We’re working on a longer term project to answer the question first for Fife, then for Scotland. But a great piece of work has been done asking the question: Can Britain Feed Itself? The English land campaigner and writer Simon Fairlie – English land campaigner – has tackled the question building on the work done by Kenneth Mellanby’s book of the same name, published in 1975 (London: Merlin Press, 1975). His conclusion is similar to Mellanby; “yes”, but the key is the amount of meat we consume.
In 1975, the Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby wrote a short book called Can Britain Feed Itself? His answer was yes, if we eat less meat. The way in which he worked it out was simple, almost a back of the envelope job, but it provides a useful template for making similar calculations. In this article I have adapted and embellished Mellanby’s “basic diet” to show how much land modern UK agriculture might require to produce the food we need under six different agricultural regimes — chemical, organic and permacultural, each with or without livestock.
There were two main reasons why I decided to repeat Mellanby’s analysis. Firstly, like him, I recognize that in the future the UK may have to become a lot more self reliant than it is now. Secondly, I am interested to see how organic agriculture in particular performs, because the most convincing argument advanced against organic farming by its opponents is that it takes up too much land. This is of most concern in poor, highly populated countries such as Bangladesh, but Britain cannot afford to be complacent: it is more densely populated than China, Pakistan, Vietnam or any African country except Rwanda.
There are limitations in this kind of statistical exercise; and I do not claim to have carried it out with either the expertise or the thoroughness that it merits. This is, at best, a back of an A4 envelope job. However since I can find no evidence that anyone with the necessary qualifications and stipend to do justice to the subject has been inclined to take it on, I hope that readers will find my offering better than nothing. The results should not be seen as anything other than a rough guide, and a useful framework for thinking about such matters.
Mellanby’s Basic Diet
Mellanby took as his starting point the UK’s total figure for grain production. In 1975, Britain grew 15 million tonnes of cereals on less than 3.6 million hectares at a yield of about 4 tonnes per hectare. This was the equivalent of 283 kilos per person a year, which is about 2,700 calories a day — comfortable enough for every man, woman, child and elderly person in the country. The total population was 53 million.
Working from this figure of 15 million tonnes of grain, Mellanby built up a somewhat more varied diet, subtracting grain from the total as he introduced other foodstuffs. Table A shows us his “basic rations” of cereal, potatoes, sugar, milk and meat. Every person gets the equivalent of a pint of milk and a pound of potatoes a day, which is what they were actually consuming in 1975: but Mellanby gives them less meat.