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Local Food and Relocalisation: a Totnes case study: a section from my forthcoming thesis…

I am hopefully now only days from handing in the PhD I have been doing, the closing stages of a gruelling marathon. I posted a couple of weeks ago the contents and the layout of the thesis, which is called ‘Localisation and Resilience at the Local Level: the case of Transition Town Totnes (Devon, UK)’. I thought you might like to see a section of it, to give you a flavour. Apologies to regular readers that this is written in a far more academic style than you might be used to here, but hopefully you will find it useful and relevant. It comes from a section looking at the relocalisation of food, and draws from the different research I did. I am importing this from Word, so some of the formatting might go a little weird….

5.4. Food: Can Totnes Feed Itself?

“… to draw in our economic boundaries and shorten our supply lines so as to permit us literally to know where we are economically. The closer we live to the ground that we live from, the more we will know about our economic life; the more we know about our economic life; the more able we will be to take responsibility for it” (Berry 2010:35)

5.4.1. Introduction

Sections 5.4-5.7 now explore the practical application of the concept of intentional localisation, starting with food, then moving to building materials, and then energy and transportation. What degree of localisation is possible, and what degree is, in fact desirable. 5.4 starts by looking at food, the most fundamental of the four. Of the four, food is the one people are most familiar discussing in the context of localisation. 5.4 therefore explores the question of the practicalities of relocalisation in the greatest depth, in order to draw comparisons across to the other areas of study.

5.4.2. Conceptualising Local Food Systems

Few areas of modern life are debated as vigorously as the food system. There are those who argue that the globalisation of the food system stimulates competition and results in cheaper food and wider choice. This view was summed up by former DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett (2006:unpaginated), who told a 2006 conference;

“…it is freer trade in agriculture which is key to ensuring security of supply in an integrating world. It allows producers to respond to global supply and demand signals, and enables countries to source food from the global market in the event of climatic disaster or animal disease in a particular part of the world. …it is trade liberalisation which will bring the prosperity and economic interdependency that underpins genuine long term global security”.

Conversely, there are also those (Schlosser 2002, Heinberg & Bomford 2009) who argue that our food system is becoming steadily less resilient. The UK government’s take on food security is moving more in the direction of taking national food security seriously as an issue. In 2003, DEFRA argued that “national food security is neither necessary, nor is it desirable” (DEFRA 2003:unpaginated). This perspective had begun to change by 2008, when a Cabinet Office Strategy Unit (Cabinet Office 2008) analysis of food issues argued that “existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future”. DEFRA’s ‘Food 2030’ report (DEFRA 2010b:7) set out its vision for the future of the nation’s food and farming in 2030 thus

  • Consumers are informed, can choose and afford healthy, sustainable food. This demand is met by profitable, competitive, highly skilled and resilient farming, fishing and food businesses, supported by first class research and development.
    • Food is produced, processed, and distributed, to feed a growing global population in ways which:
      • use global natural resources sustainably
      • enable the continuing provision of the benefits and services a healthy natural environment provides
      • promote high standards of animal health and welfare
      • protect food safety
      • make a significant contribution to rural communities, and
      • allow us to show global leadership on food sustainability
    • Our food security is ensured through strong UK agriculture and food sectors and international trade links with EU and global partners, which support developing economies.

However, the gulf between the more localised food system of the 1950s, still with its roots in the ‘Dig for Victory’ culture of World War Two (Viljoen 2005, Kynaston 2007), (more intimately revealed in the oral histories featured in the following quotes, the first offering a sense of what a small proportion of food consumed was imported), and just-in-time, carbon intensive, long supply chain supermarkets (Hendrickson & Heffernan 2002) remains profound.

“Looking back, practically all our food came from this area. We had a couple of house pigs that ate the rubbish. A local chap would come by, cut their throats and cut them up, and make bacon and hams. We used to preserve it in saltpetre, the wives would make a salt solution and baste it every 2 days, then it was put up on hooks in the dairy to dry. I still have the hooks out there now. I suppose we might have had an orange on very special occasions. Our main meal was lunch, not supper, if the husband worked at home. Evening meals were a professionals’ thing. Lunch was normally roast beef, mutton, hot or cold. Hot or cold chicken, stews, potatoes and veg, peas and beans, potatoes baked or boiled. We ate meat every day, hot or cold, depending on how the husband and wife were getting on! For tea we had bread and butter, jam and cream. For breakfast it was bacon and eggs. Supper was just a snack meal, bits and pieces of what you liked. For fruit we had apples, pears and plums. Apples could be kept all year round. They were kept in a cellar under the house. Certain kinds of pears could be kept. We had greengages and plums; we usually made those into jams”.

