Food Security

Today, food security is increasingly at the top of the political agenda - driven by high oil prices, poor harvests, the impacts of biofuel cultivation, and higher demand from countries like China and India.

Pic: By permission of Jaine Rose - see more at:
Many countries are vulnerable to food shortages because of a dependence on imports. The UK, for example, currently relies on imports to provide almost one third of food consumed, giving us one of the lowest self-sufficiency rates in the EU.

Our global food system is staggeringly inefficient and heavily dependent upon oil, at a time when the production of energy from fossil fuels is on the decline. So not only is the dependence on imports damaging for national food security and harmful to the environment, it is simply unsustainable.”

Many consider the intensive, industrialised agriculture could be playing a role in spreading disease. Avian flu outbreaks, for example, have shown the extent to which the export-oriented corporate model of poultry production may be responsible for the spreading of strains such as H5N1. A re-localisation of our food systems would allow us take back control of our food from industrialists and financiers, and to feed a growing population in a way that is equitable and sustainable, while safeguarding human health, as well as the welfare of animals and the environment.

Transition Stroud has a vision of healthier citizens, where everyone has access to a good diet, of thriving local farmers, reinvigorated rural economies and communities, and a cleaner, safer environment. The more food we can grow in our gardens, allotments and other community gardens the less we will rely on imports and fossil fuels.

Below is an article sent to a local magazine on this issue.

Potato Day comes to Stroud - growing food matters

On Saturday 5th February Transition Stroud is planning to celebrate the rich diversity of the potato and encourage more folk to grow their own by selling many varieties of seed potatoes in Stroud.

But we are also hoping to highlight the issue of food security. This is an issue we will all be hearing more about as oil prices climb, harvests suffer from the changing climate, biofuel cultivation replaces food crops,
the role of food commodity derivatives continue to destabilise prices and demand increases from countries like China and India. Rising food prices have already led to rioting in some countries while others have stopped exporting staples because their own populations were going hungry.

About 40% of the food we eat is imported. That includes 95% of our fruit and most of the wheat in our bread. In the 2000 fuel strike, the Sainsbury’s chief executive wrote to the prime minister to warn that food supplies would run out “in days rather than weeks”. We saw supermarkets ration bread, sugar and milk. The situation is now worse: world food reserves are at historically low levels. It seems clear that not only is our dependence on imports damaging for national food security and harmful to the environment, it is simply unsustainable.

We have become dependent on fossil fuels that are starting to run out. Modern farming is particularly reliant on fossil fuel-derived fertilisers, pesticides and energy-intensive distribution. But at last awareness is growing. In 2008 a report from the Cabinet Office concluded that “existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future”.

In Stroud we are fortunate to have a number of innovative food projects like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme, through which nearly 200 householders fund a farmer to supply food to them directly. Stroud’s award-winning Farmers’ Market is one of the UK’s busiest and most popular markets with 50 stalls every Saturday.

We have also completed a comprehensive analysis into whether or not the district could feed itself (i). The report by Fi Macmillan and Dave Cockcroft was inspired by an article in The Land magazine, Can Britain Feed Itself?, written by Simon Fairlie (ii). The Stroud report looked at whether 110,000 people living in Stroud district could be fed if they relied on the available farmland. The answer was yes, though only if people reduce their meat intake to a quarter of the current UK average of 80 kgs per person per year, and significantly reduce their sugar intake. There would also be some surplus with which to trade for items like tea and coffee. However the report concludes: “We have nowhere near enough land to produce a significant proportion of our current level of transport and heating fuels.” Of course none of that takes account of cities like Gloucester and Bristol and their impact.

There is no question that there are serious challenges ahead. Indeed the current economic climate is already leading to important changes like cutting some of the 8.3 million tonnes of food that is wasted every year, moves to less meat, processed goods and other energy-intensive food and of course more people are growing their own. Many allotments are over-subscribed and new sites are springing up. Locally we've just negotiated a deal where a farmer rents a small area to the Parish Council for some new allotments (see picture of article author on new allotment site). Orchards are also coming back: in Stroud we now have several new community orchards. But we also need to better engage with local farmers.

