Tuesday, 14 October 2014

What is the point of Government?

Is there any more fundamental a question as we approach a general election than to ask what is the point of Government? Many theories and forms of government hold that the primary purpose is to protect the members of the society. There are differences and nuances but generally they include protecting the weak and disadvantaged individuals from exploitation and worse by the strong and powerful, and to protect the society as a whole from external impacts such as invading armies, and diseases. Personally I would add protecting future generations from the inevitable destruction and consumption of the current generations lifestyle, but that is not commonly included.

Having read the manifestos for the candidates in our election, you might be forgiven for thinking the primary function of our Government was to manage the economy. I'm not intending to argue that here, nor am I going to review how well (!) our Government has done based on the above criteria over the lifetime of the last assembly. 

Maslow wrote his paper 'A Theory of Human Motivation ' in 1943. In doing so he outlined a hierarchy of need for human beings. The base consists of physiological functions: breathing, sleeping, excretion, water and of course food. The next layer above that, which can only really be addressed when the lower level has been satisfied, is safety. Included in that level are security of body, employment, resources, family, health property. You would think on the basis of that much quoted paper that food security would be a primary concern for individuals, society and indeed the government. It doesn't feel like that in Jersey. 

Food security is a huge topic in itself. There are many aspects and factors involved in thinking about it. I have sometimes been upbraided by people when I talk about it that I don't understand it and we would be able to organise a mini armada of small boats to bring stuff from France if it came to it. That is a very narrow and specific aspect of food security entailed in emergency planning. If you are relying on an emergency plan, you do not have security, you have contingency. Food security is much more than just can we get over a short term difficulty should it arise.

Appreciating where we are in respect of food security requires some understanding of food as an industry of many interacting parts. The old days of a patchwork of small family farms feeding themselves and selling surpluses locally have been long dead in much of the western world. We have mega farms larger often than our whole island, half a dozen seed merchants who control over half the world's seed supplies, distributors, processors of scale like Unilever and Kraft, retailers in the UK dominated by four big companies, wholesalers and others. Like any supply chain it is only really as strong as its weakest link and there are many links here that could be a bottleneck. All of that is of course today; there is also a future thinking dimension – changing diets round the world, loss of cultivatable land, water stress, soil erosion, pest and disease susceptibility, population increases.

Jersey is a small place, minute population, surely such global issues wouldn't affect us? I hear this little Jersey argument a lot about all sorts of things, but I would suggest we are are more susceptible than other places when it comes to food security. Apart from some dairy, selected marine items and Royals, we import almost everything edible. Probably over 95% of our food is externally sourced. In August there was a significant debate in the UK over their food security with the NFU worried that the UK's food self sufficiency had fallen to only 60% ! See http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/07/britain-food-self-sufficiency-decline-imports-nfu It has been used to argue for increased technology usage and GM. I don't agree with that as a solution, but I do agree there is a problem.

In an article in the Guardian, 10th October, Jay Rayner wrote about the declining UK self sufficiency: 'Almost all of that decline is down to supermarkets pushing deals on farmers that have made their industry financially unsustainable. The only kind of land use to have increased in the past 25 years is of farmland that is no longer being farmed. In an age of rising population and an exploding global middle class – factors that will fuel demand for 50% more food from the same amount of land by 2030 – that isn’t merely a cause for concern. It’s a catastrophe.' If 60% self sufficient Britain is concerned and facing a catastrophe, what does 5% self sufficiency in Jersey say about our near future? Clearly transport links are not the only issue. The UK is worried about food security even though they are not reliant on one port. There is a lot more to food security than its distribution.

While we often talk of food and food security as though there is just one entity, there are in fact several food types that we have to consider. There is the fresh fruit and vegetables, the stuff that the 5 a day campaign and dietitians urge us to eat more of. They are the source of much of the vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients we need for health, often with a very short shelf life or storage potential. At the other end there are the staples- wheat , barley, rice etcetera that provide energy dense food like bread. Typically they require special processing to turn the raw grain into edible product. These grain products is where the bulk of the dietary calories come from. There is the dairy sector providing significant contribution to dietary protein. Often shorter life products require chilling, except perhaps for the more processed items such as cheese and UHT milk. Somewhere in between we have frozen and tinned vegetables, processed meats, ready meals that are the specialist domain of the processors. Some can have a long shelf life, though possibly at the expense of taste and nutritional value.