Oral History Quote 5.1. A Local Diet in Staverton in the 1940s. (Source: author’s oral history interview with Douglas Matthews).

The major trends in food of the past few decades include the intensification of agriculture, accompanied by a concentration in the control of agricultural inputs, and a trend to larger farm sizes with hired labour globally, accompanied by increasing fragmentation among marginalised smallholders (Wilson 2007, Eriksen 2008), and globally agriculture is coming up against the pressures arising from increasing demand as well as the stresses caused by soil degradation, over-fishing, water constraints and the increasing impacts of climate change (Godfray et al. 2010). These have been accompanied by increasing concerns over the economic dominance of large corporate interests (Shiva 1998, Pollan 2007, Lawrence 2008) and increased energy use in agricultural systems and food processing (Matson et al. 1997, Pfeiffer 2006).

One study at Cornell University showed that in the mid-1990s the US used over 100 billion barrels of oil per year to manufacture food (Morgan 2008), and in the UK, the average distance travelled by food items is 5000 miles from field to plate (Pretty et al. 2005). A study by Simil (1999) estimated that in the absence of nitrogen fertiliser, currently produced from natural gas and itself a resource with a depletion profile similar to that of oil (Darley 2004), no more than 48% of today’s population could be fed at the inadequate per capita level of 1900. In the context of peak oil and climate change, the oil dependency of intensive agriculture is not sustainable, plus as Hirsch (2005) argued, the move from oil dependent systems to oil independent ones requires time, intentional design and focused effort.

In recent years farming has decreased in its perceived significance, and is no longer the dominant economic activity in the overall food system (Eriksen 2008). The disconnect between communities and the source of their food has grown markedly. As Hendrickson and Heffernan (2002:349) put it, “as people foster relationships with those who are no longer in their locale, distant others can structure the shape and use of the locale, a problem that is being explicitly rejected by those involved in local food system movements across the globe”. As Morgan & Sonnino (2008:7) identified, “scientists and policymakers alike are beginning to realise that food systems hold the potential to deliver the wider objectives of sustainable development – economic development, democracy and environmental integration”.

For some, the concept of food relocalisation is central to notions of food security (Pothukuchi 2004), and also to the very notion of sustainability in relation to food. Terms such as ‘local food’, ‘food localisation’ and ‘relocalisation’ are used in the literature almost interchangeably. For Peters et al. (2008:2) they all share the concept of “increasing reliance on foods produced near their point of consumption relative to the modern food system”. For Seyfang (2008:5) defining local food is a straightforward matter: “localisation of food supply chains means simply that food should be consumed as close to the point of origin as possible”. Kloppenburg (2000:18) argued that a sustainable food system embodies a deeper and more far-reaching transformation: “locally grown food, regional trading associations, locally owned processing, local currency, and local control over politics and regulation”, some of the themes explored later in this study. The idea that food relocalisation will by necessity lead to more sustainable farming practices is also put forward by Renting et al. (2003:398) who believe that “a ‘shortening’ of relations between food production and locality, potentially [configures] a reembedding of farming towards more environmentally sustainable modes of production”. For Feenstra (1997:28) “the development of a local sustainable food system not only provides economic gains for a community, but also fosters civic involvement, cooperation and healthy social relations”. However, DuPuis and Goodman (2005:369) warned against what they called the “reification” of the local, arguing for the need to make localism “an open, process-based vision, rather than a fixed set of standards”. The danger of local food becoming an exclusive, middle-class niche is, they argue, very real, a charge already levelled by some at organic food. Former Minister David Miliband dismissed the health benefits of organic food and described it as a “lifestyle choice” (Jowitt 2010:unpaginated).

But what geographical and spatial form might a relocalised food system take? Kloppenburg, drawing from the earlier concepts of the bioregional movement (i.e. Sale 1993) and Getz (1991) conceptualised the notion of a ‘foodshed’, defined by Peters et.al (2008:2) as “the geographic area from which a population derives its food supply”, and perceived these as hybrid social and natural constructs (Feagan 2007:26). The foodshed is linked conceptually to the watershed. Kloppenburg et al. (1996:34) stated “how better to grasp the shape and the unity of something as complex as a food system than to graphically imagine the flow of food into a particular place?”

For some, the foodshed concept has much to recommend it. Starr et al. (2003:303) believed that “foodsheds embed the system in a moral economy attached to a particular community and place, just as watersheds reattach water systems to a natural ecology”. At the time of writing, much of the literature about foodsheds is conceptual, little has been written that explores the actual practicalities and potential obstacles of such a degree of intentional relocalisation. A report associated with the preparation of this study has been published (Hopkins et al. 2009), entitled “Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ which set out to explore the potential of the local landbase to support the local population. This built on Mellanby’s (1975) initial study which asked the same question on a national scale, and Fairlie’s (2008) subsequent update. It also takes, by way of answering the question of what form of agriculture would be most appropriate within these foodsheds, Tudge’s (2003:357) model for a localised, what he called ‘Enlightened’, agriculture:

“The general answer (by and large) is to give the best, most suitable land to pulses, cereals and tubers (that is, to arable farming); to fit horticulture in every spare pocket – and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on it, and to invest capital for example in greenhouses; to allow the livestock to slot in as best it can …. in short, farms in general should be mixed: even the most committedly arable areas would in general benefit from at least some livestock, as all traditional farmers knew … the areas that are truly marginal – too high, too steep, too rocky, too dry, too wet – can be ideal for ruminants, notably sheep and cattle … some cereal and pulse can be grown expressly for livestock – but in general, only enough to keep them going through the winter, so they can make better use of the grazing in the summer”.

Tudge’s exhortation to “fit horticulture in every spare pocket – and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on it, and to invest capital for example in greenhouses” was a fact of daily life in Totnes until 1980, with the presence of three working market gardens within the town, as described in Oral History Quote 5.2.

Gills Nursery was one of three market gardens in the town (Heath’s and Phillips being the others). The nursery was run by Jack Gill until 1973, when his son Ken took over, who managed it until the nursery closed in 1981. Running a series of glasshouses which were kept warm all year round required a lot of energy. Initially they were heated using coke, which required 10 tons a year, but they later moved to the less labour intensive oil, necessitating the burning of 2000 gallons of oil a year in order to generate sufficient warmth. The site behind the shop was not the only site Gills managed. They also had a site on Harpers’ Hill, where they grew potatoes and sprouts, and one on North Street, where, Ken recalls, “we grew raspberries, in spite of it being north-facing, somehow it was warm enough for raspberries”. Later they also acquired a 3½ acre site beside the bypass, which was used for field scale vegetable production. The main nursery was kept fertilised with manure from their own pigs topped up with manure from a local farmer. “We had no complaints with our fertility”, he told me, “one year we grew 20,000 lettuces”, an extraordinary output from a small piece of ground. Running a market garden and a shop was hard work. Ken Gill recalls working 12-14 hour days, seven days a week during the summer months, and David Heath describes his father’s choice of career as ‘bloody hard work’. Unlike Heath’s, the closure of which was forced by retirement, Gill’s was driven to close by a less predictable challenge. “A Highways engineer from Devon County Council came into one of the greenhouses one day, and told me and my father “you won’t be picking many more tomatoes here, we’re going to build a road through the place”. Although the proposed road linking South Street and the newly built Heath’s Way was never built (part of the road building phase which saw Heath’s Nursery opened up), it created enough uncertainty, hanging in the air as a possibility for at least 10 years, that when Jack Gill died, it fell to his son, Ken, to decide whether or not to invest in modernising and expanding the Nursery. Given the degree of uncertainty, he decided it would be unwise, and the nursery was slowly wound down.

Oral History Quote 5.2. Gills Nursery, an urban market garden in the centre of Totnes: (Source: author’s oral history interview with Ken Gill).

5.4.3. Empirical Modelling of Local Food Systems

Within the Transition movement, a few initiatives other than Totnes have made attempts at answering this question using a variety of approaches, such as Norwich (Transition Norwich 2009), Frome (Sustainable Frome 2009) and Stroud (Transition Stroud 2008), which in turn pick up on earlier work which explored the ability of different regions of the world to feed themselves under various future scenarios (Penning de Vries et al. 1995, WRR 1995). What such studies have in common, argued Cowell & Parkinson (2003:223), is that they are “based on a belief that regional self-sufficiency of food production and consumption is more likely to increase the food security of individuals than a globalised food system”. Food security, it is increasingly argued is decreased as the cheap oil that enables our current concept of food security becomes increasingly scarce or subject to volatile prices (Hopkins 2008, Heinberg & Bomford 2009). The hypothesis explored here, and in the Totnes paper, was that, provided diets were changed to feature predominantly seasonal local produce, less meat, and more grains and pulses (as set out in Fairlie 2008), Totnes and district would be able to produce the bulk of its food requirements, while still being able to export some produce. It is important here to make the point, as did Hendrickson and Heffernan (2002:361) that localisation does not refer to self sufficiency: “These alternatives”, they wrote, “require a notion of community self-reliance, rather than either dependency or self-sufficiency”, which echoes the concept from resilience science of modularity (Walker and Salt 2006). Tudge (2003:378) reinforced this point, arguing that self reliance ought to become a general principle for global agriculture:

“… it makes sense on all levels – ecological, nutritional, gastronomic, financial, social and strategic – for almost all countries in the world to become self-reliant in food. Most are perfectly well able to do so. ‘Self-reliance’ simply means that each country should strive to produce all the basic foods that it needs, so that it could feed its own people in a crisis, notably in times of political or economic blockade. It stops short of total self-sufficiency, which implies that a country produces absolutely all of its own food, including the kinds that it cannot easily grow at home in open fields”.

Using GIS mapping technology developed by Geofutures in Bath, ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’ defined its area of study as being the Totnes and District boundary as defined by the Market and Coastal Towns Initiative. This boundary choice combines some useful and some arbitrary elements (see Figure 4.1.). Aside from its northern boundary, it reflects the town’s original market town catchment, the boundary within which growers would choose Totnes as the market town of choice and convenience, reflecting Kloppenberg et al.’s (1996:34) earlier description of a foodshed as allowing one to “graphically imagine the flow of food into a particular place”. In this regard, as a ‘foodshed’ it encapsulates the catchment from which the bulk of the town’s diet would have ‘flowed’ into Totnes town.

The northern boundary is that of SHDC so is an artificial political boundary. The area was also the area boundary when Totnes was a Borough, which as Chapter 6 will explore, may yet prove to be a more suitable political model for relocalisation. Although the Totnes and District boundary is not perfect as a foodshed, or as a bioregion, the fact that, in the main, it reflects the historical boundaries of a more localised market town catchment, makes it useful for this analysis. The question of what is ‘local’ in a geographic sense, has been the subject of much debate. Hinrichs (2003:6) observed that the ‘local’ is not neat or easy to define: “specific social or environmental relations do not always map predictably and consistently onto the spatial relation”. For Feagan (2007:34), local food systems “must bear in mind with respect to spatially bound concepts like foodsheds, that the types of food grown, how it is grown, where it is grown, by whom and according to what sorts of cultural, social and economic needs are tied, in complex and somewhat indiscernible ways, to sociocultural factors at the macro economic and political levels”, which in turn links back to DuPuis & Goodman’s (2005) notion of ‘reflexive’ localism. In the Totnes and district context, the study focused purely on the physical ability of the area to meet its food needs, without also looking at the other elements necessary to a reflexive localism, although this is not to dismiss their importance.


Figure 5.1. Food footprints of settlements in the South West of England with a population of over 800, note location of Totnes and district (Source: Hopkins et al. 2009)

The study analysed land use types, and current levels of productivity, from the most recent data available from DEFRA in 2004. Initially it looked at Totnes in relation to other settlements with populations of over 800 in the South West, mapping their ‘food footprints’ and how these overlap (Figure 5.1.). This process confirmed McCullum et al.’s (2005:278) observation that “food systems operate and interact at multiple levels, including community, municipal, regional, national and global”. The overlaps in the case of Totnes were with the food footprint of Torbay from the east, and Plymouth from the west, highlighting how locations cannot conceptualise food security in isolation from their relationships with neighbouring settlements.


Figure 5.2. The Growing Communities Food Zone Diagram. (Brown 2009)

The paper then looked at the ‘food zones’ model developed by Julie Brown (Pinkerton & Hopkins 2009) at the Growing Communities project in London (Figure 5.3.), which attempted to define the percentages of food that a low carbon London might be able to produce for itself, how much it would need to import, and from what distances. This ‘dartboard’ approach is stylised, but still gives some insights into what proportion of food production could be more locally produced. It raises the question of what percentage of imports might be feasible in a more localised model. The Fife Diet initiative in Scotland[1] aims to support people eating a more local diet. It promotes an 80% local diet, the remainder imported. When asked where this ratio had come from, Fife Diet founder Mike Small replied:

“It was about saying we didn’t want the eat local movement to be a parochial retreat inwards because we believe that eating locally is an act of solidarity with the developing world in terms of climate change and climate justice. We wanted to show solidarity by buying stuff that we just couldn’t get here. We also wanted tactically to say to people “look this isn’t too scary – you can do this!” Of course people say they couldn’t give up things like bananas or chocolate or red wine. 80-20 make it seem less scary, that’s the thinking behind it” (Small 2009:pers.int).

