me, knows that one thing I care passionately about is determining whether something is really sustainable or not. A big advantage for me of ‘One Planet’ development as practiced in Wales is its measurability. Because outputs and inputs are monitored for sustainability, we can tell what works.

The improved productivity of smallholdings

We need to produce more food per hectare, cheaply, without unwanted side-effects. Measurement is how we know that one planet smallholdings and some similar Community Supported Agriculture schemes are more productive than conventional agriculture such as sheep farms, without subsidies and using no artificial inputs.

Data from a conversion of a sheep farm into nine 6 acre family-held smallholdings run as One Planet Developments in Pembrokeshire is as follows (data made available annually as a condition of planning permission, 2016 figures):

Value of needs met directly from site: £59,109
Income from land-based produce: £26,873
From educational activities: £21,283
Total from land-based activity: £107,265
Value placed on total household needs: £116,474

92% of the 9 families’ household needs were therefore met from the land. Prior to conversion, the single farmer’s annual income was £2,500–£3,500 from raising sheep (not including agri-subsidy) (data from Tao Wimbush of Lammas).

This is an impressive 30-fold increase in land-based productivity. Productivity will increase further as soil fertility increases because the land is being fed with compost and manure. Previously it was fed with lime. No subsidies were given or required.

Let no one tell you that organic growing is less productive than non-organic unless you’re absolutely sure they are comparing like with like.

Further evidence on productivity

These results are underscored by a recent report from the Landworkers’ Alliance (A Matter Of Scale: A study of the productivity, financial viability and multifunctional benefits of small farms of 20 ha and less, Landworkers’ Alliance and Centre for Agroecology, Coventry University, 2017). Key findings:

  • Productivity data for 18 indicator vegetable crops showed small farm yields being higher than non-organic field-scale yields for those which benefit from more intricate husbandry and hand picking. At established market gardens these yields were much higher than average non-organic yields.
  • Integrated, mixed farming means that inputs and waste are reduced compared to monoculture farms, improving their ability to cope with extreme weather and resist disease.
  • When compared to average UK farm incomes the sample was performing well financially. 78% received no farm subsidies; subsidies made up below 20% of the income for 19% of those who did.
  • Most farms were adding value either by direct marketing or processing produce into cheese, juices or preserves.

Mainstreaming this approach

That’s all very well, but it’s a minority. So can we mainstream this approach?

‘Patchwork’ farms

Here’s stage one. OPDs and similar food suppliers in a local area are beginning to co-operate to market produce using the ‘patchwork farm’ concept. In this model producers sell through a collectively-managed portal.

In east Carmarthenshire, coordinated by Red Pig Farm and supported by Calon Cymru Network, one of these, the Black Mountain Food Hub, uses the Heart of Wales line to deliver food to pick-up points in station hubs (below), for customers who have ordered online to collect. It is a new kind of food market.

Sara of Black Mountain Food Hub and Red Pig Farm which is transitioning to One Planet Development

Sara of Black Mountain Food Hub and Red Pig Farm, which is transitioning to One Planet Development.

Hang on, what about the price?

Yes, food grown with intensive labour inputs is usually more expensive than supermarket food. So to mainstream this approach, a shift of policy support is required to alter the price balance between this type of food and food sold in supermarkets.

Supermarket non-organic food is cheaper because external costs are not factored in. So – and this is unpopular – how about a tax on polluting nitrogen fertilisers? Akin to a carbon tax, this would, says Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust, reflect the external costs of their use and encourage a switch away from them.

Then there’s consumer education. Peter Seggers of Blaencamel Farm, Cilycennan, Carmerthenshire practices agro-ecology with market gardening and feeds his 300 strong local community with year-round organic produce by feeding the soil and using polytunnels. He believes consumers are prepared to switch to more sustainable foods even if they are dearer if we educate them about their add-on benefits through passionate communication, and tell them of the damage done by intensive farming.

Change the current subsidy system

The Landworkers Alliance amongst many others have proposed a post-Brexit shift in subsidy and planning practice to support small farms, smallholdings and measurably sustainable agriculture. This would enable the wider uptake of ‘one planet’ developments, neighbourhoods and communities and save public money.

The average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills in 2009-10 was £53,000, while the average net farm income was £33,000. This suggests that the contribution the average farmer made to subsidising his income by keeping sheep was £20,000.

Such unsustainable farming practices are heavily supported by subsidy in Less Favoured Areas (80% of the agricultural land area of Wales).

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)’s chapter on Wales documents that about 37.4% of Wales is Enclosed Farmland, consisting of 34% Improved Grassland and just 3.4% Arable and Horticultural land.

From the above data on conversion from sheep farm to One Planet Development, we know that this is a balance that can be shifted away from meat to more varied produce.

One Planet Developments can only be permitted without subsidy. Each One Planet conversion of a sheep farm could therefore save an average of £53,000 of taxpayer’s money, as well as making the land more productive, improving biodiversity, and reducing carbon emissions from livestock.

