Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)


  By the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)1.

1.  The drivers

  1.1  CAT's "Think Local" Initiative was the result of several key drivers:

    —  crisis in agriculture resulting from widespread foot and mouth disease;

    —  need for stability in the local economy;

    —  need to preserve local employment;

    —  meeting Royal Commission on Environment and Pollution (RECP) climate change targets;

    —  impending reforms of CAP;

    —  need to internalise environmental, social and economic externalities ie reveal the true costs of our activities.

  1.2  Although many organisations are doing good work, this tends to be isolated within sectors ie Local Food Links. The work of CAT's visitor complex over the past 25 years has been multi-disciplinary, including human, biological and energy technologies.2

2.  The economic background

  2.1  Anyone watching the news recently will have seen pictures of despondent men and women pouring out of factory gates as the company they have been working for has just announced closure.

  The news will usually focus on the devastation this will cause to the local community, the disappointment that Government officials could not convince the company to stay, and the knock-on effects the closure will have on other local businesses. Do we really have to be this fragile?

  2.2  Ironically, the next news item could easily be a politician or business leader asking us to grasp the new opportunities within the globalisation of world markets. What is rarely mentioned is that along with the opportunities of globalisation comes an inherent instability. If a large company can simply close and move to a lower wage economy why shouldn't it? If another company can move away to an area with lower health and safety standards for their work force, why not? This is the reality of the "global free-market". Indeed, why are we so surprised that a small town, over-dependent on one large employer, is suddenly ruined by its loss?

3.  What's the solution?

  3.1  The solution to this problem is not so far away; in fact it is literally on our doorstep. Re-localisation is a complementary alternative to globalisation which provides us with the means to choose which aspects of our lives we will source locally and which parts we feel confident to trust to multi-national commerce. Re-localisation is both a protection from the fragility of globalisation and an opportunity to create robust and diverse local economies.

  3.2  In practice, it means raising the profile of local produce with consumers; getting local farmers to work with local shops to supply more locally produced food; getting a community wind power scheme to include turbine maintenance by the local garage mechanic; getting local engineering firms to look into the creation of a sideline in manufacturing components used by other local companies; or getting domestic organic wastes turned into valuable compost for the garden centre. In short, re-localisation is about making your local economy larger, more robust and more diverse—truly sustainable development.

4.  Too much complexity

  4.1  Our food, clothes, shelter, drink, warmth and power are now delivered to us by a complex web of interactions between a great many very complex and fragile systems—it's only when it goes wrong that we even notice how complex it all has become. As management criteria go, resilience or robustness hardly get a look in alongside such titans as "efficiency", just in time delivery, best value and optimum returns on investment. We have already seen some minor breakdowns: the fuel crisis, BSE, salmonella, computer viruses, freak weather, Railtrack, and now we have the foot and mouth disease outbreak. Imagine how today's vital supply systems might cope with something more serious, such as a runaway greenhouse effect situation. We may find that we have lost the infrastructure, skills and knowledge base to provide for ourselves in any meaningful way.

  4.2  Without realising it, we have created a house of cards, built on foundations of complexity. Worse still, we treat it as if it were a fortress of stone. Clearly, our local economies need to be stronger for today's problems as well as tomorrow's.

  (See paragraph 9 for an example of the complexity we can face each day.)

5.  Taking action

  5.1  In more localised systems however—such as those that Britain had in the past or those in less over-developed parts of the world—there is much more inherent resilience and robustness. Meeting local needs with local resources is an inherently more stable system because:

    —  things do not travel so far, so they need less preservatives and packing;

    —  they are based around the use of locally available materials;

    —  they are made with local skills;

    —  the people involved know each other;

    —  they more fully understand the technologies they use;

    —  the systems are not driven excessively hard to compete;

    —  they do not require large amounts of imported energy.

  5.2  It is not necessary to re-localise everything at once, nor is it necessary for re-localised alternatives to become the only option. Globalised and localised systems can exist side by side. Some items you may want to buy locally, on other days you may not. The important thing is that the local options are retained or re-introduced. Economic diversity, like biodiversity, produces resilience in the systems. Looking today at any high street in the UK, we see the dominance of large retailers. If we want to complement their presence, we need to take action to encourage a diversity of smaller independent retail outlets supplying local produce. This diversity increases our economic strength.

6.  Key outcomes of re-localisation

  6.1  Changes in the way we produce and supply food have brought considerable costs to the environment and to human health. Although it is recognised that there are also positive side effects of modern agriculture, the "de-localisation" of food production does incur a great many additional costs which are external to conventional agricultural economics, and are not paid by producer or consumer. Re-localising production into "foodshed" areas can be a powerful tool in decreasing the negative costs and increasing the positive benefits.

(a)  Decrease negative externalities:

  Shortening the food chain from production to consumption:

    —  reducing the spread of infectious diseases in agriculture sector;

    —  reducing "food miles"4 or negative transport externalities (required to meet the climate change targets suggested by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution5).

(b)  Increase the positive externalities:

  Increasing resilience and stability in local economies:

    —  supports economic diversity of local supply chains;

    —  increased home and urban food production "Allotments"6.

  Increased sense of community:

    —  re-vitalising urban-rural or producer-consumer dialogues;

    —  increased sense of citizenship;

    —  educational—allowing a greater understanding of supply chains amongst schools etc.

  (See paragraph 10 for further analysis of the benefits of localisation.)

7.  Conclusion

  7.1  Within any regional economy there is a sector which is driven through meeting local needs with local resources. Although it may no longer be the majority share, this sector is rapidly becoming increasingly significant in a globalised world, as it is by far the most resilient. By its very nature it cannot be transferred to new areas where labour is cheaper or where the next round of subsidies is being unveiled. Of course, there are some items such as spares for the car, computer hardware and software, or hi-fi equipment, which it is quite acceptable to source from trans-national markets. For other things, particularly essential short durability items, we as consumers may prefer to re-localise our supply claims. Some things could be tightly re-localised to the town or surrounding area, other things could be sourced from the region or county. We must not forget that collectively we are in control—we just need to re-explore our options.

8.  Recommendations

  8.1  Suggestions for National Re-localisation Initiatives include:

    —  research to optimise mix of global knowledge based economy/re-localised infrastructure;

    —  funded research into best practice in a variety of sectors in UK, EU and beyond;

    —  pilot projects in a range of differing locations across the UK to produce data on costs/benefits; and

    —  use of ICT in re-localising supply chains.

9.  Consider a typical day:

  We wake up in a house built by people we don't know with materials of unknown origin. It is heated by fuel manufactured and brought to us in ways we do not know, by a utility company now owned in America. We have no fuel reserves beyond a couple of weeks. The house is located in an area where we know few neighbours and is mostly owned by a German bank. We breakfast on food grown we know not where, by farmers we'll never know, using methods we never see and cooked we know not where. Our food is brought from shops that would be empty in three days without fuel. We don't know where our waste travels to, to be treated in ways we do not know, by people we will never meet. We pay for it all by banking systems over which we have no control. We have become trustingly dependent for our continued existence on increasingly remote suppliers through ever expanding systems who know us not, and would probably not care about us even if they did.

10.  Some ideas on what to re-localise and why:

  Prioritise the essentials—short life consumables where loss of supply will cause direct hardship. This will help in:

    —  preserving or re-introducing economic diversity;

    —  reducing the complexity of the production system involved;

    —  reducing fossil fuel emissions;

    —  increasing local employment;

    —  adding value to goods and services;

    —  keeping money circulating locally;

    —  reducing consumer concerns; and

    —  preserving or re-introducing key skills bases within the local area.

