There can only be one topic for a blog post today, as a great country stands poised to make a momentous decision with potentially global repercussions for decades to come. I refer, of course, to the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, and the issue of how it will feed the 80% of its population who are not active farmers. For indeed it is high time that we returned to that happy nation and, even if the rest of the world should lose its head, tarry amongst its denizens to ruminate upon the intertwined fates of the human tribe in all its miraculous diversity.
The last time we visited Wessex we saw that a ten hectare holding housing twenty people, ten of whom were full-time workers, could feed its people pretty comfortably on the basis of a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy and with only a little in the way of starchy staples. A pretty good way to live, and a pretty good way to farm, I think, especially if on-farm energy is in short supply.
But I was generous with my land allocation, donating fully 40% of lowland Wessex’s farmland to the nominal 20% neo-peasant portion of its population. When it comes to thinking about how then to feed the rest of Wessex’s population, three main possibilities present themselves:
- Decide that everyone, or almost everyone, in Wessex should farm like this, and adjust the republic’s population downwards accordingly.
- Trim back the allocation to the neo-peasants so that it’s exactly proportionate to their numbers: 20% of farmland for 20% of the population.
- Stick with the 40% land allocation to the neo-peasants, and intensify production on the remaining 60% of the farmland in order to feed the remaining 80% of the population.
If we go for Option 1, then simple arithmetic suggests that 100% of the farmland will provide for 50% of the population. But we have some rough grazing not previously accounted for (about 83,000 ha, to be precise) which I reckon could feed about 18,500 people. And we also produced a food surplus of at least 10% on our neo-peasant holdings. Prudence might suggest that we hold onto that for a rainy day, but since I built in so many conservative assumptions into my food production figures I’m happy to make that 10% available to the non-productive population. If we do that, we end up with a total Wessex population that could be sustained by the projections I previously outlined of just over 3.9 million people – which amounts to 74% of its current population, or 62% of the projected 2039 population. So in this scenario, up to 2.4 million people would have to go and find somewhere else to live.
Drawn though I am by the neo-peasant lifestyle I’ve been outlining, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in arguing for an agrarian system that requires more than 2 million people not to exist. Similar ideas have often been mooted in recent times by people sincerely convinced that all would be well with the world if only the odd few million people could be dispensed with. When such thinkers have got hold of political power things haven’t generally worked out too well. So let’s not go there. Though I suppose we could bear the figure in mind as a long-term population goal to aim at for an agreeable neo-peasant lifestyle in Wessex.
On the face of it, Option 2 would seem to be the fairest, although for reasons I’ll soon come to I don’t really think it is that fair. But let’s crunch some numbers on it anyway. Can we double the productivity on our neo-peasant holding in order to feed 40, not 20, people from our 10ha? Well, maybe we could start by trying to increase milk production in order to retain our traditional Wessex love of grass and avoid too much extra spiking of our soils and blood sugars. The only real margin we have on the holding to do that, though, is the woodland. If we pinch about 1.4ha of it for grass to get some extra dairy cows (we’ll worry about the knock on implications of losing the woodland another time) we can get an extra 4,600l of milk…which isn’t nearly enough to feed another 20 people.
There’s nothing for it, we’re going to have to grow more potatoes. It turns out that if we turn all of the woodland over to cropland, take another 0.75ha of cropland from the pasture (although we do get some of it back as a grazable ley), lose our dairy-fed pig (so we eat the whey and buttermilk directly), keep everything else the same but grow about 2.2ha of potatoes on our 4ha of cropland then we can just about feed the 40 folks on the holding (again bearing in mind my very moderate yield assumptions). In this scenario, we exceed our calorific requirement by just 3%, while exceeding all our other nutritional targets much more comfortably. But we fail Proposition Paul, getting 63% of our calories from carbohydrates, the majority from the simple carbohydrates of the starchy staples. And, looking at it in terms of labour drudgery, the amount of cropland devoted to staple crops that’s going to have to be worked increases from about 500m2 per full-time worker to about 1,300m2.
Well, maybe that all sounds like a bit of a stretch. But see what we’ve just done? We’ve fed the entire population of 2039 Wessex – numbering a million more souls than at present – with a reasonably diverse and nutritious diet, using exclusively organic methods at low yield assumptions, and without expanding the existing agricultural area. For that, I think we deserve a round of applause.
OK, quieten down. Because here’s the thing: I’m not so keen on Option 2, really. In the UK we currently import most of the fruit and a lot of the vegetables that we eat, and we devote most of our farmed area to growing cereals – the most energy and protein dense of crops and the least labour intensive, albeit only if you replace human labour with copious fossil fuel inputs. So it wouldn’t really be fair to insist that the 20% neo-peasant fraction of the population produces its livelihood in its entirety from an exactly proportionate land area (possibly with constrained energy access), while continuing to farm the rest of it as we presently do. And really the whole point of constructing a society with such a high level of small-scale landholding is to encourage and celebrate the fact that this local and somewhat laborious way of life is a good way to live, and perhaps indeed a necessary one in view of the manifold problems in the world. So I’m not inclined to make it compete on even terms with a mechanised commercial agriculture. Instead, I’d like to put the shoe on the other foot to the way we tend to think about farming today. So for that 80% of the population who don’t farm, my question is…why not? Oh look, I’m just kidding. Don’t go – you don’t have to justify yourself to me. I’m sure you’re making a good contribution to society in other ways. But you’re not out there day in, day out earning your livelihood from the land, are you? So let’s allocate 60% of the land area to you and see what we can grow. On that somewhat limited area, agriculture will have to be quite starch-intensive – but that’s no different from the present, so nothing to complain about there. Still, we’ll try to vary the diet for you with a bit of meat and eggs, along with some fruit and veg. And if you’re not happy with the fare that you get from your 60% land share, then get yourself an allotment or start up a community garden. In neo-peasant Wessex, a faint air of disrepute hangs over those who make no effort to involve themselves in growing food.
How productivity turns out on this 60% land share depends a bit on the assumptions we make about energy use. I suppose I should have covered the issue before I started this cycle of neo-peasant essays. Instead I’m going to come back to it in more detail towards the end. One problem is uncertainties over likely future energy scenarios. But I suppose the two extremes would be to assume either (i) business-as-usual, with readily available fossil fuel (or, better, clean, renewable equivalents) in agriculture, or (ii) peak oil apocalypse, with no fossil fuel available at all. The general implications of the latter scenario are endless and profound, and I can’t follow them through here. But in an agricultural context, the obvious thing to try in that situation would be biodiesel. And in the UK the obvious biodiesel crop is rape (canola) – more obvious than eating the damn stuff at any rate. So, minimally, we could build a scenario in which we grow an oil crop to power our agriculture, and to transport its products to the towns. Whether we could retain 80% of the population in urban and/or non-agrarian settings in a full-on biodiesel economy is, at best, debatable. But the Lord God gave us Excel spreadsheets in order to mess about with improbable scenarios, so let’s give it a whirl.
But not now. I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. Plus I have to go and write a talk about the evils of urbanism. And there’s an election to watch…