Can Cornwall feed itself if cut off at the Tamar? by Andrew Ormerod

Cornwall declaring U.D.I.?   Rising levels of water in the Tamar causing flood?  or some other calamity!

The idea makes your head spin.  But it’s interesting to speculate, nevertheless.  Self-sufficiency is assumed to be on the increase.  Can the population of Cornwall be completely self-sufficient?  What impact would there be on their diet and health?  What will all the farmers do – will they be able to gear up to a new economic situation? What will be the impact on the countryside and food supply chains?  Local supply chains have been replaced by more national and global transport links.  Even local produce mostly goes out of the county only to come back again.

Cornwall is fortunate in that it is a very rural county with a relatively small permanent population of half a million people, with around 280,000 hectares of farmable land.  At the height of the tourist season in August, there could be as many as 250,000 extra mouths to feed.  In principal, though, Cornwall is probably self-sufficient in milk, beef, pork, eggs, cereals and major vegetables such as cauliflowers, cabbages and potatoes and would presumably still be able to capitalize on its long growing season for grass and early and late crops.  The county currently consumes between 10-20% of the red meat it produces, 20% of the fish caught and less than 5% of cabbages and cauliflowers during the winter.  The percentage and diversity of vegetables grown and consumed would rise, of course, as these veg. replace imported exotic fruit and vegetables, but still wouldn’t account for current total production.  About 3-4% of the 540 million litres of milk currently produced is consumed as liquid milk in Cornwall.  It takes remarkably few cows to keep a population supplied with milk; the needs of the Royal Cornwall Hospital, for example, with up to 4,000 patients and staff, are met by a mere 12-20 animals.  These days the lion’s share of the milk is processed into cheese, cream and other products.  Local specialist cheese are a tiny proportion of the cheddar produced at the Davidstowe cheese factory for export out of the county.   Interestingly I believe historically milk locally produced butter and cream predominated in Cornwall and hard cheese production was less significant.

These days there are no stockpiles of food and most supermarkets have supplies delivered according to immediate needs, so there would be immediate disruption to the existing supply chains.  We also import all our fuel.  Would we be able to meet our basic needs by growing fuel crops – or would we need the land for food production?  Could we harness wind, tide and solar power?  How would we cope without access to agrichemicals and fossil-fuel nitrogen and imported potash and phosphate fertilizers?  Could we use seaweed from Cornwall’s long coastline and maybe transport treated sewage sludge?  What about seed – would we be able to save our own?  Would organic production feed our population?  With a relatively small population, possibly.  We could move over to mixed farming to improve the fertility of our land, or use marginal land for animal production.

It may be that we have to eat less meat.  Livestock, especially dairying, is a major component of the country’s agricultural economy, and some land in the county is only suitable for grass-fed beef and sheep production.  We could probably produce feed for free-range pigs.  We would struggle with plant protein feed for chickens at current production levels as our moist climate currently doesn’t suit production of legume crops. (Unless they are turned into silage – some farmers have grown cereal/pulse mixed such as triticale and lupins).  Chicken meat would be a luxury but we could produce some in our backyards.

Cereals, especially barley and wheat, cover a far larger land mass than the more iconic cauliflowers and potatoes.  Most local wheat and barley is grown for feed, so can we produce our own bread and beer?  The answer is yes, but it presents some challenges.  Although there are a couple of small mills in Cornwall the bulk of grain for flour goes elsewhere to be processed.  Our damp climate is not ideal for growing high-quality bread wheat and malting barley for brewing (it is more of a challenge in relation to plant diseases and grain quality). Maybe we need to revive interest in growing well-matched mixtures of varieties to reduce disease problems – after all growing ‘dredge corn’ mixture is traditional here.  Slight variation in maturity of grain components in the mix can affect the quality – so it is a bit of a balancing act.  Global warming may open the door to grain maize production as well as sweetcorn (however we still will have a damp maritime climate and maize requires a lot of energy to dry it – if natural drying warm sunshine is limited). There may be some mileage in growing other cereals adapted to low input systems such as triticale.

The population would have to get used to the lack of bananas, oranges, lemons and so on and we would have to get used to eating fruit in due season.  Apples come from elsewhere these days (there has been thankfully a renaissance of apple production in England – but particularly from Kent and the Vale of Evesham).  Soft fruit production in the county has declined since the 1930’s, though strawberry production in particular has been successful in recent years.  The gradual onset of climate change means that it is possible to experiment; orchards of olives, peaches, almonds, Szechuan pepper, apricots are being tried at Otter farm near Honiton for example and tea grown on the Tregothnan estate near Truro is now being produced.

If you look at farming maps of Britain it is evident that there is regional specialization in farming production – so grass production and dairying is concentrated on the wetter west and cereal production in the dryer east.  To some degree farming regions of Britain have developed as vital organs feeding Britain by the transport arteries (these days the roads have taken over from rail and sea for internal transport of goods).  But there has in recent years been a renaissance in regional branded produce and the Cornish brand has been growing.  There would be severe economic consequences for most farmers and the rural economy, as we are a net exporter of food.  The countryside would look different, particularly in the west, where the scale of daffodil, potato and vegetable production would be much reduced.  We would have to re-establish more small-scale processing or re-establish knowledge about home processing and storage.

Perhaps we can learn a thing or two about increased self-sufficiency from Cuba, forced (for reasons I hope won’t ever apply to Cornwall) to increase its self-sufficiency in food, moving from a position of vulnerability to  improved food security in a decade, without a major crisis (though there was hardship and hard work involved).  It has moved towards a more ecological society, with low fossil-fuel consumption, decentralised regional food production on a more human scale.  If cut off we would have to consume a wider range of fish, cuts of meat and dairy products produced in Cornwall.  With fewer processed foods available we would have to relearn old cooking skills.  If a wider variety of products was available our crisis might even bring health benefits!

Adapted from an article I wrote for Eden Project Friends magazine No. 23 (Summer 2006).


©  Andrew Ormerod 2014


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.
This entry was posted in Cornish Crops, Fish, Fodder crops, Food Resilience, Fruit, Grassland, Orchards, Potatoes, Sustainable production, Ttraditional Production System, UK crops, Uncategorized, Winter crops. Bookmark the permalink.

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