But back to potatoes. Building on campaigns like last years' Garden Organic's One Pot Pledge we are hoping to encourage more people to try growing vegetables. And what better way to start than with the potato and celebrate some of the 5,000 different varieties that are found around the world. Around the country in January and February there will be other potato days: look out in your local press or start one yourself?

See more about the day at:

Cheltenham will also be celebrating Potato Day in style at Dundry Nurseries on 22nd and 23rd January 2011.

Philip Booth is coordinator of the Stroud Potato Day, a Green party Stroud District councillor and member of Transition Stroud that seeks ways to respond to the challenges, and opportunities, of Climate Change and oil that is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to extract.


(i) Food Availability in Stroud District

fimacSee the report by Fi MacMillan (pictured) and Dave Cockcroft entitled: "Food Availability in Stroud District". The report was presented to the Positive Futures conference in Liverpool. See quick view here.

‘existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource constrained-future’ Food: an analysis of the issues. Cabinet Office 2008
This document examines the impacts of climate change and peak oil on food availability in Stroud District. It sets out actions which can be taken to address vulnerabilities in food supply and harness new opportunities for the district. Stroud District has 110,000 inhabitants. Nationally, 80% of our food is bought through major supermarkets. Local food accounts for 1.5% of national food consumption, including that distributed by supermarkets. That is likely to be reflected locally.

In the district farming is centred around beef, dairy and sheep production. There are 356 farms, covering 37,000 hectares of land and employing 1,700 people in full and part-time jobs. The production of grains and other carbohydrates is not strong in Stroud District. Livestock feed requires large quantities of grain. Some vegetables and fruit are produced in this district. Food prices and availability are closely coupled with oil prices as 95% of our food is dependent on oil through energy-intensive agriculture and food supply chains, from fertiliser and fuel to distribution and retailing.

Climate change brings further uncertainty to difficult trading conditions for farmers. Varying temperature and rainfall bring new challenges, along with freak weather events and rising sea-levels. Food availability in Stroud is affected by global issues. 40% of our food is imported, and even 25% of indigenous foods are imported. Most of our bread wheat comes from the US. 95% of our fruit is imported. Food prices are coupled with global oil and gas prices. Economic downturn, linked to world markets, affects food-purchasing decisions especially by the least well-off in Stroud District.

Reducing the energy intensity of our food chain in Stroud District meets the agenda to cut carbon emissions and develop resilience to energy scarcity. Given climate change and peak oil, we cannot determine what imports are available to us here in the future. However we can affect what can be grown in our district, and what links we have with other regions with their particular agricultural capacity.

Local food does not solve issues of food security. However it creates a more resilient food chain in Stroud district and consuming local food creates a multiplier effect in the local economy, supporting jobs and creating community viability. Developing local food production capacity is one of the ways to optimise food availability in the future.

There is considerable interest in re-localisation of food in Stroud District with two established community-supported agriculture projects, an award- winning Farmers’ Market in Stroud, a co-operative allotment project and nascent food distribution hub for local producers.

Opportunities exist to create more join-up between producers and consumers, making use of two local centres of excellence at the RoyalAgricultural College in Cirencester and Hartpury College (University of the West of England) near Gloucester. Local farmers need more information about the implications of climate change and peak oil, as well as engagement from the community about how we can work best together.

The potential for local food might be brought together by a local steering group which represents the interests of groups along the food supply chain. Such a group might, for example, assess the benefits of food distribution hubs and a single marketing desk to link producers and public sector food procurement. In addition, our diverse local food initiatives in Stroud District need further support to link the energy of community volunteers and the grant bodies which might make their work more sustainable.

(ii) ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?’ By Simon Fairlie (as referred to in BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme) (issue 4)

Other resources

Fueling a Food Crisis: An analysis of the true energy costs of our food production. By Caroline Lucas, Andy Jones and Colin Hines. See here.

Food Security and Infectious diseases. See here report and video of British Science Festival, September 2010.

Defra's report into Food Security, August 2009. See here.

The Great Hunger Lottery: See WDM report about how banking speculation causes the food crisis here.