Todmorden self-sufficient in food? I wouldn’t bet a cuppa (Assam) tea on it
It’s a pity Todmorden’s brochure is titled Aiming to make Todmorden self-sufficient in food by 2018. It encourages a disconnect between people and food.
I’ve written before about the wonderful Incredible Edible. Maybe it sounds crazy to suggest what they’re doing in Tod encourages a disconnect. But it does.
The reason why is twofold.
First, it encourages people to imagine that self-sufficiency for this town — and therefore for other similar towns — is a possibility. It isn’t.
Secondly, it encourages people to suppose that self-sufficiency, growing and eating local, is a Good Idea. It isn’t; it’s an irrelevancy when it comes to providing food for a population, even one as small as Tod’s.
The first point. About self-sufficiency. Take a look at the photo of the town above. Ask yourself what would grow in the town, and up on the bare tops of Pennine moorland behind it.
Then ask yourself what the townspeople require. Tod has a population of just under 15 thousand people.
Let’s say that, on average, an individual eats 2000 calories a day. (For the moment, we’ll forget preciser nutritional requirements.)
So every day, this town requires 30K calories. Every week 210,000 calories. Every year 10,950,000 calories (this year, being a Leap Year, it’s actually 10,980,000 calories).
Take a look at this googlemap of Tod (right). The yellow square is my addition. It represents 3000 hectares; i.e. 30 square kilometres.
Why 3,000 hectares?
The United Nations FAO say that in 2005, the average hectare of arable land supported 4.5 people. So I’ve optimistically assumed that in 2012, a hectare of arable land can support 5 people. If so, then 15K people need 3K ha.
So the area inside the yellow square on this map has to provide just under eleven million calories every year, just to feed the people of Todmorden, let alone those of the surrounding area — where about half a million other people live who also need to eat to live. ( See wiki entries for Calderdale which includes Todmorden, also Rochdale, Burnley and Kirklees.)
And that’s supposing that all the area is all arable land, without the half million or so people and their roads and buildings.The agricultural land round about, where it exists, is low-grade.
That’s partly because the climate as well as the soil, isn’t suitable for growing much. On the Pennine moorland, sheep and perhaps a few beef cattle on the lower slopes are the most efficient way to convert sunshine into the energy our bodies require.
The second point. About local food. There are two main reasons why eating local food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t bet a cuppa (Assam) tea on Tod becoming self-sufficient. Eating just local food makes for a highly restricted diet, if possible.
Here’s the simple example: That northern tradition of a strong brew, Assam tea, comes from, well, Assam. Nowhere in the UK has the climate or the soils to grow tea of any kind.
It’s more than tea they’d be going without if Tod were to be “self-sufficient” in food.
They wouldn’t have basic foodstuffs like cereals either — so no bread or pasta. Would they be able to grow enough spuds for their carbohydrate requirement? Hm, no. And even if they could, what if potato blight hit ‘em? Or some other disease? Or a flood? A drought?
No olive oil, rapeseed or other oils either. Few if any dairy products. No beet or cane sugar. Few protein foodstuffs like beans or peas, minerals and vitamins in fruit and veg would be highly restricted — and when available, only in season.
Even with strict rationing imposed, everyone in the town would be malnourished. Within a year, some would die.
If the wider area were on this self-sufficiency lark, very many would die. And soon.
You’re right, there’d be rioting well before that happened. I’d be fighting for my kids too. Or, more likely, loading my possessions up along with everyone else and getting out of the hellish place.
Could modern technologies mean Tod could go much further in being self-sufficient? Well, yes. A bit. They could make their thin soils richer with muck-spreading and fertilisers. And they could heat enclosed areas such as greenhouse or polytunnels. All at a cost, a carbon cost too.
It’d be very inefficient way of growing their food, an inefficiency we can’t afford in a world that already needs to feed 7 billion people.
What agriculturally poor areas need to do is grow what they can, sure. And trade what they can’t. Then when their harvest fails, whether sheep with food and mouth, blight on the potatoes, or beans rotted in the wet, they already have the trading relationships to bring in more food as required.
All this is not to say that Tod’s Incredible Edible aren’t doing great work planting and growing food. They are, and with all the conviviality that entails. No doubt, too, that veg plots, fruit growing, keeping hens, growing herbs, all sorts, leads Tod people to have healthier lives, both in body and mind. It’s fun!
And I don’t believe for a nanosecond that the Incredible Edible crew seriously imagine they can be self-sufficient in food; there’s nothing in their brochure to suggest it.
There are many people out there, however, who do seriously believe it, simply because of the title of the Tod brochure. They really do.
So it’s important to distinguish between the great stuff Incredible Edible are doing from what it takes to feed a population, even a population as small as Tod’s.
What it takes to feed a population is another connection with food, one that really matters too — and the concern, thank goodness, of governments, the UN, our own DEFRA and the like.
The alternative is famine. If not someone in Tod or you or me here, then someone else where efficiency in growing and distributing food is literally a matter of their life or death.