Brief review of Can Britain Feed Itself by Simon Fairlie (2009) By Andrew Ormerod

The original book was written in 1975 by Kenneth Melanby after the last food price hike and fuel crisis and the motivation for it being written was concerns over the UK’s lack of resilience and reliance on ever more expensive imports. The conclusion then was that we could be self sufficient – but we would have to eat less meat – and the meat would have to be produced on more marginal agricultural land.

Simon Fairlie’s perspective is that we could be self-sufficient with land to spare based on both conventional livestock and vegan farming.  Organic vegan landscape was OK with plenty of land to spare to decide what to do with – it involved fewer people working on the land.
Organic livestock farming caused problems in Simon Fairlie’s back of an envelope calculation – because of the extra land for feed and green manure.
Suggested improvements were to using lower yielding grass-fed dairy cows (rather than higher yielding grain fed) as a basis of beef production (beef calves being a bi-product of the dairy industry) rather than higher yielding dairy and separate beef suckler herds (which take up allot of land for relatively low energy return) which took up more land.

Organic permaculture looked a better option compared to organic livestock by Fairlie’s reckoning – Fairlie in this system factored in Flax and Hemp – clothing etc, timber for building and fuel (I guess he factored in more variables here because he has some preferences here).

This system was based on a greater integrated lifestyle pattern (with more labour on the land) and changes in land management and human settlement patterns. Smaller more dispersed mixed farms localized food processing and slaughter houses etc. (A bit like it used to be!)

Simon Fairlie focused in on livestock scenarios as these use more land. He modifies the livestock model to include pigs (of greatest importance) and some chickens – this model was based on recycled food waste (if the restrictions were lifted) and also use of human sewage on (animal production land) – as long as heavy metal waste was removed. In this scenario we would be eating less beef, and pork would be more important there would be a little chicken and fish (he also considered in passing fish as part of the permaculture cycle – but I think may be more productive in climates with warmer winters). Simon Fairlie also said that pork provide fat in the diet and produces on less land than oil seed rape.

As far as basics like cereals and potatoes – yields would be lower – but he has been in contact with Martin Wolfe who advocates the development of wheat specifically adapted to organic systems (rather than short strawed ‘Green Revolution’ types adapted to chemical input systems) with a better rooting profile and also developed once more for straw utilization.

Fruit he considered could be produced in gardens allotments/ urban land and top fruit in grazed grassland.

Closed Loop – returning fertility
The importance of a more ‘closed loop’ system using re-cycled sewage,slaughter-house waste etc. – is to prevent losses of phosphates which we would otherwise have to import – the recycled sewage would contribute nitrogen to ley grassland (land used for animal feed) and green manures would be another source.

Permaculture/livestock relevance for biomass and wildlife
Could an organic permaculture/livestock system, keep a reasonable amount of meat in our diet for those who wanted it, and ensuring that a reasonable proportion of the country is reserved for wildlife? Simon Fairlie prefers Woodland and short rotation coppice as a source of biomass because of amenity and wildlife value. His livestock/permaculture system he opted to leave half the area for wildlife and half as woodland. So about 25% of the country would be woodland compared to 27% in France, 40% in the EU or 29% globally. Six million hectares of biodiverse woodland, coppice and plantation could produce 36 million cubic meters of timber and pulp — three quarters of what we currently consume (instead of imports) or firewood to heat six million well insulated family homes. This leaves an eighth of the country (3 million ha) for wildlife – not as much as some people would wish to see.

His model did include some wild harvest of meat – he certainly didn’t think too many sheep were a good idea (unless they were used for wool again to replace imported plastic fleece). He considered the sheep population could be reduced to produce more wild areas and more productive animal systems.

When reviewing the potential for organic agriculture as a way of feeding Britain he says it is possible – but it takes a lot of land compared to chemical farming,
Simon Fairlie highlights ideas put forward by a group of scientists with links to agribusiness, and conventional agriculture (including James Lovelock) who have a future vision where in Fairlie’s words “a third of the land is given over to wilderness, and a third to agribusiness, while the majority of the population is crammed into the remaining third and fed on junk food.”

Relevance to Cornwall
Cornwall’s ‘Green and Pleasant land’ has a significant number of small fields and grass-fed cattle for dairy and beef production throughout the county – but there are far less mixed farms these days. I think from a recent local conversation pigs were kept to recycle scraps in the past. In west Cornwall 19th century diet used to have bread, potatoes, pork and pilchards as important components (and vegetables grown in the garden).

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013

About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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