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Mapping our food future

Mark Thurstain-Goodwin welcomes publication of a landmark food security study

This week sees the publication of an important paper about future food security. It seeks answers to fundamental questions about how our communities will feed themselves when most food imports from around the world are no longer affordable. Geofutures contributed GIS research and mapping to the project paper, and we’re hoping to move the model onto a national scale.

I first heard Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, speak to an audience in Bristol in 2007.

He isn’t a big ego, and it wasn’t a glitzy occasion, but the message of the Transition communities is so obviously right. This is where it begins, I thought.

We need to make a transition away from a global economy which is dependent on cheap fossil fuels, because we have reached the peak of their extraction. Indeed, we will make that transition whether we like it or not, because fuel prices will inexorably rise, putting oil and gas beyond our reach well before they run out altogether.

The only question is whether we can effectively plan for it now, understanding what we need to do to make our communities resilient against the changes to come. Alternatively, we’ll experience this transformation through utter chaos – topped up with the impacts of climate change.

Cue the Transition Network, a charity supporting grassroots groups in cities, towns and villages, researching how they can plan and implement their energy descent, calling on expertise from established campaigners, older generations, farmers, craftspeople and other experts to help re-localise some or all of their supply of food, fuel, medicines, building materials, textiles, skills and more.

It’s a strong personal interest for me, but it’s also a professional one. As anyone worth their GIS salt could tell you, this kind of planning is crying out for spatial analysis. We have populations, we have topography, climate and agricultural land types, we have transport networks. To understand what’s happening now and plan for energy descent in future, we need maps.

A map of Totnes and district showing where foodshed analysis suggests re-localised food production could best be located

A map of Totnes and district showing where foodshed analysis suggests re-localised food production could best be located

So on many levels I’m delighted to have the opportunity to work with Rob and his team, putting GIS techniques and mapping to work in a test project for Transition Totnes (the first Transition Town and home to the Network). This builds on our earlier analysis of community food footprints, of which more and a mashup here.

Can we feed ourselves?

The aims of this pilot analysis were first to answer the question ‘Can Totnes and District Feed Itself?’, and second to create the basis for an online model which any community could readily use to answer the same question for its own population.

The answer to the first – plus of course the many other questions which answering it raises – can be found in the project paper. But I thought I’d highlight here a few of the analysis issues which we dealt with, and how we hope the next phase of the project can help.

Data issues

Data availability was a challenge. This isn’t unusual in any study, but the particular issue here is fine-scale information on soil types and land use. In the absence of anything better, we used Defra agricultural land type data to classify where different kinds of food might best be produced around Totnes.

When Cuba encountered its ‘Special Period’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union cut its fuel imports by 80% and local production of food increased many times over, significant within this was micro-production in gardens and balconies, and bringing new space into cultivation such as airfields. Cuba is an extreme example, but it illustrates that our model is only a work in progress, needing much more fine-scale knowledge on potentially productive land, especially urban and woodland, than we now have.

Not out of the woods

Woodland creates its own special questions. This analysis shows that as a source of managed coppice fuel for space heating, the woodland currently available is far too small to meet the needs of every household in the district. Woodland is included in the model as a source of wild meat and biodiversity; the fuel question is not yet adequately answered, and the even more interesting productive potential for woods in the shape of agroforestry also remains to be fully explored.

The fairly coarse categorisation of land types created the potential anomaly within these results that sheep grazing (using the poorest quality land) would take place many miles from Totnes on the edge of Dartmoor. Again, it’s more than likely that pockets of suitable land exist much closer to the town, and we need fine-scale local knowledge to identify them.

Competing foodsheds

The results of the model also highlight the importance of interplay between the foodsheds of neighbouring communities, especially larger centres of population. It will be vital for resources to be shared equitably between cities, towns and villages while production takes place in the most efficient possible locations. In the paper we also point up the need for radical changes in the planning system allowing re-occupation of rural land by local workers.

All of these questions and more will move towards answers if individual Transition communities can get their hands on the Totnes model. This is a network rammed with local, expert knowledge and we need to provide a systematic means to gather, store and share it, while putting the best available technology to work in planning their own communities’ future food production.

Those are the key aims of the next phase of the project: a national roll-out of a refined version of the model, with the means for people to upload land use, productive capacity, soil, microclimate and other data for inclusion in the analysis. I can’t think of a better use of our technology or a more timely call on funding resources.

Transition is well named; we know where we are, and we can start to envisage where we need to get to, but the bit in between is the real problem. Local food networks which will make money for producers in 20-30 years will struggle to compete with supermarkets now. They are not designed for the here and now, but if we don’t bring them into being now it will be too late.

Tools which can help every kind of stakeholder visualise the markets and systems we’ll very soon need will help them come into existence now.

See our mashup of the Totnes foodshed

See Rob Hopkins’ blog, Transition Culture

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2 Responses to “Mapping our food future”

  1. Gavin says:

    I was wondering if you had a higher resolution image of ‘totnesFoodshed’ that I could look at – I am a Dartington College of Arts student but predominantly involved myself with GIS and realise that your idea is very close to home, unlike many of the other information out there.

  2. [...] Mark Thurstain-Goodwin writes: We need to make a transition away from a global economy which is dependent on cheap fossil fuels, because we have reached the peak of their extraction. Indeed, we will make that transition whether we like it or not, because fuel prices will inexorably rise, putting oil and gas beyond our reach well before they run out altogether. [...]

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