On 2 April, the campaign group Population Matters issued their latest Overshoot Index, comparing the difference between what 180 countries produce and consume. In their Facebook post about this, Population Matters say ‘The UK is now in population overshoot by 42 million people (it could only sustain 21 million by its own resources)…’ What they don’t make clear is that this last bit – only 21 million people in a sustainable Britain – is true only if we choose to go on consuming what we consume now. I’m all in favour of people choosing to have fewer children so that we can reduce our population to more sustainable levels, but we could sustain ourselves even as we are now, if we ate differently. But this isn’t an either-or choice between population or consumption: ideally we’ll change both!
In summer 2009 The Land Magazine published an article by Simon Fairlie asking ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?‘:
‘In 1975, the Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby wrote a short book called Can Britain Feed Itself? His answer was yes, if we eat less meat. The way in which he worked it out was simple, almost a back of the envelope job, but it provides a useful template for making similar calculations. In this article I have adapted and embellished Mellanby’s “basic diet” to show how much land modern UK agriculture might require to produce the food we need under six different agricultural regimes — chemical, organic and permacultural, each with or without livestock.’
Simon Fairlie concludes that five of those systems could sustain all of the country’s people, ‘with a more or less comfortable margin’, but that it would be more difficult with organic livestock-based agriculture unless it were done using ‘other traditional and permacultural management practices’ such as ‘feeding livestock upon food wastes and residues; returning human sewage to productive land; dispersal of animals on mixed farms and smallholdings, rather than concentration in large farms; local slaughter and food distribution; managing animals to ensure optimum recuperation of manure; and selecting and managing livestock, especially dairy cows, to be nitrogen providers rather than nitrogen stealers’. He also comments that this would mean more work and a more even distribution of both people and farm animals, and a more localized economy.
In 2010 Colin Tudge also discussed this on the Campaign for Real Farming’s website.
‘Self-reliance does not mean total self-sufficiency and isolationism – the food trade will always be important. But individual countries ideally should import only those crops that in effect are luxuries, and export only what is surplus to home requirements. All trade should of course be fair, bringing real benefits to the producer countries and in particular to the producers. No crop should be traded between regions unless its value is high relative to the environmental costs of its production and transport – so it is reasonable and in principle highly desirable for Britain to import tea, coffee, and bananas. But it is highly undesirable to import French beans from Kenya by jumbo jet to sell in Solihull and Crouch End, or for Europe as a whole to import soya that is grown at the expense of the Amazonian rainforest or the Cerrado, just to bolster its pigs and cattle…’
‘…Whatever the details, Enlightened Agriculture must focus on arable and horticulture, with the livestock slotted in as and when – cattle and sheep feeding mainly on grass, and usually in places where arable is difficult; while pigs and poultry live on leftovers and surpluses. The result is to provide plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety. And here we encounter two wondrous serendipities. First, “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” encapsulates, in nine words, the essence of nutritional theory of the past 30 years; and it also captures the essence of all the great cuisines of the world from Italy via Turkey to China and India. In short, farming that is designed primarily to provide enough, sustainably, also provides us with excellent nutrition and the best possible cooking.’
(The point about trade being in luxuries rather than essentials is also made by other people, such as Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva.)
Sam Henderson of Agrarian Renaissance also wrote on the Farming Futures website how the global food crisis of 2007-2008 ‘… prompted the government to seriously think about food and food policy for the first time in fifty years… with the brightest policy brains in the country deciding for the first time in over a generation that “leave it to the markets” might not be good enough when it comes to making sure we have enough to eat.’
He too concluded ‘we need farming to be based on complex polycultures that mimic and enhance ecosystems, rather than grotesque monocultures that destroy them’.
In a Guardian discussion on self-sufficiency started by Karl Mathiesen in 2014, Peter Melchett of the Soil Association said ‘We could do a great deal to increase more environmentally sustainable food production in the UK. First, and most obviously, we could stop allocating ever increasing areas of farmland to growing maize for anaerobic digestion plants and oil seed rape for fuel. Second, we could increase our production of fruit and vegetables, where relatively small areas of land produce big quantities of food which we currently often import unnecessarily, like apples. Third, we should invest in research, neglected for 70 years, that will help us increase production from farming systems which do not rely on environmentally unsustainable inputs like manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser, imported mined phosphate and pesticides. Fourth, we should increase demand for food produced in the UK.’
If we fly in plant foods from other countries they will of course have a big greenhouse gas footprint, which is why it’s also important to eat locally grown foods, and what could be more local than our own gardens? But as a general rule animal foods can have a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than plant foods, because animals eat plants, so use more land. If animals are not fed outside on pasture or on waste food but are instead kept indoors and fed arable crops then their impact will be much greater. Some animals, especially cattle, also emit large amounts of methane.
In the United Kingdom, food accounts for about a fifth of our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s according to ‘Cooking up a Storm’ by Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, the best source for all information on the links between food and climate.
Search their website for information on meat and its footprint and straightaway there are links to the latest reports with excellent brief summaries. Their headline summary of ‘Prosperous living for the world in 2050: insights from the Global Calculator’, by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Climate-KIC and International Energy Agency, is ‘UK Department of Energy & Climate Change’s new report say eating less meat is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change‘.
