Diversity and the resilience of the UK food system

Contributor: Will Bugler

Feeding a growing population is one of the world’s greatest challenges. But food systems in the UK and in other developed nations like it are expected to do far more than merely provide requisite nutrition to the population. Items that once were only the preserve of niche delicatessens are now commonplace on supermarket shelves; Porcini mushroom and truffle oil risotto? I’m just off to Morrison’s.

The resilience of our food system depends as much on what we expect from it as it does on other factors such as international trade, oil dependency and species diversity. In a guest contribution for Get Resilient, Deborah Frieze wrote about the perils of an oil-dependent food supply. She cites Cuba as an example of a country whose food system was starved of oil (due to the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s) and was forced to undergo an almost overnight restructuring in order to feed the population. Renowned US permaculturist Toby Hemenway posits that the very same example, Cuba, shows the extraordinary resilience of the food system. While other things might fail, he says, the food system will be kept alive through pure necessity.

There are many reasons why, in fact, the UK food system may be one of the last systems to fail completely: Compared to other systems it is one of the least complex, there is enough land to feed the population, we currently consume more calories than we need, and the government would do anything in its power to ensure that it can feed the electorate. But moving away from an oil-based food system would require wholesale changes in the way we live. Although the food system may not collapse entirely, many questions remain over how painful a dramatic restructuring would be.

The UK is not Cuba. Over 90% of UK the population is urban, the majority of whom have little idea about how to grow their own food. In order to preserve the food system, think about what we would have to forgo; how many other systems would fail in order that sufficient energy could be put into growing food? The largely serviced-based UK economy would not be able to be sustained should a massive shift in manpower to food production be required. A collapse of the food system like that seen in Cuba would certainly lead to economic collapse, but it may also result in a breakdown in the social fabric. The riots that plagued London and other British cities last summer, showed just how volatile our cities can be. The reasons for last year’s riots remain unclear but it is not unreasonable to assume that major food shortages would be more than enough of a catalyst.

It makes sense that the best way to avoid a situation of breakdown is to undertake a managed transition to a resilient food system. It is also clear that the highest goal of such a system cannot simply be to that it is not in imminent danger of total collapse. In the US, the world’s single largest economy, the United States, ‘Food insecurity’ stood at 14.5% (almost 45 million people) in 2010; that with their food system apparently far from collapse. We must design a system that is able to feed the population sustainably and do this while supporting other economic activity.

The food-system in its current form is spectacularly un-resilient for a number of reasons;

1)      It is almost entirely reliant on oil. From fertilizers to pesticides and insecticides, to heavy machinery, to transportation to processing, to packaging, to refrigeration, to cooking; our food system is overwhelmingly driven by a single, non-renewable resource with no easy substitute. It is estimated that UK imports of food products and animal feed involved transportation by sea, air and road amounted to over 83 billion tonne-kilometres. This required 1.6 billion litres of fuel and, based on a conservative figure of 50 grams of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre resulted in 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Within the UK, the amount of food transported increased by 16% and the distances travelled by 50% between 1978 and 1999 (Post Carbon Institute, 2005).

2)      It is financialised. Bill Clinton said that not doing more to stop financial speculation on food prices was one of his biggest regrets. It has added an artificial layer of complexity, affecting market prices of staple foods not according to traditional principles of supply and demand, but through betting on rises and falls.

3)      Production and consumption are far removed. Our highly mechanised food system is geographically removed from the points of consumption, food must travel large distances to reach the point where demand is highest.

4)      A widening knowledge gap. The separation of food production from most people’s lives has meant that there is a widening gap in knowledge of how to produce food. Defra figures show that, in all, about 60% of fruit and vegetables we eat are imported to the UK.

5)      It is wasteful. Resilience and sustainability are undermined by waste. We throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food from our homes every year in the UK accounting for almost one-third of all household waste.

6)      Shrinking species diversity. Diversity is an important characteristic of resilient systems as it allows some parts to fail without causing the whole system to stop working.  Many scientists have said that the world has entered a period of mass extinction with global biodiversity loss estimated to be running at 1000 x the ‘background’ (or ‘natural’) rate. The Great Famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century was, in part caused by overreliance on a single potato variety. When the ‘Lumper’ potato was decimated by blight the resulting famine killed an estimated 1 million people and forced many more to emigrate. The diagram below shows how there has been a vast reduction in available varieties of some common fruit and vegetables since industrialised agriculture became established. Such a reduction in species diversity leaves the food system more susceptible to shocks such as diseases and extreme weather events.

Creating a food system that is resilient, sustainable and supports a wide variety of economic activities is a considerable challenge. Achieving this will mean not only learning the lessons from Cuba but improving on them where possible. Currently, the UK has some big advantages when compared to the situation that Cuba faced in the early 90s:

–          Our economy is stronger and we could employ more modern technology that provides energy from renewable resources;

–          We can use our close ties with other large economies in a way that Cuba was unable to, and importantly,

–          We can learn from Cuba’s mistakes and take advantage of innovations such as bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides that have been developed there.

But possibly the single biggest advantage that the UK has over Cuba, is that the food system there collapsed before they were forced to take action. The UK and other developed economies are blessed with both the capacity to adapt and the knowledge of how to achieve the transition. But, like with so many things, it appears to be the will that is in short supply.

To learn more about Cuba’s response to food-system collapse watch the film ‘Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil’.

Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.

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