Do What Oxford Says, then Do What It Doesn’t: a Recipe for Food Sustainability

In 2013, Low Carbon Oxford weighed up the environmental impact of Oxford’s whole food supply chain in a report commissioned by the City of Oxford. Their study revealed startling statistics, for example that the city’s food system alone demands 398 million tonnes of water per year, requires 6.6 million gigajoules of fossil fuel energy – equivalent to £70 million worth of oil – and emits 380,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly.

Arriving at these figures involved weighing up the demand profile of the City’s whole food supply chain, comparing it to national averages, scoring its performance in different sectors, identifying scope for change and setting targets for improvement.

The report was based on the fact that what you eat is about more than just your diet. Our health, our wealth, and the environment are all vitally connected to our food lifestyles. A measure of the drain on resources that our consumption requires has been coined our personal ‘foodprint’[1] – and some of the main factors are how much food we waste, the energy we use in the kitchen, our use of packaging, and also our diet. These all feed into the foodprint of a local area, a city (like Oxford) or even a country, revealing the resource intensity involved from beginning to end of the supply chain of an entire food economy, which itself can be healthy, wealthy, sustainable, or ecologically disastrous.

Food waste across the supply chain, as well as high consumption of red and white meat were actually the highest contributing factors to Oxford’s foodprint. It follows that the most impactful actions we can take to immediately and drastically reduce our own foodprint are simple behavioral changes as individuals, such as more careful shopping to reduce food waste or spoilage (apparently 75% is avoidable), and a reduced meat diet, if not a vegetarian or vegan one.

After pinpointing the hotspots for change the researchers prescribed a fairly conventional course of reducing food waste, renewables investment, and eating healthier for an overall reduced foodprint for Oxford. I was left wondering: do they expect people will adopt their recommendations, cut out meat, save their leftovers and do what’s right, just because (Oxford thinks) they should?

Shockingly, ‘food miles’ weren’t mentioned at any point in the report. In fact, researchers completely downplayed the contribution of food provenance – where food comes from – to Oxford’s sizeable foodprint. Although 30% of global CO2 emissions are attributable to international freight (and set to increase fourfold)[2], they must have decided this didn’t lie within their Oxford-centric ‘data set’, even though the study admits Oxford’s food supply is dominated by national suppliers who source globally. They reasoned that since only 1% of all food consumed in Oxford actually comes direct from local suppliers, boosting consumer preference for local food even three- or four-fold would do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, compared with an intervention in a ‘hotspot’ sector such as meat consumption. So, the study concluded that food provenance didn’t really matter when it came to reducing Oxford’s foodprint.

The fault in this conclusion is apparent if we make a brief comparison to the bicycle. Strictly speaking, buying a bicycle instead of a car does very little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, compared with a ‘hotspot’ intervention such as leaving remaining oil reserves in the ground. Looking only at the ‘data set’ of emissions, the same researchers would conclude riding a bike is not worthwhile: “Rather focus on leaving oil in the ground.” Of course, this is nonsense for a number of reasons, chiefly because the real value of the bicycle is more than just its performance within an emissions ‘data set’. Riding a bicycle has related appeals such as combatting city congestion, keeping people fitter, being cheaper than a car, and so on – once people see the benefits, and see others riding too, they’re encouraged to join the movement. Beyond a certain hurdle the inertia is overcome and an attitude shift from a ‘car attitude’ to a ‘bike attitude’ occurs (see the Netherlands). The social value of attitude shifts is that they advance further behavior and values along the same (sustainable) lines. Once people begin to think “burn fat, not oil”, then they’ll prefer bikes to cars and leave oil reserves in the ground. This resource consciousness is likely to spread to other areas of their lives too. Until such an attitude shift occurs about food supply people won’t be inspired to hotspot interventions like those prescribed by the Oxford report.

The hotspot actions, though impactful in themselves, are worthless without a cultural shift that accelerates our readiness to accept further behavioral changes. I almost jumped out of my bicycle saddle when I read that if just a quarter of domestic gardens in Oxford were converted over to production, that could cover >10% of supply to Oxford. The researchers made no further inferences. Why did they not consider the social value of this ‘re-localisation’ in lowering Oxford’s foodprint?

Let’s consider that this does happen with a quarter of gardens in Oxford. Participating households start reducing their dependence on supermarkets, and profit from the sale of surplus, providing incentive to continue or expand. Consumers gain a decentralized access to the source of their food, so producers are able to preferentially harvest ‘on demand’, cutting out large amounts of waste and spoilage that occurs mid-way down national or global supply chains. And in the case where consumers are growing only for personal use, they will be much less likely to waste the food they’ve labored to grow themselves. Also, a direct connection with growing food has been linked to an increased ‘food consciousness’ that inspires better dietary habits.

Small-scale operations benefit from simpler distribution processes, so they can rely more upon renewable energy alternatives (cargo bike delivery), and the fact that there’s a lot of them diversifies the supply, improving market resilience and increasing ‘artisanal choices’. Most importantly, ‘ownership’ of the process and the product strengthens the stake of communities in a ‘homegrown economy’, reinforcing behavioral trends that move away from a higher foodprint model, and eroding the lobbying power of dominant corporate suppliers who wish to preserve it.

And if a quarter of domestic gardens were proven profitable like this, wouldn’t another quarter or more follow suit? Oxford may be Oxford, but elsewhere indie growers associations like the Better Food Traders, veg box schemes and community hosted farmer’s markets like those of Hackney-based Growing Communities, as well as ethical distributors like Farmdrop in London, are already well established and growing as an alternative to mainstream food sources (Check them all out!). Not only in the UK, but anywhere food is grown, communities would benefit from the localisation of food supply ownership.

There’s vacant, non-arable land too, scattered across urban areas, which innovative hydroponic methods can nonetheless turn productive. In fact, hydroponic technology can turn virtually any spare public or private space (think lobbies, rooftops, traffic islands, road shoulders, parking spaces) into productive mini farms. Hydroponic methods have demonstrated a reduction of water use as great as 90%. As urbanization continues hydroponics and other soil-less techniques will fill the ‘food desert’ production void of concrete jungles. Currently the barriers to this are high land (housing) prices and planning permissions, but urban growers are nonetheless springing up like weeds in cities everywhere, to fill gaps with fruitful allotments and pop up gardens. (see Nomadic Community Gardens in Shoreditch and Global Generation’s Skip Garden in Kings Cross, Growing Communities Patchwork farm). Floating Farms is working to open a floating hydroponic herb farm on London’s canals, powered completely by renewable energy. (Register your interest with floatingfarms@icloud.com to stay informed) And the Ecological Land Co-operative works to provide increased smallholdings access for new entrants to sustainable agriculture. As popular movements grow and take on credence, markets and laws will adapt to accommodate evolving attitudes (think marijuana laws in the U.S.), and urban farming is predicted to be a top job in the near future.

Urban farming must be seen for what it is in the long term: a powerful social mechanism to inspire belief in the re-localisation of our food supply, within the context of which the interventionist actions recommended by the Oxford study have a definite place. But while they only treat the symptoms of our current consumption, we must develop aggregative social solutions like the burgeoning urban farming movement to advance sustainable values and reinforce behavioural change. So, if you’re hungry for change, you better start growing – and don’t just think about reducing your current negative footprint. Think about shifting your weight onto your alternate foot, the one with a positive grassroots footprint. In terms of food, help bring source and consumer closer together, and community interests will rise to the top of the food chain of their own accord. It doesn’t take an Oxford degree to see that we should leave oil in the ground, but sow more seeds in it too!

My apologies in closing to the City of Oxford. I understand the report must have consumed a great deal of resources (I printed it too) and I do not intend its caloric value to go to waste. I also understand that many people ride bikes in Oxford for which we should be very grateful.

[1] Godfrey, Charles (Landshare): FoodPrinting Oxford – How to feed a City. Low Carbon Oxford, 2013. (http://www.landshare.org/uploads/7/5/4/1/7541639/food_printing_web.pdf)

[2] The Carbon Footprint of Global Trade. OECD/ITF, 2015. (http://www.itf-oecd.org/sites/default/files/docs/cop-pdf-06.pdf)

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