Sunday, 31 March 2013

Part 2: 90% Food production

This is the 2nd instalment looking at a 90% reduction in consumption, based on the book “Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front” by Sharon Astyk. Following on from the last blog, I thought that it would be a good idea to look at the food growing potential in the UK. The 90% reduction doesn’t mean that Sharon and family are eating 90% less food than everyone else, but more that they aim to grow as much as they can themselves, and buy the rest as locally as possible. This would significantly reduce food miles and support the local economy, but it requires a change in diet and a re-emergence of food storage and preservation techniques. No hothouse strawberries in winter, or asparagus flown half way round the world.

A 90% target on the food front seems quite hard, when you think that probably 10% of food stuffs originate from exotic locations. Tea, coffee, spices, cocoa (which means everything chocolaty), and bananas, just to name a few, aren’t the kind of thing we could grow in the back garden in the UK. Bananas are currently the most eaten fruit here, so how do we get people back to eating the native pears and apples?

Then we have the issue that although pears and apples grow well here, do we have the space to grow them individually or locally, or do we need to continue to rely on France, Holland, New Zealand, and the USA to feed us? I think I will look at this first, because then we may see how big a change in our daily diets would be needed, based on what we could provide for ourselves.

So starting with a quick look at the state of New York in the USA, it is 54,000 square miles in area, comparable to the 50,000 square miles of England (94,000 sq. miles for the UK in total, but we’ll stick to England purely for ease of comparison). Both places have a major city area, New York with a population of 8.1 million and Greater London with 8.9 million (I’m just using wiki for the figures here to give a rough idea). England has 53 million people, whereas the state of New York’s population is 36% of this, at 19.5 million. If you take away the population of New York City, then the rest of the state is pretty sparsely populated.

Ok, so is anyone else feeling really small and crowded yet? This is just one state in the US that is already bigger than England, and even though we have the impression of the US being heavily populated it clearly isn’t, compared to England.

Garden wise the UK average garden size is around 190m2 (2,000ft2). This includes front and back gardens, including paved driveways. I’m struggling to find the equivalent for the US but it appears that the median average ‘lot size’ in the US is 810 m2 (8,750 ft2) (Can anyone improve on this?).  This is a vastly larger plot than the average UK dwelling has. Now this is really good news for suburban Americans who want to grow their own vegetables, as Sharon Astyk has pointed out, but is far more of a challenge in the UK.

If we just think in terms of 1 acre feeding a family of 4 (I’m not saying it is possible but it is a place to start), then with an average lot size in the US coming in at 0.2 acres it falls somewhat short, but would just about feed someone living alone. Based on the same principle, the 0.047 acre average garden in the UK would then provide only a fifth of the food required for one person, which is a bit of a concern.

In her book Sharon Astyk talks about the Victory Gardens taking up some of the slack during both World Wars. (I found an original instructional film about how to grow a victory garden at ) The UK had the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns encouraging growing food in every green space, from gardens and allotments to wasteland and verges. (Another amazing old film )

Allotments are having a revival in the UK and many have long waiting lists. It’s about 2 years for a plot in Loughborough, though up to 8 years in some areas of the UK. In addition some local councils have halved the size of the individual plots, so that they can reduce waiting lists (although these plots may then be too small to supply a family’s food needs).

Luckily, there are lots more initiatives springing up to get people back working the land and providing fresh local produce, like Landshare ( ), the Incredible Edible movement  ( ), Community Supported Agriculture ( ) and the Transition Towns movement ( ) to name a few. The main thrust of this is getting more green spaces used for growing food. Small patches of grass that the council have to maintain, can become vegetable beds maintained by the community.

France is much better at small scale farming and enjoying access to local produce. Maybe it is because food plays a more important role. It is not just a response to hunger, but a creative, sensual and sociable affair. They also have around 2 and a half times more land for about the same population as the UK. (260,000sq. miles with 65 million people)

At this point I have to admit to reading a book called ‘The Death of Grass’ by John Christopher when I was a teenager. From what I remember a virus destroys grass crops such as rice and cereals and many people around the World are facing riots and starvation. The British response (and yes this is all fictional) is to put military cordons around the major cities and bomb them. That way the population is reduced to a size that has a far better chance of an orderly survival, without everyone killing each other over the remaining food. I can’t really fault the logic behind this. I mean a quick death seems preferable to slow starvation, and the survivors certainly wouldn’t be complaining, and would be in much better shape this way. Good enough reason for me not to live in a city!

