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Who feeds Bristol?

August 23, 2011

I try to eat healthily, five portions a day of fruit and vegetables.  I prefer veg to fruit, generally of the traditional British type like cauliflower and sprouts.  Yes, I love sprouts.  But I was surprised to learn recently that 60% of the veg and a staggering 90% of the fruit we eat in Britain is now imported.

This was just one of the many facts in the excellent report by Joy Carey, Who Feeds Bristol?, published earlier this year.   Commissioned by Bristol City Council and NHS Bristol the report analyses the current pattern of food consumption in the city and makes recommendations for a resilient and more sustainable future.

This is a massive issue, more than I can deal with in a short blog piece.  Our future food security depends on everything from local allotments to international competition for finite resources.  Oil and energy is already a strategic security concern.  Food and water won’t be far behind.  While western governments fret about competition for food, British based charities rightly raise issues such as unsustainable beef farming in South America or the need for local food production in Africa.

Debate about these issues is nothing new.  Britain was the first industrial nation and it made economic sense from the 18th century to export high value textiles and machinery and import cheap food.   Malthus was predicting dire consequences of continued population growth.  He’s been proved wrong for the last 200 years but the terms of debate may soon change.

So what could Bristol, with just 600,000 mouths to feed out of 6 billion worldwide, do to contribute to the debate on food security?  Potentially, quite a lot.  As part of our campaign to be Europe’s Green Capital, dealing with our food supply should be just as important as achieving zero landfill, clean energy and sustainable housing.

The report makes a number of recommendations, with a supportive planning regime at the hub.  The diversity of food retail is always a hot topic in Bristol but the supply chain is much more complex.  We should also support community food enterprises and increase markets for local food producers.  Right at source, we should also raise the level of urban food production and safeguard more land for food.

While speaking to the Evening Post’s Parliamentary correspondent last week about green belt planning laws I mentioned that we should think about using some of the land around Bristol and Bath for growing more fruit and vegetables.  Protecting the green belt from urban expansion shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how best to use the land.

But it’s not just the green belt.  We could grow more inside the city boundary too.  BBC Points West interviewed me this evening in the Ashley Vale allotments just round the corner from my house. Allotments are very popular in Bristol but the potential probably lies more in other area of green space, within school grounds and our own gardens.

Making a difference will require a step change in mind set as much as anything. from where we shop to how we prepare food in our kitchens.  The Council intends to set an example by introducing cattle onto Purdown. High quality Bristol beef could soon be in a butchers shop near you.  I know from my visits to schools that many of them now teach children about the origins of their food.  Children and adults need to learn new cooking skills, using food grown at home or by neighbours.  The produce from my garden damson tree will find its way into many friends’ jams, jellies and chutneys this summer.

There really is no more important resource than our food.  Yet in Britain we have taken it for granted for far too long.  A big debate must now begin on food, not just its quality and cost but also where it’s grown.

[Note – you can read the report Who Feeds Bristol? here : ]

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Nigel Drew permalink
    August 23, 2011 7:27 am

    “Diversity of food retailing is complex” . Actually its not, Stephen. The fact is that more than 80% of our food is supplied by the big 4 supermarkets. At the moment these corporations are engaged in massive retail imperialism all over the country and especially in Bristol. They are very quickly and deliberately destroying the essential supply chains of our towns and cities.
    We didn’t see you supporting the No Tesco in Stokes Croft Campaign. We don’t see you speaking out against a planning system which favours corporations and prevents community voices being heard.
    As long as you stand behind your “free market” banner you will never be able to deal with these issues and your words will be just hot air.
    Food Supply and Food Security ARE Planning Issues. Local initiatives have a long way to go before corporate dominance of our high streets is weakened. If politicians do not start controlling the food chain and opposing the corporates, the time will come when the next fuel strikes or road blockages will disrupt the “just in time” supermarket monopoly, and cities like Bristol will starve. “A hungry mob is an angry mob” (Bob Marley).