11.  Food and Agriculture: a recipe for recovery?

  Our farming industry is important—economically, environmentally and socially. It's hard to believe the run of bad luck currently being dealt to the agriculture sector. First it was salmonella and eggs, then it was chickens, then came BSE followed closely by diminishing fish stocks, and now we're back to foot-and-mouth disease. This seems to be such a strikingly significant run of misfortune that perhaps there's more to it than just luck.

  In agriculture, globalisation has brought about incredible increases in complexity over the past few decades. On the supply side, our farmers have been encouraged to borrow money to buy new plant and machinery to meet production targets or increase yields. On the demand side, large chains of out of town supermarkets have had the economies of scale to drive local traders out of business, thus removing supply chains for local produce. Many of these changes are not introduced for the benefit of the farmer or the consumer; they are made for the benefit and profitability of the trans-national distribution chains and supermarkets. All these increases in complexity to the food chain, which itself is rooted in an industry that by its primary nature is already biologically complex, must make us wonder about what control we have left.

  We may think that the food we buy today is basically much the same as the food we bought in the 1970s. Nothing could be further from the truth—the food, and more importantly, the systems that provide it have changed almost beyond recognition. Unsurprisingly, the hidden costs of the changes to food production and distribution are not fully internalised, eg greenhouse gas emissions, job losses, and public health scares. Vegetables that could be grown locally are flown thousands of miles to reach our dinner plates. Millions of animals are now moved vast distances, held briefly in collective holding centres, then quickly moved on to somewhere else. What we buy might be part of an English sheep, slaughtered in Belgium, processed in France, part sent to Canada and part sent to the UK. Although meat is an important export market, if animals are fed on local feed, slaughtered locally, and processed locally, not only do we significantly reduce the risk of damaging problems across the industry, we also keep an increased share of the value of the product in our local economy. Re-localisation—even in this sector alone—would benefit farmers, consumers, the economy and the environment.

25 April 2001

  1  About the Centre for Alternative Technology

  The Centre was founded in the early 1970s as a living community dedicated to testing out the emerging alternative technologies, in order to find out which ones worked and which ones didn't. Opening to visitors in 1975, CAT set out to demonstrate and prove, by a positive living example, new technologies which would provide practical solutions to the problems that are now worrying the world's ecologists.

  CAT now acts as a bridge between those who are seeking to explore a more ecological way of living and the store of practical hands-on experience we have gained by working with sustainable technologies for over 25 years.

  We aim to inspire, inform and enable society to move towards a sustainable future. Many of our ideas, previously thought radical, are now commonly accepted. We continue to challenge conventional wisdom with forward looking concepts. For more details visit

  2  Recent working examples of CAT's integrated localisation include: a community composting scheme; a policy of prioritising local and organic produce in our on-site restaurant and café in Machynlleth; facilitating a community wind power scheme in Pantperthog; the construction of AtEIC (CAT's autonomous environmental information centre) using local materials, labour and designed to generate its own power needs founding membership of the Dyfi Eco Valley Partnership; and informing visitors to CAT of the integrated nature of the choices they make as consumers as part of our "Think Local" Initiative. CAT, is currently seeking funds to further research initiatives linking re-localisation of food, finance, energy, policing, public transport, housing provision, building materials (recycled and new), sewage/waste treatment, community support services, energy efficiency services, credit provisions.

  3  Foodsheds are defined as "self-reliant, locally or regionally based food system comprised of diversified farms using sustainable practices to supply fresher, more nutritious foodstuffs to small scale consumers to whom producers are linked by the bonds of community as well as economy" (Prof Jules Pretty in Resurgence April 2001).

  4  Food miles example: Welsh Lamb travelled 750 miles to end up 50 miles from original source—(Week in Week out, BBC Wales March 2001).

  5  Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report Energy—The Changing Climate (Stationery Office Cm 4749) suggests 60 per cent reduction on current emissions by 2050.

  6  Allotments: There are 300,000 allotments in the UK covering 12,000 hectares yielding 215,000 tonnes of fresh produce annually contributing £561 million in value to household comsumption. (Prof Jules Pretty in Resurgence April 2001).

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