That’s because the Food Climate Research Network is about food and climate, but in their summary they also mention the report’s other recommendations, such as getting our electricity and heating from renewables, and using land more sustainably, especially protecting and increasing woodland.
But this report is not alone. The LiveWell project is about connecting healthy eating with sustainable food production in Europe. The six LiveWell guidelines start with ‘Eat more plants’ and include ‘Moderate your meat consumption’. For some bizarre reason (are they aiming to reach only policy-makers rather than all of us?) the Livewell website doesn’t show their ‘Livewell plate’ anywhere, and to see it, and compare it with our current diets or other recommendations (such as Britain’s ‘Eatwell plate’) you have to download one of the publications. For people in Britain, try Duncan Williamson’s ‘Livewell: Healthy people, healthy planet‘. (For France, Spain and Sweden, try here.)
In the United Kingdom, about a fifth of what we eat is classed as ‘protein-rich foods’ such as meat, fish, eggs, beans and nuts, and only about a quarter or a fifth is fruit and vegetables. The ‘Eatwell plate’ suggests this should be more like an eighth (12%) ‘protein-rich foods’ and a third (33%) fruit and veg. The Livewell plate gives a similar figure for fruit and veg (35%) but breaks down the ‘protein-rich foods’ so that half is from plants and half from animals: 4% meat, 3% fish, 1% eggs, 4% beans and 4% nuts.
In the United States, the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate is similar, but they reduce the amount of dairy produce from the Eatwell and Livewell’s 15% to almost nothing, and they increase the fruit and vegetables to half, with more vegetables (35%) than fruit (15%).
Whatever the source of the advice to eat less animal food and eat more plant food, the reality is we’re not all going to become vegans overnight, and anyway the point is to reduce the average amount of meat and other animal produce per person.
And there are even some good environmental reasons for keeping some farm animals. And no, I don’t mean ‘we need animal manure for fertiliser’, because we don’t: we can keep our soils healthy using plants (and anyway we don’t use enough of the most obvious source of animal manure – what comes out of us humans, who are after all animals too). Nor do I mean ‘we need to eat animals for protein’, because we don’t: all animal protein is made from plant protein, and we can get all our food needs met by plants, if we want to. The reasons are a bit more subtle than these omnivore myths.
One of Simon Fairlie’s reasons for keeping farm animals is that they can turn waste food and farm waste into food we can eat, a good permaculture principle which is also found in cradle-to-cradle design: ‘waste equals food’.
But we also need animals to graze some important wildlife habitats, like species-rich grassland and heathland and moorland, and why shouldn’t those animals be animals we can eat? If we look after farm animals well on pasture (instead of keeping them trapped in big sheds and feeding them on arable crops) then they can be the ‘benign extravagance‘ that Simon Fairlie describes, and they can make sure we have beautiful landscapes full of wildlife.
When it comes to fish, marine biologist Callum Roberts in ‘Ocean of Life‘ quotes what nutritionists around the world say about how much fish we should eat. The United Kingdom figure is 280 grams a week. ‘Averaged across the world, we are told we should eat about 260 grams of fish and shellfish every week, an amount nearly double the availability from wild fish catches. There isn’t enough wild fish to go round.’ He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat any wild seafood, but that we should change the way we treat the ocean. He makes many recommendations, including marine conservation zones, on how to help marine life recover and make our fishing sustainable in ‘The Unnatural History of the Sea‘, and says we might then even be able to eat more fish than we do now.
I’ve tried doing my own version of Kenneth Mellanby’s and Simon Fairlie’s back-of-the-envelope calculations for the chapter of my book on a possible climate-friendly Britain. I recommend this kind of creative playing around – it’s great fun as well as thought-provoking. I managed to produce, in my own spreadsheet-fuelled imagination at least, a Britain with more woods, more orchards, more ponds, and more wildlife habitats, and a diet that was most like the Livewell Plate with a bit of the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate: lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, plenty of staple cereals and potatoes, lots of nuts and some beans, and with some meat from free-range animals in fields with plenty of trees and hedges, and some fish from ponds.
So yes, although it will mean making some changes in the ways we eat and the ways we grow our food, we can grow our own food and be climate-friendly.
But that’s not what we’re doing now. After ‘Cooking up a Storm’, the Food Climate Research Network and Worldwide Fund for Nature did a follow-up report in 2010: ‘How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050‘.
They came to four main conclusions:
yes, food contributes about a fifth of the United Kingdom’s greenhouse gas footprint;
meat and other animal produce are a major contributor to our greenhouse gases;
but there isn’t a single solution – reducing our meat consumption won’t be enough to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint;
and when we consider not just our own land use but the land elsewhere in the world which we use to feed ourselves, then our food contributes about a third of our greenhouse gas impacts.
So should we aim to grow more or even all of our own food? I agree with Colin Tudge and Vandana Shiva on this: we should grow our own staple foods, and trade fairly only in luxuries.
That’s also the view of William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel: ‘…it is possible to conceive of ecologically sound and balanced trade. If each nation were to export only true surpluses – output in excess of local consumption whose export would not deplete self-producing natural capital stocks – then the net effect would be an ecological steady-state and global stability.’ And where does that quote from, but ‘Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth’, by the very people who invented the very idea of the ecological footprint.