  2. August 23, 2011 8:23 am

    Nigel – sorry you’ve not “seen” me speaking about these issues before. Perhaps you weren’t looking or perhaps you retrospectively see what you want to see.
    Perhaps you don’t know about the meetings I had with the putative anti Tesco group in Stokes Croft in early 2010. Perhaps you didn’t read the joint statement from myself and City Council Leader Barbara Janke in March 2010 saying we didn’t think another Tesco was needed in Cheltenham Rd. Perhaps the campaigners didn’t tell you about the mediation meeting I chaired between the campaigners and Tesco. Perhaps you haven’t read about the Parliamentary questions I’ve asked about the decline of independent retailers, in particular in book shops. Perhaps I could forgive you for not knowing about my record as a Bristol councillor from 1993 to 1999 when I supported many campaigns to protect locally owned shops, especially in the Christmas Steps and Park Row area.
    Perhaps it’s just easier to slag off an MP than to check your facts? Even the facts that are here on this blog in another posting about the High Street?
    If you really care about these issues then perhaps you might welcome political allies. Attacking MPs who actually do take time to think and write about these issues isn’t going to encourage those who don’t.
    Oh, and this issue is more complex than supermarket bashing….enjoyable as you may find it.

    • Nigel Drew permalink
      August 30, 2011 1:42 pm

      Sorry you feel attacked Stephen.
      You are correct that I have missed some things but then I do not read the sensationalist Evening Post and I do not have a TV. I presume these are the ways that information about your activities are disseminated.
      What is sure is that we did not see you at two very large planning committee meetings when the Tesco application was discussed and where your voice would have made a massive difference. Nor did we did not see you at any of the community events which developed with the opposition to Cheltenham Rd. Tesco.
      As for “slagging off” MPs I feel there is good reason to be sceptical about MPs in general. A large number of people are dissatisfied with the performance of those of you who inhabit the Westminster Bubble. Parliament and the City Council have been largely unresponsive to complaints about the destruction of local shopping…as you say you have been involved since the mid 90s.
      As for “supermarket bashing”… did not address one of the points I made which was that as long as the Market is allowed to determine the way our society develops we will be increasingly overwhelmed by lack of choice and retail imperialism, especially over food supply. Corporations dominate food retailing and they need to be “bashed” if we are to preserve high streets and maintain an independant, sustainable food supply chain.
      There is a widespread feeling that the function of Parliament is to pass legislation which supports the power of the corporations whether in food retailing, education or the NHS, or wherever. I urge you to reconsider your Tory belief in the Free Market if you want to maintain any local credibility.

  3. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    August 23, 2011 8:48 am

    Hi Stephen.
    I must read the article but as a first thought I find a certain irony when it comes to allotments. At this very moment Cllr. Kent is planning to build a P&R on allotments, ironically in the Greenbelt, next to the M32 as part of the “nutty” plans for BRT. Also, Cllrs. Janke and Cook have given the Alderman Moores Allotment site at Ashton to one of Bristols richest men, who, ironically, has moved to Guernsey to avoid paying British taxes. I thought this practice was frowned upon by the Lib/Dems. Now I know you can’t be held responsible for the actions of our Lib/Dem cllrs. and I must admit I side much more with your views than theirs, but as one you will surely survive or fall.

    • rosemary permalink
      August 23, 2011 7:10 pm

      Yes, Paul, we need land, and never more so than now, when the population is so much bigger than it should be. The Malthusian in me is aghast at what our political masters have done. As Stephen points out, the population of Bristol has suddenly become 600,000, rather than the less than 500,000 it was a few years ago. We used to be a nation of emigration rather than immigration, because land was so short. Remember the Highland and Island clearances? And the flight to the colonies, not just of puritans and prisoners, but of people just needing to grow their own food?

      We used to talk a great deal about population control, as well as having sensible immigration policies, but who talks about it now, apart from the Optimum Population Trust? I don’t recall Caroline Lucas mentioning it.

      I worry too about the loss of minerals from our soil, particularly selenium. We need to pay attention to the quality of our soil, as well as preserving its availability for growing food. All over the city, green land has been swalllowed up by building. Even now there is a chance on Castle Park to convert long derelict buildings to much needed and unbelievably scarce green space. But will the council allow that? No, it will be built on all over again, and with bigger buildings probably, just as they did behind their Council House. And at a time when so many other premises are to let or boarded up.

  4. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    August 23, 2011 7:48 pm

    Hi Rosemary. As someone who is not party political, and one of the 80 odd % who would call themselves to one degree or another “working class”, I find that my voice has been hijacked by the political idealogs of both sides. Now who really represents people like me. My voice on many subjects has been silenced by a group whose numbers would not register on any scale, but who have weedled themselves into positions where they have massively influenced my life. Why did people like me allow this to happen? You mention immigration. In the eyes of our last PM that makes you a bigot. How can this be. Why is there such a thing as a “political class”. Why have all the Tory members of the Cabinet attended Oxbridge, just as every candidate for Labour leader. Why do so many come from political backgrounds, where theres already an axe to grind. Why are so many lawyers, or worked for other politicians. Sadly I’ve come to the conclusion that most politians can escape the effects of their own policies. If they had to face them like the rest of us, many would never see the light of day !