Julie Brown of Growing Communities, who created Figure 5.2, also advocates an 80/20% ration (but as a UK produced/imported ratio), but is less clear about why that figure was chosen, emphasising the work-in-progress nature of this debate:

“Its a hypothesis, and it needs proving. It’s an aspiration. It feels right. Broadly speaking, in terms of what we’re sourcing for our box schemes, which is all fruit and veg, that’s what we manage to do, but we’re playing around with that. I am struggling with how we measure this” (Brown 2010:pers.int).


Figure 5.3. Composite Foodsheds for the four largest settlements in Totnes and District, showing how they do not accord with the ‘foodzones’ model (Source: Hopkins et al. 2009)

In the Totnes study, the findings of overlaying food demand on top of the available soil types are shown in Figures 5.3. and 5.4. The conclusion drawn was that the area could feed itself in most of its key food needs, although not all on land immediately adjoining the town. Some staples, such as lamb, would need to come from further afield, as appropriate soil types do not exist close to the town. Questions were also raised about the need to also address changes in climate, the kind of diet that could be supported, and so on. What was clear was that much of what is currently considered to be available ‘local food’ tends to be seasonal vegetables and high value speciality foods, while bulk carbohydrates, in particular wheat and other grains, are grown at a considerable distance from the area.


Figure 5.4. Foodsheds for the four largest settlements in Totnes and District, broken down into agricultural production types (Hopkins et al. 2009)

At this point the question arises as to how local is ‘local’ food? Peters et al. (2008:2) argued that, in relation to food, ‘local’ refers to “the concept of increasing reliance on foods produced near their point of consumption relative to the modern food system”. For Hinrichs (2003:34) it is “a banner under which people attempt to counteract trends of economic concentration, social disempowerment, and environmental degradation in the food and agricultural landscape”. The question of what is ‘local’ in relation to the Totnes and district food system is clearly important to this discussion. To what extent does peoples’ sense of ‘local’ overlap with the tentative ‘foodshed’ identified above? The survey found that 40% felt that for food to be considered local it would need to have been produced within 10 miles of Totnes (see Table 5.2. below).

Oral history interviews conducted for this thesis showed that historically, the bulk of food consumed within the area would have been sourced from within the Totnes and district boundary, which is around 10 miles at its farthest from Totnes. Val Price, one of the interviewees, recalled the first time she became aware of the idea that food was something that could actually come from further than the local area, when in the early 1950s she was asked to do a school project which involved collecting the paper sheets that oranges came wrapped in at that time and compile a list of where they had come from. Until that point the idea had never occurred to her that food came from anywhere outside the local area. Andy Langford relates (see Oral History Quote 5.3.) how much more the casual work then available on farms was a part of young peoples’ lives, especially during the summer.

Andy Langford recalled picking up lots of casual work on local farms from the age of 13 onwards. In the late 1960s there were “lots of small family farms all over the place. The average farm size would have been 30-40 acres, 120 acres would have been considered quite upper class sort of farming”. Many of the farms were short of labour during the summer, especially during hay making and straw baling times. His favourite was one at East Allington. “We were out there a lot. We used to go out there and the farm was pretty much run by the young people. Andy Strutt was a classmate of mine. He had 6 sisters, which was part of the attraction. Suddenly I found myself in charge of a little tractor moving around the farm picking up haybales with all these young women about and these big lunches and suppers where you could eat as many roast potatoes as you could get in yourself, that was very lovely. We basically ran the place. The children from Andy, 16, down to the rest of us, would man the potato harvester. That’s what we did. We’d go out there for the weekend and harvest however many tons of potatoes needed picking, take them, riddle them, sort them into this size and that size, then get in the Landrover and deliver them to the chip shop in Kingsbridge. It was great”.

Oral History Quote 5.3. How local farms were a source of casual labour for the people of Totnes. (Source: author’s oral history interview with Andy Langford).

So, what did the word ‘local’ mean for Totnes and district residents? The findings in Table 5.2. would seem to support the usefulness of the Totnes and District boundary, in relation to the traditional food economy of the town. 60% of respondents felt that ‘local’ meant between 10 and 30 miles from the town, more embedded in the wider South Hams.

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