Relocalising the UK food supply

The UK’s future food security depends upon domestic farmers, the market network and some clever use of data – and soon.

We are heavily dependent on the global food economy. When oil supplies diminish and prices inevitably rise in future, we will no longer be able to afford to import our foods. The answer must lie in re-localising our production of food, fibre and fuel, but there are ways in which we can use data to hugely improve how efficiently this is done. The map here is part of that analysis.

Many argue that Peak Oil (the time when extraction from the world’s oilfields hits its physical maximum, beyond which it can only diminish with corresponding increases in price) is imminent, or even past. The time when oil prices start to affect food supplies doesn’t begin when oil runs out completely, but long before that, when oil-fuelled global distribution becomes increasingly uneconomic.

This is a central concern of the Transition Network, the fast-growing movement enabling communities to plan for increasing their resilience for a post-oil economy now, including re-localising food production.

Permaculture expert Simon Fairlie performed a series of calculations on the potential for land to produce enough food, fibre and fuel under a series of agricultural regimes. Taking one which Fairlie calls ‘Livestock Permaculture’, 1 hectare of combined agricultural and forestry land supplies 4.4 people.

Crudely on this basis, the whole UK landmass could feed 98 million people – many more than our current population of about 61m – but of course the population is not evenly distributed, nor is all land equally productive.

A food footprint is only a very basic representation of the land required around a town to feed its population. The circles on the map above take account of overlaps i.e. a footprint size reflects the total availability of ‘free’ land not occupied by another footprint, and also reflect land which is currently occupied by farmland and gardens, i.e. technically available for food production.

Food footprints illustrate simply, but powerfully, how large an area is needed to fulfil the basic needs of an urban population. It’s a good example of the use of geographic information (GI) science – putting data onto a map, in order to create a picture of what’s going on in a way anyone can understand – in which Geofutures specialises.

So how do we plan for a future without cheap food imports, without oil-fuelled central distribution depots? We argue that the data and technology we have available now can point the way to a domestic food economy in which food can still be moved from areas of lower population to the nearest areas of food deficit, having been produced in those areas which best suit farming of grain, fruit, dairy or vegetables.

GI maps and analysis show us where the population hotspots are, and where certain farming types predominate. They also highlight additional future issues for the mix, like areas at risk from sea level rise and changes in rainfall and temperature.

Advanced spatial analysis can provide the key to planning how centres of agricultural production can supply their regional hinterlands, how the footprint London and the home counties can co-exist with the footprints of the towns it encompasses, and how we can avoid the food shortages to which our oil-fuelled food economy is now prone.

For more information about the Geofutures food footprint analysis, or how GI can help you achieve spatial insight in this or another field, please contact us.

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