So back to the reality of the UK, do we have enough land to meet all the food needs of the population, should the need arise? I have read reports that we could, but at a much more sensible consumption level than we are now, with significantly less meat in our diets (I want to attribute this to Simon Fairlie, but I can’t seem to find where I read it, so I will reference this at a later date.) Small scale, labour intensive farms/ gardens can produce more food per acre than large farms, so this is something that we would need to address in order to hope to feed the nation.

Vinay Gupta, who specialises in Collapsonomics and risk management, has suggested that we should not worry too much about food in a short to medium term event, because there is 6 months supply of food currently standing in the fields baaing and mooing!. This would tide us over whilst we set about growing food in earnest. In a time of emergency it would be possible to significantly increase food production, but we are looking at how much we can do now – without an emergency.

Current planning policies, of providing handkerchief gardens with new houses and allowing old gardens to be cut up and built on, has got to stop. Gardening is a popular hobby, and something most people could adapt to if they wanted to and had the space. I guess the point is that individually we won’t have anywhere near enough growing space, but as community groups we have much more potential for requesting or commandeering land to share.

When I look at my own garden, it is 163m2 (1,754ft2), at least a quarter of which is heavily shaded by the house and paved. We also have a small front garden, again two thirds is paved for car parking. This garden space has been filled with climbing frames and kids playing football over the last 12 years. It still has a basketball net, trampoline and mad dog running around it, so the food growing potential is pitiful, but I am improving it by building raised beds and trying to use every space. There is no chance that it could feed a family of 6, but we can supplement some of our needs. I have my name on the waiting list for an allotment and the local Transition Group have just started a community allotment, where I can learn skills. The first 15 trees of a community orchard have been planted nearby, but already 4 of the trees have been damaged L The Transition Group are starting to work with the schools, so hopefully we can educate how important these trees are for the future.

In summary there is the potential to be just about self-sufficient for food in the event of a severe shortage (Note to all military personnel and politicians – no bombing is required!), but at the moment land is at a premium and out of reach of the majority of the population, gardens are far too small and allotments aren’t meeting demand. The average person has the odds stacked against them to provide any significant amount of food for themselves. The state of New York seems to have far more potential.

This means we need to put a lot more effort into supporting local food production and local businesses, which I think must be a topic for another blog.......


  1. Just come over from Sharon's post. I'm in Wales so I understand where you are coming from. Food can be grown in lots more places than allotments and gardens. Geurilla gardeners are doing in it unused and unloved public places, road verges, gardens in schools, public parks, edges of car parks, hospital grounds. Do you remember when railway stations were reknowned for their beauty and the staff vied for the status of most beautiful station on the line? Why not the most productive one instead? Roof space on blocks of flats? When the car is demoted to it's rightful place the ubiquitous public car park, or the private drive, or the central reservation on roads. Railway sidings. The sides of tow paths by canals. I remember hearing about a therapist asking a patient what his biggest sexual organ was and saying no it wasn't "that", it was his imagination. We will need to use our imagination, to find places to grow stuff, not just wait for the council to give us more allotments.

  2. Thanks for your comment Margaret. This year the theme of RHS Britain in Bloom is 'Edible Britain', encouraging edible gardens in public spaces, so maybe we will see more of your vision coming true!


  3. I arrived via your comment on Sharon's blog as well - I am like you in that our four children have co-opted much of our gardening space - however I am clawing it back! I have made our whole front yard into a garden, and am progressively changing it over from ornamental to edible. We live in Tasmania, which has a tiny population and huge wilderness areas, however, I live in a suburb like most of the rest of the developed world, and have to garden with what I have. I like Margaret's comment about imagination. That is the key to making our future brighter.

  4. Thanks Jo. It is amazing how much can be grown in a small space. Are there any opportunities to cultivate public spaces in Tasmania? Like Margaret said there is so much potential in the UK. I like your blog