Nearly 20 years ago, I read an intriguing longitudinal study of ant colonies by a Stanford University Prof, one Deborah Gordon. And yes, her insights are relevant to the decisions we make about our food system.
In brief, lots of ant colonies are set up, most die soon. Yet the few colonies that make it have a life cycle of about 15 years, while its individual ants live only a year.
Why does the colony die?
It’s a ratio thing.*
Tiny start-up colonies aren’t big enough to have the foraging capacity to feed all the individual ants, so some die of starvation, reducing capacity further.
The colonies that mature and live on get the ratio between colony size and foraging capacity good enough to continue into the next year.
But if they get too big, the busy-ness of the ever increasing connectivity between all the ant colony members reduces foraging capacity and the whole edifice comes crashing down.
And the relevance of ants to human organisation?
This screengrab below is from Deborah Gordon’s Stanford webpage. As you read it, have in the back of your mind this statement:
Agriculture radically changed the human colony size—foraging capacity ratio
The following two qualitative differences between human and ant colony behaviours matter when it comes to the human colony size—foraging capacity ratio:
- The accelerating pace of the ensuing human population size, which began with agriculture.
- For population and famine info, see this blogpost in our Food System Transformation series #7: Loaves don’t grow on trees.
- For an account of the beginnings of agriculture, scroll down this blogpost to section 2: Against the grain.
- Unlike ants, human minds can and do:
- Codify and communicate individual and social behaviours to each other
- Make decisions that affect the future of individuals and societies and their context; i.e. their physical environment.
Eat local, eat organic: When and where are these statements relevant to UK food supplies?
The framework outlined in the last blogpost is replicated in the infographic below. This version has an additional level of organisation, that of Birmingham as well as UK national and the individual household.
I shall consider how relevant all three are below.
The scale of it all
But before I do, don’t forget the issues of scale required to feed the UK population described in this blogpost, highlighted in this cheery little video:
The UK national level; i.e. decision-making by the Government
The why? question: So everyone living in the UK has access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food.
The (necessarily) complicated how? questions regarding ‘local’ and ‘organic’ at a national level begin to be articulated here — and as you think about these issues, don’t forget the issues of scale required to feed 68m people:
- How much of the food we eat should be home-grown or imported given the environmental context of UK terrain and climate? The human colony size—foraging capacity ratio informs
- The raft of how questions to make the UK better prepared for future food system shocks . . .
- Including how much UK production and UK imports should be ‘organic’ given the trade-offs inherent in decisions about fertilsers, herbicide and pesticide use; see pp 5, 6, 7 & 8 of our report Global risks to UK food supplies (2019).
- And the above raises more how? questions as we move down the system; for example:
- How much support should the UK Government put into research for ‘sustainable intensification’; see our blogpost Food System Transformation #9: The role of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)
City and household level; i.e. decision-making by Birmingham City Council and thee and me
While the idea of ‘eat local’ is a fashionable trope, it’s irrelevant at a city level, or at a household level in conurbations and towns — indeed, for many households in rural communities.
The human colony size—foraging capacity ratio is, in the case of Birmingham is 1.2m people to zero. And for a household, the capacity is also zero.
Thus there are no complicated how? questions.
Let me explain:
- This blogpost is about the ratio & its implications between Birmingham citizens and the agri-resources in the rural shires surrounding the conurbation — not that I used the term ‘ratio’ when I wrote it: Food system transformation #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think outside of]
- This blogpost explains why talk of grow your own [GYO] is irrelevant and unhelpful.
- Even the few individual households who have a allotment, none can live off such a scrap of land. And even the few who manage the effort of (what is after all) subsidence farming successfully, they get most of the calories and protein from the shops and have a whacking great freezer to hand.
- The most important sentence in this blogpost is this one:
And because the dangers are urgent, we need do stuff now, rather than faff on about the irrelevant. Evidence-based, pre-crisis thinking is necessary now.
Would a community colony size—foraging capacity ratio work in tandem with the national 68 million people-size colony?
The idea of a protected community supply system was put forward by the participants on our scenarios exercise on how a buffer contingency stock system could work; see p5 in our buffer contingency report.
Take a careful look at the replicated version below, and the endnotes below that . . .
And endnote 32 is this part of the final page of the report:
Now frame in your head the series of complicated how? questions necessary to make it happen in terms of Deborah Gordon’s three how-questions about collective behavior above,
Yes, it is complicated! Of course it is! **
Worth further consideration? Absolutely!
* Ratios give simple answers to complicated questions; see the last blogpost: Our food system is failing — and it’s about the get dramatically worse. And I have written about the usefulness of ratios to help control a complex adaptive system before, here and here.
** In the previous blogpost, I wrote this:
Decision-making within a complex system:
- Ask complicated why you’re doing x, y or z if you’re going up the system, and, in this instance, the answer will be a simple yes or no.
- And frame complicated how questions that require simple answers if you’re going down the system.
note: There’s a useful adage: Questions should be complicated and answers simple about how to navigate within a complex system, as outlined in this blogpost.