Hard-Core Locavore: Eating on the World’s Most Remote Island

For those who dream of getting away from it all and living a simpler life of growing your own food, fishing for your nightly dinner, cooking with your neighbors, and living off the land, the Royal Institute of British Architects has a challenge for you.

Welcome to the tiny volcanic islands of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote populated place on earth. Alone in the South Atlantic Ocean 1,750 miles from South Africa (about a week by boat, depending on the weather), the residential population of 286 British citizens live “far from the maddening crowd” as its official website claims.

The four islands that make up Tristan da Cunha are accessible only by boat and only for 60 days out of the year. Those 60 days are scattered from January to December, but because of weather conditions, there are very few days between May and September when boats can dock, making the islands virtually unapproachable for five months. On average, more than half of the days each month bring rain.

Volcanic rock isn’t known for breeding native plants (almost no fruit grows there) and the people of Tristan da Cunha grow lots and lots of potatoes, a dietary staple. Because everything not native to the island, from marshmallows to medicine, must be sailed in, Tristanians worry that their way of life may be in danger in a world of dwindling resources. Some families date back to original settlers in the early 1800s (there are nine last names recorded on the island), so their desire to stay on the island is more than just a lifestyle choice. And they have to innovate just to maintain their lives.

Photograph by Kent Kobersteen, NG Creative

Photograph by Kent Kobersteen, NG Creative

The people of Tristan, led by Administrator Alex Mitham, are smart enough to know what they don’t know. So they partnered with the Royal Institute of British Architects to run a competition, open to any design team led by an architect, for ideas to give their island a more sustainable future. Coinciding with the island’s celebration of its 200th year of settlement in 2016, a major focus of the competition is “improvements to the Island’s agrarian systems to better support grazing and the year-round growth of fresh produce.” At this point, implementation of the winning proposal is not guaranteed—the Tristan da Cunha government would need to secure funding. But one can imagine that a spectacularly innovative solution would attract money from investors or foundations. And certainly the winning team will always be welcome in paradise (See Tristan da Cunha, Island at the End of the World.)

“All Tristan families are farmers, owning their own stock and tending Potato Patches and settlement gardens,” Tristan’s website proudly states. Mitham is an architect who has specialized in agriculture projects, with a particular interest in “farming and its sustainability” so expect the food prong to be significant. Orders for Tristan da Cunha’s single grocery store are placed a couple of months in advance, giving time to ship goods in from the mainland.

Obstacles abound. The solution will need to be powered by the diesel generators that supply the island’s electricity, or have a cost-effective plan to sail in materials to build something that will fit on small ships. (The only materials available to build on the island are the volcanic rock and sand.) The few pieces of large machinery on the island are in disrepair. Because Tristanians perform every necessary job on the island, from electrical repair to domestic services to government services to fishing and farming, there is a limited available workforce for any new project. There are no hotels on the island, although tourism is growing.

But assets are many. Only one of the four islands is inhabited, with houses grouped closely together in what residents call “The Settlement,” a town named after the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in 1867. Farm land is communally owned and animal ownership is limited, both to manage land health from grazing and “to prevent better off families [from] accumulating wealth.” Cows, chickens, duck, and geese are all raised on Tristan for food; sheep for their wool. Only residents of the island are allowed to purchase land.

And Tristanians are committed to their island’s traditions. Even pest control is a party—the annual Ratting Day is a race to see who can collect the most and longest rat tails. (This involves both catching rats, and de-tailing them, if you can stomach the photos.)

The Royal Institute would not confirm how many proposals were received by the June 2 deadline, but Mitham is currently in the UK reviewing them with his team. A short list of up to five proposals will be announced in September, with the finalists presenting their plans in summer 2016.

Tristan da Cunha’s sustainability quest emphasizes just how challenging modern “local living” can be. One response to the challenge is the modern manufactured agrihood, fabricated neighborhoods centered around agriculture and food with community gardens, centers for cooking, and farmers’ markets. Agrihoods get people closer to food, but romanticize the hard truth that subsistence agriculture is brutal and unforgiving, sometimes to the point that a town puts out an international call for proposals for solutions. To paraphrase Heraclitus, you can’t step on the same island twice, even if it’s been isolated for millennia. Tristan da Cunha is changing just so it can stay the same.