Cities that Feed Themselves

I was struck by the images of Mexico City in the recent BBC series by Andrew Marr on Megacities. In the episode on The Sustainable City he points out that Mexico City originally fed a large part of its population by using a series of artificial floating islands. Many of these remain and are still home to a farming community that grows and sells its produce to visitors who come mainly by boat. There is a recent blog here by a visitor to the islands.

He points out that modern Mexico is choked by its traffic partly due to the need to import its food by road. Mexico is relatively unusual among the worlds megacities by being far inland and not on a major river.  It presents an interesting case study on the growth of cities and how they manage their food supply. It se me on a path to investigate how we are managing our supply of food here in the UK.

The Soil Association carried out a report on the subject of Food Security in the UK in 2008 and concluded that we only produce 60% (by value)of the food we consume. Since we import the cheaper foods it is possible that in terms of calorific value we actually produce less than half our food in the UK. It is interesting that such studies are either motivated by the idea of food security, or are dressed up to appear to be. Why do we think that security of supply is the pressing concern here. Is is because climate change isn’t pressing enough?

Defras position appears to be that supply of food should be managed by the open market and it is not in the UK’s interests to try to be self-sufficient. Since 60% of our imports come from within the EU, it makes sense to continue to import. Bizzarely, the EU imports 60% of its animal feedstock from other countries outside the EU, so the argument that our food supply actually comes from the EU doesn’t hold water.

The Soil Associations report called ‘An Inconvenient Truth about Food’ raises these issues, and many more, and points out that it is entirely possible to grow all our food using organic methods in the UK and feed ourselves, albeit on a lower meat diet than many of us are used to.

As oil prices rise and phosphates supplies reduce, it is entirely possible that within this century this will become a necessity and not an aspiration, as transport costs will reduce our ability to import and as fertiliser costs make fertiliser based agriculture unviable.

What is striking in the report is how unmanaged our food supply appears to be. There are doubts about the quality of our soil and its long term ability to grow food, there are questions about how much of our land could be inundated in the event of sea level rises, and there are doubts about the wisdom of continuing to import produce from countries that have to use large quantities of their precious water to grow crops for us that we can easily grow ourselves.

The lack of government management of our food supply strategy is amazing. This issue is as important as it gets.



3 thoughts on “Cities that Feed Themselves

  1. You are so right! The WTO has ruined the economies of third world countries by creating damaging international trade. Our desire for energy results in increasing amounts of American grain being used for biofuel instead of food. Soon the USA will no longer have grain to export to countries who rely on these supplies – even supposing their water doesn’t run out. Our soil has become simply a growing medium, so that our food is grown in chemicals which are largely fossil-fuel based. In India, small farmers are being removed from their land, often under torture, to make room for factories, which will ultimately destroy that continent’s ability to feed itself. Politicians who rely on a democratic vote for their position are unlikely to take the action necessary to manage our food supplies for two reasons; it would be unpopular, and in any case they don’t understand the problem or its scale! By the time they understand the gravity of the situation, the solution will be too little too late. But hey; let’s look on the bright side!

    • Thanks Tim ! I’m not sure what the bright side to this is exactly, other than the reassurance that in some places, like the UK, there is a potential sustainable future. But between here and there lies a lot of social, cultural, economic and political obstacles. I like a challenge….but

      Rory Bergin direct line: 020 7482 8024 mobile: 07730 780 754

      Head of Sustainability & Innovation

      HTA 106–110 Kentish Town Road London NW1 9PX telephone: 020 7485 8555 fax: 020 7485 1232 web:

  2. The bright side? …. There is a ‘grass-root’ movement in UK towards individuals growing much of their own food, in gardens or allotments. I believe that this may be the start of an evolution towards a different form of agriculture, in which food is grown in a much more labour intensive way (as in Cuba for example). The current problem arises from the type of energy put into growing food, and we use, globally, more energy than is provided on a daily basis by the sun – so we raid the bank of fossil fuels. This evolution could enable us to become more self-sufficient, healthier and with increased employment opportunities! Of course, large land owners would have to release land to individual food entrepreneurs – but pressure from the bottom up might well prevail in the end!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s