Feeding the masses from local food means more jobs

One hundred years ago Wales was more or less self-sufficient in food, farming was more diverse, and most of it was organic. Yet the population was only 600,000 less. So Wales could, in theory, feed itself. Several studies (Double Yield: Jobs and Sustainable Food Production, Vicki Hird, SAFE Alliance, 1997) show it’s possible to do this.

Jobs would be almost doubled, as a Soil Association study shows (Jones, P. & Crane, R., 2009, England and Wales under Organic Agriculture; How much Food could be Produced? Centre for Agricultural Strategy, Reading). This compares yields of foods growable in England and Wales under organic production (which produces half the greenhouse gas emissions) with the volumes currently produced under “conventional” production.

To support the switch to more, smaller farms providing local food, more processing facilities, including packers and abattoirs, need to be provided locally. Presently much food has to travel a long way before it can be processed. This would add value to produce and keep more of the profit and jobs locally while reducing food miles.

Looking further ahead

Local food and the importance of hinterlands

In the old days, cities were fed from food produced from their hinterlands. Nowadays food comes from all over the world and we’ve lost the connection between city dwellers and their surrounding land. People often have no idea where their food comes from or how it is grown.

The food revolution I propose would take steps to repair this situation by reinventing the concept of hinterland.

In Wales, the National Development Framework for Wales, currently being developed, envisages four regions, which are known as Joint Governance Committees. These regions could be managed as hinterlands to provide food and natural resource services for urban areas.

In this model, mid-Wales supplies the Cardiff-Newport stretch and the valleys, West Wales supplies the Swansea-Port Talbot region, and North Wales, the Conwy-Bangor-Caernarfon area.

How? A leading example is the Toronto Food Strategy, which uses the hinterland model. This is taken from a recent report containing insights into how urban areas can design and maintain highly-developed, integrated food-related policies.

The Toronto food revolution

The Golden Horseshoe region runs around the Greater Toronto area and neighbouring communities. The hinterland is shown in the map below.

In 2011/12 these municipalities adopted a ten-year plan to help the food and farming sector remain viable, link food, farming and health through consumer education, enhance competitiveness and sustainability and cultivate new approaches.

Its broad aims and membership have achieved much but also seen conflict arise between advocates of small-scale, ecological agriculture and so-called “big agriculture”. Face-to-face meetings are sorting out differences.

In Wales, a similar approach is possible. The purpose of Joint Governance Committees is to support partnerships between local authorities upon issues which transcend their borders, so that their development plans do not run in conflict.

Land management, food provision and one planet development can be tackled together better at this scale. A hinterland approach can give rise to a model as illustrated in the following picture:

I believe that procurement strategies of publicly funded bodies such as schools and hospitals should be used to set up relationships with local suppliers in their hinterlands, thereby guaranteeing markets for local organic food from nearby farms and smallholdings and new processing plants.

Schools in particular could ‘twin’ with farms and also use them as teaching aids. Kids would learn about growing food and healthy food.

The National Farmers Union Cymru is already moving in this direction. So are some schools, such as Llandovery College.

The farms would have a motivation to diversify into organic vegetable and even grain production, as they once did, more jobs would result, rural Wales would begin to be revived, and food miles would be reduced. Lots of wins.

This would be done by legislation such as Wales’ Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which, as it bites, will mandate all bodies which spend taxpayers’ money to do so sustainably. Under the act, public funding must support the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reduce Wales’ footprint from three to one planets within about forty years.

Recolonising the countryside

Having more people living and working in the countryside is difficult within current planning culture, which is why it should be made easier to obtain planning permission for accommodation in rural areas providing that sustainable land-based work is prioritised.

This is exactly why the One Planet Development policy was designed: to address this failure and regenerate the countryside.

Many remote areas would benefit from higher levels of population density, provided it was introduced in a sensitive and sustainable manner. The lamb and mutton currently produced on 3.6 million hectares of rough pasture – approximately 15 per cent of the land area of UK – represent just 1.5 per cent of our national diet.

And new urban developments should be planned with food supply and sustainable transport links at their heart. A fantastic example is The Cannery, Sacramento, California, which is a housing project that puts an urban farm and agricultural college in the centre of a community – a farm-to-table sustainable urban farming showcase linked by cycle lane and public transport to the rest of the city.

Plan of the Cannery

To summarise the ‘One Planet’ demands

1. That to aim towards one planet living should become an underlying principle of all planning and official policy as de facto the only objectively-verifiable sustainable strategy. This would inevitably have the effect of making the food system more sustainable.

2. That the same set of social and environmental criteria should be used to assess all planning applications to create a level playing field in order to encourage this.

3. That these criteria should be informed by ecological footprint analysis, amongst others, which enables all projects to be compared for their environmental impact – at present we have no way of determining the objective sustainability of a site.

4. That official attitudes to land use and procurement should change to help urban and rural areas use one planet approaches to become more productive of locally consumed healthy and organic food.