When WHO looks at food security they focus on calories.  You need vitamins etc for health and vitality long term, but without calories starvation ensues in short order. Some foods are far more efficient and effective at supplying those.  To get the 2500 kCalories recommended in a day as an adult male, you would need:
Just over 2lb of modern white processed bread or
8lb of potatoes for same or
16lb carrots ! or
25lb lettuce (!!) or
2.5 lb steak. or
0.7kg vegetable fat.

It should be clear from that list that what we have to ensure is supplied by way of food security is highly dependent on the diet we are fulfilling. That in turn affects the land area required to supply the food (ignoring sea food elements of course). Currently the average American consumes about 2000 lbs of food per year, which works out to about 5.5 lbs and 2700 calories per day. Very crudely eating their body weight in food per month! Europeans are a little more moderate, at about 4lbs of foods each daily. In 1993 the FOA reckoned the minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person. This does not allow for any land degradation such as soil erosion, and it assumes adequate water supplies. 0.5 hectare is 53,000 square feet. Some implications if that were adopted across the world are at http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/trophic.htm However that is one extreme, and there are other diets and assumptions that others use, eg Pimentel and Jeavons.

There was a very good article by Simon Fairlie in the Land magazine, Winter 2007-2008 entitled Can Britain Feed Itself? He looked at the basic Mellanby diet ,and a number of other options including permaculture, meat, and vegan options , and the implications for land usage. “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 .”

There are many notes and comments, but very crudely the outcome was:

Land used for food
Fed per hectare
Jersey population fed
Mellanby 1973
53 million
11 million hectares
~5 per hectare
Conventional with livestock 2005
60.6 million
10.8 million hectares
~5.5 per hectare
Conventional vegan 2005
60.6 million
3 million hectares
~20 per hectare
Organic vegan 2005
60.6 million
7.3 million hectares
~8.3 per hectare
Organic with livestock 2005
60.6 million
15.9 million hectares
~3.8 per hectare

We can do a quick conversion to give Jersey equivalents, assuming 35,000 vergees agricultural land and 5.5 vergees to a hectare for numerical convenience.

By contrast Jeavons in his biodynamic approach claims a sustainable (organic) vegan diet is possible on 4000 square feet per person, equivalent to 26 people fed per hectare. The difference between Jeavons and Fairlie here is that Jeavons is labour intensive, hand tools only, whereas Fairlies figures use normal tractor based agriculture. 

However such figures are not too useful on the small scale. Soil conditions, micro-climate and seasonality all play a part.   Even if you could grow your vegan diet locally, you would still have to deal with the realities of the hungry gap in early spring and the glut in late late summer/early autumn. Greenhouses and glasshouses can mitigate some of that seasonal production and diversity problem, but we have abandoned them commercially. You need storage and processing to make pickles, jams, chutneys and freezing other stuff. If you want to make you own bread it is even harder. After you have dried the grain, threshed it somehow and winnowed it you could store it for sometime as long as the weevils and vermin don't get to it. You could mill it to flour right away but it goes rancid in a couple of months and wont store anywhere near as long as it does as grain. You can grind some every day for your own use. On a hand mill it might take you an hour a day to mill flour for a family. It is a chore – hence the daily grind.

That is all fine for a smallholder who has a bit of land, skills and knowledge, tools and equipment, but it wont run on a societal basis. The smallholder family might have food security, but they are not going to produce much surplus. It is hard work and there is very little money in it, see http://www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/gardening/1097217/smallholding_the_basics.html .One of the reasons for the decline in worked farmland in the UK, touched on in the Rayner piece and it might well soon apply here too, is that it is simply too difficult to make a living farming. Children who have seen exhausted farming parents working long hours just to stand still are not enthusiastic about taking up the challenge when there appears to be so many easier ways to make a living. There is an inherent conflict here. In general small integrated farming or horticulture operations are more productive in yield per unit area than large operations, especially when sized right to the equipment deployed. However they are more labour intensive. I estimate that if we were to use the Jeavons approach to maximise producing our food and diet requirements locally , we would need about a fifth of the population involved in food production. Even if we could produce the grain, we have only one working mill , and that operated part time by volunteers. The only working threshing machine is a piece at the Pallot steam museum used as an annual attraction.

