Wotcher, my name’s Robert Newman. This month I’m writing about how to achieve food security through nationalising rock stars’ country estates. My novel The Trade Secret is published by Cargo in April.
No Planet B #2: The Land Is Ours!
This year, everything from strawberries to spuds gurgled, flapped and eventually drowned in Britain's wettest summer for a century, while the United States’ worst drought in 50 years destroyed 90 percent of the corn and soy those guys were growing.
Given that climate chaos has the potential to cause food shortages not just in the Global South but also in the North, shouldn’t we be having some kind of discussion about who owns the land?
Here's an idea: Let's nationalise all of Britain’s unused landholdings above 50 acres and turn them into community allotments. I propose we start with pop stars’ country estates. Let’s send surveyors with theodolites over Sting and Jamiroquai’s rolling acres. Some people say that if you take away their country estates these landowners will just leave the country. As a plan, it’s flawless.
Rock ‘n’ pop landlords are just the start. Land nationalisation can be rolled out to allow us to commandeer supermarkets and turn them into allotments.
According to the New Economics Foundation, there are 180,000 people in Britain on waiting lists for allotments. What could be more apt than to plough up the obsolete Petrol Age infrastructure of supermarkets and clear the ground for use in urban agriculture? It would have all kinds of positive knock-on effects. For example, towns and cities thick with allotments and community gardens are a good way to end the isolation, loneliness and sorrow of the elderly, which means faster Post Office queues for everybody else.
"But aren’t supermarkets what people, especially the poor, really want, you focaccia eating ponce?" I hear you squawk. Well, this week that old argument died like a yellow-label salad bag when strikers shut down Bangalore and Calcutta in protest at plans to let Tesco and Wal-Mart into India. (I mean, the first bit of the argument died. The second bit, the part about me being a focaccia eating ponce, is indestructible.)
In Britain, meanwhile, farm versus supermarket is a race to the death. Only one can survive. It’s one or the other. Not both. Who do you want to win? Farmer or self-checkout machine?
Our present food system has been described as the least efficient food distribution network in world history, not least because agri-business uses roughly a calory of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces – and that’s not including the four-figure food miles. We’ve got to ditch this food system. If you sat down to design a system totally unable to respond to climate chaos and oil price shocks, this is what you’d come up with. You’d be sure to design in hundreds or thousands of miles between field and fork, and you’d build in an absolute reliance on petrol at every stage from fly spray to refrigerated truck.
Any day now the fuel price could triple, taking food prices with it. This will hit the poorest hardest – which is why they’re striking against Tesco and Wal-Mart in Bangalore, why they’re growing their own lettuce in Glasgow’s North Kelvin Meadow.
Farming among urban dereliction is part of our history in these islands. We’ve been here before. During the London Blitz in the Second World War, off-duty firemen drained the swimming pool of the bombed-out Carlton Club in Pall Mall and turned it into one of the 4,000 wartime pig clubs which staved off the food shortages caused by the U-Boats and bombers.
But urban agriculture can’t feed us all. That’s why we need to have a debate about nationalising unproductive landholdings, and we need to have the debate before a major food crisis rather than slap bang in the middle of one, when everyone will be so hungry they won't be able to think straight. This means we need to have the debate soon. How soon? Well, If the polar jet stream gets lost like a confused whale again and tries to spend next summer on a British beach, then 2013’s harvest could be even worse than 2012’s.
Now for some readers talk of land nationalisation calls to mind Mao or Mugabe. There are other models of communal landholdings out there. They don't necessarily have to involve the oppression and/or slaughter of tens of thousands of people. One of the largest land nationalisations in Britain is the National Trust, and they don’t demand that everyone dresses in an identical blue tunic – although the fleece is fairly ubiquitous. The idea that the earth is a common treasury for all goes back to the Diggers of 17th century England. While across the Atlantic, the idea of communal land tenure is, believe it or not, as American as apple pie:
"Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on."
The polar jet stream used to fly around the world in a cape equalizing the weather, sharing out hot and cold, wet and dry. But now it seems that our old friend has packed in equalizing the sky. If so, then there’s nothing for it but for us to equalize the land: town and country, rich and poor.
Follow Robert on Twitter: @mrrobertnewman
Illustration by Sam Taylor: @sptsam
Are you the kind of person that likes to know what's going on in the world? Check out more updates from planet Earth: