Can Guernsey feed itself?

January 19th, 2011 by Andrew Casebow

Self-sufficiency is a great idea and one that is in the ascendancy again at the present time. Policy makers are also concerned about ‘Food Security’ and it’s tempting to put the two ideas together.

First let’s just think about ‘food security’. The world population is expanding and in the 1970’s there were just over three billion people in the world.

Now there are about 6.9 billion people and there are likely to be over 9 billion by 2050.

The world is getting crowded (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Most of the extra people and more mouths to feed will be in Africa and Latin America, although most countries are likely to experience some population growth.

As people in China, India, Brazil and other developing countries become more affluent they also want a better standard of living, which usually means that they want a diet that is based more on meat and dairy products rather than on cereals and rice. It may take more than three kilograms of cereal grain to produce one kilogram of meat, so changing to a meat based diet uses up more of the earth’s resources.

At the same time water is becoming a scarce resource in many countries, driven by changes in the climate. Agricultural land is also being developed and used for housing, infrastructure projects and urban expansion to take account of the much more urban lifestyles most people will have in the future. So there is likely to be less land available in the future.

In the 1970’s I worked on a Ministry of Agriculture Report called ‘Food from our own Resources’ which considered the production of food in the UK and how more food could be home produced within the UK to feed the increasing population. At that time many of the staple foods were nationally at about 70 – 95% self-sufficiency. Nowadays that is a much lower figure, in many cases not much more that 50% because so much of the food that we eat, such as meat, fruit and even vegetables, is imported.

Only 5 years ago the British Government were still not acknowledging that ‘food security’ could be a problem and were fully committed to a policy of ‘globalisation’ believing that if the UK was to export goods and services it would have to import food, but now growing more of our own food is at the top of the agenda.

Where are we in Guernsey on this?

Islanders who were here during the occupation are probably among the best people to know how we would fare if we had to be more self-sufficient. At that time there were about 20,000 people living in the island and my understanding was that some of the food that they ate still had to be imported.

Now, we have a resident population that is well over 60,000 people and the type of food we eat bears little resemblance to the food that was eaten 60 years ago. Virtually all of it is now imported, apart from milk, potatoes and some vegetables.

Sixty years ago there were about 350 to 400 small ‘farmers’ in the island and they were using most, if not all, of the available agricultural land. There were over 15,000 vergees of agricultural land in the island.

Most of the vegetables, all of the milk and some of the dairy products and meat was probably produced in the island, although a considerable amount of food would still have been imported. But most people’s diet would have been quite restricted with little choice and only seasonal vegetables being available.

Guernsey still have about 15,000 vergees of open agricultural land in the island but much of it is used for other things, such as grazing and exercise areas for horses, as amenity land for football pitches and other sports grounds, as wildlife and conservation areas, for parkland and increasingly for extended gardens. Many people who used to own a field beside their house and let it to a local farmer now spend their weekends on a ride-on lawn mower, or have planted trees and dug ponds on the land that could be used for food production. Therefore the land that is still available for food production is less than 10,000 vergees.

Fifty years ago, as well as keeping domestic chickens, many people would have produced a wide range of vegetable crops in their own gardens. I recall my grandfather spending most of his days digging, weeding and growing vegetable crops in our domestic garden. It was a very time consuming enterprise involving lots of hard work but the work did not end there because there were no convenience foods and so my mother spend much of her time preparing food in the house and, in season, making jams, pickling and preserving fruit.

jams and marmalade at the Vale farmers' market (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

I remember shelves full of preserving jars crammed with pears, plums, peaches and all manner of fruit. I can still smell that wonderful sweet smell of bottled fruit in the ‘scullery’.

Today we have a very wide range of choices of foods available. Just look at the huge range of dairy products that are imported but also look at the range of fruit and vegetables that are available throughout the year, from a very wide range of different countries.

Dairy cows at that time would have been fed on a mainly hay diet during the winter and grass during the summer. Carrots, kale, fodder beet, ‘mangle wurzels’ and other feeds were also grown for the cows. However, even with all this home grown food each cows produced less than half of the milk that it does today. Now cows are fed on grass, maize, silage and imported concentrated (cereals and protein) feeds.

Guernsey cows in a field in the Vale (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

The one food that the island is ‘self sufficient’ in is fresh milk but, in addition to the grass and silage produced from about 7500 vergees of land, the island’s cattle probably eat at least 4000 tonnes of imported feed in order to produce that milk. That alone would require another 4000 vergees of land to produce the grain for cattle feed, if it was ‘home grown’.

Therefore, given the many more people that live in the island today it is unlikely that we could be self sufficient in any really meaningful way. We will need to continue importing the vast majority of the foods that we eat. We will be very much dependent on it continuing to be available, provided that we have the money to pay for it. However, that does not mean that we should not produce more local food, wherever possible. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that as an island we could be self-sufficient in food.

Many people do really value local production and eating freshly produced local food. The fact that this is now still available in some of our local shops and supermarkets is tremendous, it is still available on roadside stalls and at the farmer’s markets. These all really do deserve support because producing food locally is hard work and much more expensive than in England or on the Continent where the scale of production can be so enormous that it is much cheaper to produce.

Local farmers and growers really do deserve our support. People like Terry Robert who supplies the Channel Islands Cooperative Society, John and Keith Tostevin with their farm stall in the Forest, and Fiona Pollock with her Organic Vegetable Box Scheme. Then there are the people who supply vegetables through the Farmer’s Markets. I had some incredibly tasty vegetables grown by the Caritas Community Trust in St Peters recently (on land fertilised with seaweed!). Absolutely stunning!