    • rosemary permalink
      August 23, 2011 8:15 pm

      I think decent people like you allowed this to happen because hard working family people don’t want to sit up all night arguing. They just want to get on with their lives, mind their own business, and not cause a fuss. You see this at university where the students union gets hijacked by a few unrepresentative people, and in the Unions. 80 odd% of people don’t like arguing. They’d rather work, or play cricket, or be with their families. That’s how things like the EU come into being. Far too much detail to follow and kick up a fuss about. Then one day it’s too late.

  5. August 30, 2011 10:17 am

    Hello, Stephen.

    I appreciate your expressed concerns during the anti-Tesco campaign in Bristol, and I understand that there were some noises in parliamentary circles about the problems the Bristol Tesco fiasco raised. Can you clarify how the problems with the national guidelines for A1-retail planning are being addressed? Surely nobody (except perhaps Tesco) wants another slip through the loopholes, as happened with Jon Rogers and the Tesco change-of-use application last year.

    On another point, I appreciate your concern with those very high numbers for imported food, and the effects that supermarkets in general have on the High Street. The point that concerns me is, What can you, we, I — do about it? It would seem having a concern is not really altering the balance in the right direction — during the last two years supermarkets have increased their percentage of overall national food supply, and despite the wonderful folks with all the good efforts for supporting independent shops, we are left with the independents competing amongst themselves for a dwindling share of the pie — our efforts over the last one, two, five, ten years have seemingly resulted in a smaller share of the national food pie each year, despite more independent producers and retailers.

    What government policies are actually designed to redress the balance between the large multiples, and the small independents? Clearly not planning policy. Clearly not any thought of import tariffs. Clearly not any of the taxation policies. Clearly not any of the health and safety regulations, nor business rates, nor short-stay parking regulations, nor employment regulations, nor agricultural policy, nor educational policies, nor … . Phew! I’m running out of typewriter ink just thinking about all the different levers of power that the government (national, local, quango) exercises, and it would seem that NONE of them have even attempted to redress the balance between the big and growing bigger, and the small and growing smaller.

    Maybe if we hold our breath a little bit longer, something will change?

    • rosemary permalink
      August 30, 2011 10:36 am

      Yes, Richard, this is something we could learn from our European friends, especially the French, who wouldn’t dream of allowing good small shopkeepers to be driven out of business by American style supermarkets. But then there needs to be civilized support and demand fromt the public too, not a mass rush to the cheapest prepackaged wholesale supply with the biggest carpark. As long as the British people value their cars and their pennies above their quality of food, and don’t want to spend time in its preparation, there isn’t much the government will stick out its neck to do. It is probably up to local government to give a strong lead with some of the restrictions you mention, and then take the flak. But they won’t do it to restrict traffic congestion and pollution, so why should they bother about food?

  6. August 30, 2011 3:23 pm

    I read this blog post with interest and wonder when you will actually start acting on these beliefs , i’ve seen many comments but very little actual action.

    Please do not introduce cattle to purdown , its not a suitable area for cows and dairy/beef farming is fundamentally unsustainable , that idea is classic soundbite politics which only shows your total ignorance of these issues and is offensive to those who do understand.

    When i’ve met you in person you seemed to be genuinely interested in helping the people of bristol not be hoodwinked by party politics but again and again i hear you try to explain how the latest tory initiatives are the way forward.

    If you really don’t have the power to act on these issues then you should resign in protest.

  7. August 30, 2011 6:12 pm


    You could check out the Slow food market on corn Street, on the first Sunday every month. Every stall has quality food, and the ethos is very much the opposite of “fast food”.

    BUT — it is not well supported by the public. Maybe it’s the recession, who knows? But the sales at that quality market are steadily declining. I’m afraid that the public is very much addicted to the lowest possible price regardless of flavour, ethics, food miles or anything else.


    • rosemary permalink
      August 31, 2011 11:06 am

      One thing the council could do to help here, Richard, is to have bus stops put in nearby, one at each end of Corn St. At present the buses stop in Broadmead or at the other end of the Centre, and it is quite a walk either way. Ideally there should be a freebus, as in Leeds, going right round the centre of Bristol, and stopping often and frequently, especially at places like the Farmers’ Market. Our buses are not at all conveniently arranged, the supposition being that anyone who is anyone goes by car, or is young and fit and unencumbered. They still operate on the principle of bringing people into the Centre from the outskirts, and then leaving them to walk, often for a very long way. That doesn’t encourage people to shop on foot away from home.

      Another possible disadvantage for the monthly market may be that it is monthly and not weekly. The weekly Farmers’ Market in Corn St still goes well, despite the recession, perhaps because people have got into the habit of going once a week, but find it more difficult to remember the once a month market. And perhaps more people may go in their lunch hour to the Farmers’ Market. Could it also be that people who do old-fashioned shopping also have old-fashioned ideas about shopping on a Sunday?

  8. August 31, 2011 11:40 am

    I completely agree with your main points, Rosemary — the bus-stops should be revised; there should be more hop-on, hop-off services within the central part of the city, and the monthly schedule for a food market is not nearly as good as a weekly schedule.

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to campaign on these points as much as I would like; though I am constantly haranguing the city markets department re. the Slow food market.

    However, I would like to get some response from Stephen Williams about my initial questions, to do with planning guidelines for A1 retail space, and what moves the government or the Lib-Dems are making re. redressing the balance between big multiples and small independents.

    I’m new to blogging, so … is this the best way to get some comment from Stephen Williams, or is this forum just here for the rest of us to amuse ourselves?


    • rosemary permalink
      August 31, 2011 12:46 pm

      I think the MP’s own blog is probably the best forum for you to make your points and get a response, as it has superseded the public meetings we used to have with our MPs.

      The crossover between government and local government is tricky, though. For instance, who takes most responsibility for allowing “The Night-time Economy” to displace the real economy and spoil our city? And who should now ensure the clubs and restaurants make good the damage they have done to the fabric, as well as clean up the mess? Central government is beginning to talk about it, but local government should have been in there long ago, as the local fabric and heritage is a local concern. Worst of all, our young people’s health and morale is destroyed by excessive drinking, and no-one is doing anything about that either. Yet we have departments of health and of environment, at both levels, and many quangoes. It often seems to me that there are so many officers and managers, so many layers of bureaucracy, that no-one is ultimately responsible for any one overall area, and that is how so much gets trashed. Then there is the blackmail that the night -time economy and the supermarkets practise on our councils: Give us permission or there won’t be any jobs etc. And anyway, we will appeal, and you won’t be able to afford the litigation.

      Besides the planning points you raise about retail, excessive drinking is something I would like our Stephen to tackle, as vigorously as he did smoking. [Though the smoking ban has had a bad side effect, as the mess is now in the streets and parks.]

      There was a time when it was building societies which drove out food, as the markup was 400% for the former, and 4% for the latter, yet they both paid the same rent and property tax. Now it is drink as well as supermarkets, while the building societies are downsizing.

  9. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    August 31, 2011 4:07 pm

    A small step is to buy your fruit and veg from an independant greengrocer. At least it will most likely have come from the market in St. Phillips, and less likely to have been around the country half a dozen times. Also it will protect local jobs and help the market survive. Every little helps!

    • rosemary permalink
      August 31, 2011 8:51 pm

      And they can do mental arithmetic at the double, without relying on a computerised till. Worth keeping that skill alive for its own sake. Can anyone in a supermarket or big store manage without a calculator now?

  10. August 31, 2011 10:05 pm

    Hey, Rosemary. Great minds think alike. I banned pocket calculators in my shop for about 15 years, but unfortunately I am now unable to hire anyone who can do 10% of £13.67. I would like to think other shopkeepers, and the public in general, value the skill of adding up, but the evidence, and the force of “modern times” is against us.

  11. robertjessetelford permalink
    September 3, 2011 8:51 pm

    Supermarket bashing is easy, Stephen. Mainly because they are supermarkets and they aren’t the future. Bringing food production closer to home is the future, and we need to have a radical rethink – as you say – if we are to deal with future food demands.

  12. September 14, 2011 8:49 pm

    The events and ongoing campaign promoted here should be of interest to everyone.

  13. ChrisU permalink
    October 21, 2011 1:01 am

    Overbearing power of the supermarkets? Try not providing public land gratis to super rich business men to sell to Supermarkets like Sainsbury’s!. The Lib Dems in Bristol had it in their power to not gift public land to facilitate the largest Sainsbury’s in the southwest but chose not to. The reasons for this are unclear, but a shiny red stadium somewhere on the green belt (where Bristol cattle used to graze until not so long ago) probably has something to do with it. Political expediency will always overcome well meaning claptrap won’t they Stephen? Yes you signed a statement objecting to a micro Tesco in Stokes Croft – but in doing so you provided (unwitting?) political cover to allow the largest supermarket development in Bristol to go ahead to provide funding for development on the green belt.

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