The only options that could provide all our food locally are the two vegan options, plus any marine produce. Even if we were collectively happy to all turn vegan overnight , in practice it isn't going to happen. Leave aside what happens to the Jersey cow on a vegan island, it is simply not going to happen on any scale, not while they are comfortable well paid office jobs in existence. Even if you thought finance was about to collapse and bring down the local economy with it forcing us back to the land, there would be plenty of practical problems, starting with simply educating and training enough people to make it work.

So we have to deal with the reality that in Jersey we are going to be importing a significant amount of our food for sometime to come. In particular we are very dependent on imports for processed packaged items, meat and grain based products. This is the area that particularly concerns me – bread. You can freeze it , but otherwise it does not keep for long, even when made with the Chorleywood process. Of course as I alluded to above if you have the flour stored you could bake it on demand, but that would require either significant commercial bakery facilities, or almost every house in the Island home baking. We no longer have the commercial option since CI bakeries closed down. That closure was said to be because for price competition from imported supplies. The remaining on island bakeries could probably produce no more than 15% of our island's daily bread requirements, even working flat out. As recently as the 1970's bakeries were expected to carry over a month's supply of flour on premises to ensure supply of that most essential of commodities - bread.

Even if we had the storage for flour we no longer have the capacity to process it. I cannot yet see hoards of eager home bakers baking bread daily, nor does it seem an efficient use of energy. In fact home food production seems to have declined remarkably. People in the UK generally no longer cook at home – they heat stuff from packets and tins. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/sep/05/home-cooking-decline-low-income-ready-meals. Even if we had the raw materials available locally it seems a growing army of people would not know or not be inclined to turn them into food. There is a different weakness there. The number of processing companies is small, and they operate a few large factory units. The problem was brought to light most clearly with the horsemeat scandal.

What should be clear to readers is that our food security in the Island has been eroded steadily over many years. It needs integrated thinking on food for a system that works for the island, from growers to processors to retailers to the public. Matching facilities need to be in place to make the whole work. There is no point in farmers growing wheat other than for export unless there are facilities to thresh and mill. There is no point to setting up a bakery unless you have flour supplies on hand. The evidence is we are losing it. We used to have 40 mills in the island, we now have one run part time. We no longer have a canning factory for potatoes and carrots - that closed in the '70s. We have lost farmers, we have I believe narrowed our crop and produce range gearing it for export, we have lost bakeries, converted glasshouse and nursery sites into building developments and now we are about to lose food warehousing. Each step, each loss, has lessened the resilience on island to provide for ourselves and increased our dependence on others outside.

I asked at the top of the piece, what is the point of government. In respect of food security I would say in Jersey it has shown itself to be an irrelevance. Yes there has been some support for farmers and for some facilities like the dairy. It has been heavily biased towards export activities, to the monetary aspect of the industry. Nothing aimed at staunching the disintegration of facilities we would need if we were forced to rely on ourselves. An no, an emergency plan is not food security and isn't good enough.  There is a price to 'cheap' food and it is the risk of no food.

For me the fact it is the Co-op closing the on island warehouse is particularly ironic. Until the recent sale of their farms to pay for the disastrous foray into banking, the Co-op group in the UK was effectively the countries largest farmer. The group had a degree of vertical integration of supply , distribution and retail of a portion of its food supplies. That exactly parallels what needs to be done to ensure we have food security.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21460452 (proportion processed food bought and food prices)


  1. Notices a slight typo on this line- 'This is there the bulk of the calories come from.' Where???! Paragraph above food supply chain diagram.Otherwise an excellent and informative article on a very important (and therefore not addressed locally) subject. Thanks Mark.

  2. I'll look at that - the placement of images is sometimes a bit off. The bulk of the calories comes from grain based product. For us that is bread and porridge and so forth.

  3. I worry more about emergency food supplies, but as you state that is not subject of this particular blog. With regard to whether Jersey land should be more intensively farmed to produce more local food I think that goes back to economics-despite your grumbles about its domination of political discourse. If imported food becomes less available and therefore likely more expensive then there would be an incentive to grow more locally.