My ride with local food

[I’m writing this as a response to Alberto Cottica’s very appropriate challenge: <a href=“”></a>]

I haven’t been successful so far, and I know. I just hope some subproducts will be useful later.

Since I was a boy, and that’s decades ago, I heard of things that were possible (“hey, so much wind here, this could power up an entire place”) and I heard of exponential changes that by definition were unsustainable (the steep population curve was one I found my place in).

The Canary Islands, were I live, are said to be a small continent due to the variety of microclimates. Through the decades, we’ve come from being very much localised in terms of food, to being 85% dependent on imports. For energy it’s 95%, maybe more, and as far as I know it doesn’t really matter because the point is fuel is needed to start the generators, even if you add some wind later. Water? Water is energy: you need fuel to move water from place to place, and in some very dry islands you need fuel to desalinate sea water.

I heard ecologists pull their hair off and say there’s no way out but reducing the number of people, and that fired my calculator up. Really? Is multiple deaths the only way forward? You can’t be serious, can you?

2 million people living on 7400 square kilometers, much of the land (I think 45% or so) is a bioreserve, so … let me do the maths … that’s two thousand square meters per person, so maybe if half were to be arable land, and adding food from the sea … it’s conceivable that we might feed ourselves.

Not saying it would be desirable, wanted, or the only way forward. Just saying, hey, it would be possible. And yes, there are some elements that tell us it should be somewhat desirable: peak oil, climate change, the possibility of big-time disruptions, plain good health from a fresher diet, and other motivations.

Thing is, let’s first gather the data, and from that reality, we can happily choose our way forward, build our vision, get things done. Right?

Wrong. At least so far, I haven’t yet succeded in making any real advances.

First, I looked at the factors related to growing food. Very sketchy, but here it is:

Second, I started Canaripedia, currently hosted at and with a more generalisable page, in English but not fully translated, at [Wrote some of that at] I had gathered some data myself. About food, we import 85% of what we eat, but we also export a lot, so much that at the end of the day, we grow 1 kilogram per person and per day - only most of it is bananas and tomatoes, which would mean a boring diet indeed. And, know what, apparently that’s what we eat every day: 1 kilogram per person - more if you count assorted liquids, but please do your maths or collect your statistics.

About arable land, it’s said that in my island, Tenerife, 53% of the arable land is not being used to grow food. At the same time, I think it’s about 200,000 people who don’t have a job. So why doesn’t it work differently? I still don’t know, but I think the answer is hidden in plain sight at several levels, all mingled with each other.

  1. A permaculturist once asked me: “why don’t you grow food?”. That one is easy. “I don’t know how to. I don’t have land. I don’t have time. I make money doing things I know and that pays for the food others grow.” Also, I took a short course on ecological agriculture, but it clearly didn’t break my current reality: I’d rather do other things.

  2. I’ve asked people around me: “why don’t people who are jobless grow food?”. The answer seems to be related to “markets”: “It’s easier to import food than to grow it. You make 10 cents while the supermarkets make 90 cents. So for now it’s more profitable to wait.” Also, food takes time to grow, and is risky. Plus, I suppose, some of the answers I gave at the personal level.

  3. Going up another level, I’ve asked why don’t governments push local food more? I’m not sure at all. It may be that they get money from taxing current economic activity, and that’s currently tourism (ups and downs, now everybody seems to be glad Egypt is not such a tourist-friendly place), used to be building hotels and appartments (no more), and well, just like in many other places, we seem to serve each other with haircuts and cellphone shops.

In any case, at all levels, the motivation to change things is not there, at least it’s not there yet, as far as I know. [If motivation comes abruptly, we might be in for a tough ride, cos food takes time to grow. Hence the concept of “emergency permaculture”:]

My motivation? I think it’s possible and desirable to grow more of the food we eat locally. We’re converting fuel into smoke and soil into toilet waste. Sustainable things fall down. At times, it feels somewhat scary to live far from the mainland. I think we could do really great things: “21 century food”. [I’ve been helping the folks at Open Source Ecology <a href=“”></a>, and the outgrowth in Europe <a href=“”></a> But the first are focused on building the machines and documenting them, and the second are, most appropriately, taking their time to find their own way forward. I can’t do more than I’m doing.]

I don’t know what to do. Thinking about next year, I think I need to look at the hard realities and start some kind of dialogue as to what to do next - where and how will be my questions. Farming in my window seems pointless. Filling up a wikipage with data doesn’t seem to cut it. I guess I’ll have to have conversations, join people who are already doing things, see why those who might are not doing things, and really find some leverage.

I don’t know if I’m an edgeryder. Maybe I am. My job is supposedly stable (I may be more stable than my job, the way some things seem to be headed), it’s really interesting at times (done some cool things there), and pays my bills. At the same time, I’ve clearly done some things that prove, at least to me personally, that I’m ready to start things that are not written in the job description. But I feel really silly suggesting other people might farm when I clearly won’t do it myself.

Maybe I’m on the edge of becoming a real edgeryder. How many of us out there?

Layer upon layer

There is a fundamental tradeoff between resilience and efficiency. Even in the Canaries, where transportation costs are presumably a big deal, an impossibly complex, multilayered modern food production sector coordinated by market mechanism can outcompete locally produced food even with the supemarket taking 90% of the revenues for itself. Of course, this might mean that, one day, the food will simply stop showing up in the shelf as a consequence of some crisis in some remote place.

A possible answer - it has worked for parts of Italy - is, unexpectedly, marketing. If you managed to grow some local food and wrap it into some narrative (“the authentic Canarian pumpkin as was grown in the 16th century blah blah blah”) then you would not have food, but a fancy branded IPR-protected good that you can sell at a premium. It is the Slow Food strategy: you might argue that it brandifies traditional knowledge, restrict competition and drives prices up - and yes, all of that stuff happens. But, at the same time, the premium price and the protection from competition (the latters stems from the authentic Canarian pumpkin having to come, you know, from the Canaries) means the incentive to actually start developing agricultural capacity might be called into existence.  In Italy Slow Food increased the profitability of some existing farming businesses, but maybe in the Canaries it might make some new businesses viable. Then, if the fecal material hits the ventilator,  that capacity can be reconverted to grow essentials… maybe.

If you like the idea, you need to start with some historical research to build a plausible story around which a tradition can be invented. Hobsbawn’s The invention of tradition can offer some insights.

Numbers versus Narrative?

Hm. That’s interesting. Extremely.

I’m the calculator boy, the technology fan, the fecal-material-etc, and all that does have a place. So many square meters, this or that technology, one-page just-in-case plan - we could do it.

But those other bits - tradition and marketing - are provocative, and maybe they can resonate with what other people are doing already. Connecting with other people’s priorities has been a problem, I think. Now I have more things to google for! (“cultivos tradicionales canarias”)

I’m still concerned about numbers and speed, of course, because fecal matters tend to fly faster than crops grow. Which is why I still want a one-page just-in-case plan, to keep us fed in those few months.

And if that’s my real passion, then it follows I’m not really tuned to any “slow” movement, and maybe I just should accept that and focus on what I feel is most important?

Not sure, really. See, maybe if I want to be ready for the abrupt I need to connect with the slow? I think I’ll open some space …

Further thinking appreciated!

Try asking the expert

It just crossed my mind that Stefano Maffei is on Edgeryders. He is a designer with knowledge on food and tourism services, and a teacher at Milan’s Politecnico. Why don’t you point him to the conversation and ask him for his opinion?

Done, thanks!

I don’t know exactly what to ask him, so I directed him to this thread.

We’ll see what comes up.

one page just in case

Regarding your desire for an emergency plan for local food supply, I recently found a highly inspiring documentary on how Cuba had to move to local food during their “special period”, where 80% of oil and food imports were lost overnight:

The Power of Community. How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

The interesting part about the Cuban situation starts at ~10:00. Maybe you know the details of the Cuban example already, but just in case … .

Regarding the problem of local production competing with economies of scale, in my view the only way out is starting with local self-supply communities. Just like envisioned by OSE’s “Gloval Village” model. As for own practical steps towards local food, I too have problems to find time and motivation to grow the stuff. So I came up with the idea, for myself, to at least map and potentially harvest the unused food trees on public ground in my surrounding area. There’s a Germany-centered but internationally usable website called for gathering that type of information on a map …

Hadn’t seen the figures

I work in public health. So I know - just like everyone else, but maybe a bit deeper in the skin - that averages mean someone is above average and someone is below average. So the Cubans losing 10 kg on average (in a couple of years) is a lot, because it means a number of them lost even more weight, and a number must have died.

Now, I’ll try and look at what can be done from this side of the catastrophic fence. The incentives in a crisis are towards growing locally if you can. The incentives in a situation of “globalised plenty” go exactly against that. Right now, at least in the Canaries, we are in a so-so situation, with 6000 people officially gone back from bricks to agriculture. (But there’s still more than a quarter of a million without jobs.)

Looking at the video, it’s extremely important to have knowledge and to be able to act on that knowledge fast. There are other elements but those two - smarts and speed, if you like - put us in the same place as other animals.

Plus cooperation. Which, I guess, has to be voluntary even in a centralised country.