David Grimshaw and Sandra Critell selling Caritas vegetables at the Sausmarez Manor farmers' market (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

But let’s not forget the remaining glasshouse growers, such as the Nicholsons at Gele Road who produce tomatoes and cucumbers for local sale, B R Langlois and Sons at Vazon who grow peppers and aubergines, or Fresh Guernsey Herbs and Guernsey Mushrooms.

What about the local fish! Can you think of anything better than locally caught lobster, brill or bass, or a chancre, with Guernsey butter and local Senners bread!

Guernsey shellfish, chancre, lobster and ormers (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

We have lived through many years when a ‘cheap food policy’ in the UK and Europe has meant that it is very difficult to make a good living from food production. That is likely to change and become much more expensive in the future. Food is now being traded around the world as a commodity and it is likely to increase (and in some years decrease) in price according to availability. Just this year the price of wheat has more than doubled, from less than £100 per tonne to over £200 per tonne on the world market, driven by weather conditions in Russia and in Australia. At the same time America is now converting several million tonnes of grain into bio-fuels because they are concerned about fuel security, so that will no longer be available as a stand-by.

The price of virtually all the meat, particularly chicken, pig meat and milk products that we eat is driven by the cost of animal feeds, which are all based on the price of wheat. This also has a huge influence on the cost of producing many other food crops because as the price of wheat increases then farmers around the world start to grow more wheat in preference to other crops.

Where does this all leave us in Guernsey?

We do need to support our local farmers, growers and fishermen and to expect to pay more for locally produced fresh food rather than imported produce.

There is currently a surge in interest in small-holding within the island, with many people keeping a few pigs, some chicken for free-range egg production or for meat, or cattle as a part-time enterprise alongside their normal work. Excellent locally produced cheeses are also being made and sold.

The establishment of the two local farmer’s markets in recent years has made this possible as they have provided a market for some local produce that was not available previously. Hopefully, some of the people who are now finding that they enjoy growing produce and keeping animals will find that they can expand their production in future years and make it either a more viable part-time enterprise, or even their main work.

Most people of course will not aspire to keeping a cow, free range pigs or growing field crops of vegetables but there are many more people now who are interested in having an allotment. This is more of a lifestyle choice. I have an allotment but it needs constant work and dedication that I’m afraid I don’t always give it. It is also not cheap. Growing your own food can be very rewarding but when all costs are taken into account then the vegetable and fruit crops that we grow could probably be bought more cheaply from the local shop or from the farmer’s market.

Keeping an allotment is well worthwhile if you have sufficient time and inclination but it does take an awful lot of time and I have noticed that many allotments seem to change hands quite frequently. Most people do not realise just how much work can be involved to keep their allotment properly and to grow a wide range of crops. Some well organised people seem to find the time, or should I say they manage their time and their allotments well.

Dave Gorvel's allotments in St Martin (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Personally, I believe that it is very worthwhile and a good use of some of the old redundant glasshouse sites that we still have in the island.

So, to return to our theme of self-sufficiency and whether it would be possible for the island to grow most of the food we need. Self-sufficiency is a great model and I loved the time that my wife and I spent having a very self-sufficient lifestyle, but it takes over your life for very little financial reward. We found that when we had a family and developed outside interests that it gradually falls by the wayside.

Could Guernsey ever produce sufficient food for all its people?

The answer is obviously no. Is it worthwhile to produce more food? Yes. We really should support the people who grow local vegetable crops and make it so worthwhile for them that young people want to start growing crops again and make a worthwhile business. However, it will only be worthwhile if young people can see that they have a rewarding future growing food in the island. At the present time it is a lot of hard work for not much reward. We need to turn that around.

The most vital thing that we must do is to preserve the agricultural land, including that under redundant glasshouses. We have some excellent quality land in Guernsey and even the wetter land is still very good at producing grass and wild flowers for cattle grazing, and for brightening our lives. Once land has been developed then it is lost and it will never go back to producing food or providing a habitat for wildlife. We do have a choice in Guernsey, whether to protect our open land or to succumb to creeping development. I would urge you to help to protect our island’s land for future generations.

We can produce all of our own fresh milk from Guernsey cows at the present time and it is really worthwhile maintaining that link to our island’s history and heritage. We probably produce most of the maincrop potatoes consumed in the island but this is largely because they are a bulky crop and importing potatoes is expensive, which means that local production is a viable enterprise. Producing local beef from the dairy herd could be really worthwhile in the future provided that there is sufficient grazing land preserved and people are prepared to pay slightly more for a superb local product.

Much of the secret in producing high quality meat is in keeping animals stress free. Slaughtering them humanely in a local slaughterhouse where they don’t have to travel long distances from their fields, or become stressed (which ruins the eating quality of the meat).

Beef should then be hung in chilled conditions for at least three weeks and preferably a month to make it really tender. Local beef produced from Guernsey meadows can be the best in the world.

Beef products hanging at Meadow Court Farm (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Finally, we need to remember that the farming of local beef and dairy cattle not only produces local meat and milk but they also conserve the rural landscape and wildlife habitats around the island. In short, they do much to preserve our natural heritage. For this reason alone they are worth preserving. They produce not just meat and milk but our wildlife, our managed countryside and our natural heritage too.

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