ConsumerismFood ShortagesPeak Oil

Can We Feed Ourselves in a Post Peak Oil World?

At the end of 2007, the UK’s Simon Fairlie released what is essentially an update to figures produced back in 1975 in Kenneth Mellanby’s book Can Britain Feed Itself? Fairlie’s work, with the same title, concluded that, yes, it could – if the population consumed less meat (see clip at bottom for more details on this aspect).

There was a time when Britain was forced to feed itself – that being during World War II when German planes, ships and U-boats did everything they could to stop supplies arriving. Mass animal cullings to free up land for crops was one of the many steps taken, and actually also resulted in improved health for the populace, as shared in this post. With Peak Oil now less of a theory and more of a present reality, Britain, along with the rest of the world, is facing this situation yet again – but with a far larger, and more demanding, population. And, while Britain was importing a lot of goods prior to World War II, it can’t be compared to the level of global trade witnessed today. For every acre of land farmed in Britain today, there is another acre in another country producing goods for it as well.

Now, Transition Town Totnes has just put out a very interesting document – Can Totnes Feed Itself? I’d invite you to take a look and let us know what you think (I haven’t finished reading it myself, and with a busy month ahead of me I want to get this up for you while I can). It’s a 19-page document that seeks to address a question that is more than expedient for cities and towns around the world – can we feed ourselves while in a Peak Oil energy descent? Click here to download and read the document (PDF).

Re the meat question – there is a lot more to the issue than the clip above shares (like that animals are an important aspect of sustainable agricultural systems, and also that in some parts of the world – particularly colder regions – it is hard to grow all the variety needed for a balanced diet). But, it is accurate in its reporting that the western penchant for eating too much meat, a habit that is now being imitated by people in China, India and elsewhere who regard it as a symbol of wealth and modernity, comes at the cost of using significantly more land (and thus more soil loss, more water, more chemicals, more fuel, etc.) than would otherwise be necessary to feed people. Beef in particular will become an absurd luxury as, compared to other animals, cattle use a disproportionate amount of land for the ‘yield’, and for the meagre side benefits they give.

The Totnes report above essentially says "no", we can’t feed ourselves. The population density in the region is too great. Some other parts of the world would fare better, and some worse. There will need to be changes in diet – not just in reducing meat intake, but in once more eating local plant varieties that have fallen out of favour over the last century as standardised imports have become the norm instead. And, of course, there will need to be a massive increase in the quantity of family and community scale gardening/farming endeavours – low imput, biodiverse systems that stack functions to maximise output with the least effort.


  1. The Totnes case study is ground breaking and should be read by all those interested in sustainability and the future of agricultural systems.

    It would be interesting to think about how permaculture might approach the same problem. Would it come up with a different solution.

    Craig should be congratulated for bringing this article to our attention.

  2. What about all the soy bean farms in the Amazon? After the rain forest is cut down for paper, furniture, timber or for yacht design what happens with the soy bean fields afterwards? Isn’t all the soil first washed away and then the drought comes?

    So all the cheap fodder for all the pigs and cattle won’t be there anymore, nore the rain forest?

    Meat is really quite too cheap nowadays. In Europe (only Germany?) about twenty years ago a kilo of hash (mixed sort?) cost about 5 Euros. Today you can get it during a campaign at 2,99 a kilo. That is really crazy. A couple sorts of (german) bread are more expensive than that.

    The same goes with coffee.

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