So, yes, I guess that’s what we all need to build right now: the smarts, the speed, the cooperative ways. Because they will be good in any case.

Ok, will watch the video in full, and will come back. The need for food doesn’t go away!

Huertos compartidos

I’ve never managed to grow food myself. But I grow connections, and I’d like to share this one with whoever passes around:

Just met them on twitter @huertoscomparti where I’m suggesting they share their ride as people, as entrepreuners, as true edgeryders. Go tell them how productive it is to be here! :slight_smile:

(It’s us people who make things happen. Even from inside administrations. I know, and I’ll tell some soon.)

Their idea is simple, and they’ve taken action: someone has land, someone grows food organically there, they sign a contract by which each gets 50%. They are growing a community, a couple of websites, and I believe developing the contracts themselves. They are crowdfunding some improvements but judging by the map there’s already lots of momentum in the few weeks they’ve been going on.

I’ve written about them in Spanish

(If anyone wants to know, my mind is fried with an absorbing project right now, but next step is more activity here in Edgeryders and related to it.)

Some key points about collaboration to produce and commercialize

Some days ago I wrote a post talking about the same issue called: ‘Some key points about collaboration to produce and commercialize food in community’. Maybe some of the references could be useful.

Nice Piece

Especially thanks for pointing out that

[T]here are some powerful people (big companies and governments) who are focusing their interest on increasing consumption to solve the economical crisis (neoliberalism).

Defining neoliberalism that way round makes its absurdity crisp clear … . They will also try to solve the impending resource scarcity crisis also by increasing consumption, and will even think that’s rational.

My ride with local food

“1) A permaculturist once asked me: “why don’t you grow food?”. That one is easy. “I don’t know how to. I don’t have land. I don’t have time. I make money doing things I know and that pays for the food others grow.” Also, I took a short course on ecological agriculture, but it clearly didn’t break my current reality: I’d rather do other things.”

Wow! That leaps out at me!

“I feel really silly suggesting other people might farm when I clearly won’t do it myself.”

Hmm, hard not to be offensive here, but I think that is pretty silly.

I’ve got a multitude of pressures on my time (though I wouldn’t presume they are comparable with yours). An allotment might not be a farm but it’s taught me more in 5 years of amatuerish gardening than any amount of data and reading journals ever could, I’m pretty sure.

Your answers sound like the textbook explanation for how ‘civilisation’ (I’d prefer to be more radical and say ‘hierarchy’) emerged from agriculture - when the many can grow food for an elite few, suddenly things change. New possibilities emerge, more time for culture, invention, etc, but also the development of a stratified society - where a lucky few rely on the toil of others.

I don’t think this will last if food security becomes the issue I think it will be - at least, I’d rather it didn’t, because if it does, it will be backed up with violence (I think we see the beginnings of this in gated communities and Israel’s Wall claiming land and water)

I’ve also seen - and screened - the Cuba film, and are glad that the same part prickled you as me - of course these people developed interesting community food systems - THEY WERE STARVING! Necessity is the mother of invention… similar things appear to be happening now in Greece, and allotments in the UK were originally to help working class people continue to survive in the exploitation of the Industrial Revolution.

I’ve posted elsewhere about the Transition Stroud ‘Edible Open Gardens’ project, to inspire people to grow their own food, and to grow more of it, and to grow - and share - with others ( We have also started an annual Potato Day in February - where we sell over 20 varieties of seed potato in the local shopping centre, encouraging people to use this as a first crop (after all, you can grow potatoes in anything, and they help clear ground for other crops) - and celebrate the humble spud! Then there’s Apple Day in October, which has developed into the ‘Apple Town’ project to maintain, publicise and plant orchards of apples and other productive trees in and around the town. A related local group has a Get Growing project in the local primary schools, which through collaboration with students growing food at their schools produced a recipe book last year. We’ve also started a Local Food Strategy group, including a few farmers - trying to reach more - which aims to develop the back of the envelope calculations estimating whether Stroud could feed itself, done a few years ago:

I hope those links, and the references in that last one, help you - and make up for any initial offensiveness on my part! What you’ve done sounds great too, and I look forward to getting a better look at the links you provided. The last thing I’d mention is diet - have you considered this? If you haven’t read it before, I’d start with Simon Fairlie (a committed meat-eater and farmer)'s article Can Britian Feed Itself (the basis for the Stroud version above), and then - again, if you haven’t read already, move on to his book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” (see, told you he was committed), and compare and contrast with the less theoretical, more practical ‘Growing Green’ by Iain Tolhurst and Jenny Hall You might also like the international magazine of the same name, which reports on projects around the world - and hence surely with some microclimates similar to those near you, and the videos on the above site.

I look forward to meeting you!