Greening the concrete jungle

Do food growing projects in cities and surrounds hold the answer to mitigating food insecurity?

Food is making headlines beyond its usual repertoire of restaurant rumour, best-selling cookbooks and TV you can vegetate to. Prices are rising, protests are happening, and produce is dwindling. Food’s next big trend is moving beyond flavoured salts and baking crazes and becoming more of a question of how we will afford our basic foodstuffs.

With British prices predicted to rise at double the current rate of inflation over the next 10 years, the market is responding to tight supply. Future price predictions are laden with plus signs and in years to come we may find our cupboards taking on a very different stock landscape. By the same token, fruit and vegetables aren’t getting any cheaper either. With the ‘food is oil’ idiom to consider, the UK’s imported produce, currently standing at around 40%, also has a hefty price tag slapped on. And as farmer Lord Cameron of Dillington estimated in 2009, a shutdown of oil would leave supermarket shelves bare in just three days, or to put it another way, “nine meals from anarchy”.

The grow-your-own movement is not a new idea, and this month saw the celebration of urban food week, promoting the produce cultivated in the capital. But as the nation finds itself in a recession with a rumbling tummy, urban growing is fast becoming a much more popular movement. The dash for allotments is still going strong, with council websites pointing to vast waiting lists that leave hopefuls twiddling their green thumbs. Research carried out in February by the Association of Public Service Excellence found 59% of councils had 100-600 people on the waiting list for an allotment, while 12% claimed they had over 1,000 in waiting. So communities are shifting their ideas and their spades on to other alternatives, including the utilisation of local produce and growing on unclaimed land. But are these initiatives enough to set the UK apart from global food insecurity?

“In principle, the idea of self-sufficient communities is an excellent one,” says Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food and Society at Newcastle University. “I think such initiates are both beneficial to sustainability and the ways communities operate and their members interact. I do wonder if we need to rethink the entire production system to be more sustainable, for example, through reduction of meat consumption, and development of meat substitutes which are acceptable to consumers.”

One network aiming to promote self-sufficiency is the Capital Growth programme, launched in 2009. It aims to create 2,012 new growing spaces in London by the end of this year, and with over 1,800 spaces established so far, the demand and drive to take back the land for community growing is clear. Capital Growth’s task is to help people with the process of acquiring the land they find, providing practical help and advice to get communities started. And looking beyond the M25, there is The Big Dig, a nationwide project aiming to engage 10,000 people in community food growing with initial start-ups allocated to London, Brighton, Coventry, Manchester, Middlesbrough, and Sheffield.

One of the pioneers of urban growing in London is Hackney’s Growing Communities. This community trade organisation is on a quest to reduce food miles, perpetuate healthy produce and devise a plan to turn its model of community trade into a viable, long-term alternative. It proposes the UK moves to a self-sufficiency ratio of 80:20, scaling relationships from the local through to global. It has also devised a Growing Communities model. But can this currently small drop in a very big ocean overtake the existing model and force it into obsoleteness?

“I think urban growing will always only be one part of the solution,” says Assistant Director Kerry Rankine. “At Growing Communities urban growing is a part – quite a small part – of the alternatives to the current food system. Making direct links with small farmers and growers in rural areas around cities who are growing and producing food in a truly sustainable way has to be a major part of the solution to the problem of how we feed our cities sustainably, and that’s what we try and do with our community-led trade box scheme and the farmers’ market.”

The model devised by Growing Communities, the Food Zones model, highlights an area called the peri-urban zone, an area where currently very little food is grown. “Only a small proportion of food can be grown in cities – mainly because of lack of space,” adds Kerry. “Even if we planted all over all the parks and playing fields, it wouldn’t be enough to provide the huge amount of food we need. The peri-urban zones are on the edges of cities. They do have space but are often put to other non-farming uses. Our new Starter Farm in Dagenham where we are developing a four acre organic site, mostly under glass/polytunnel, is an attempt to create a model of how food production in this area could work.”

Kerry makes reference to other peri-urban sites, including Organiclea’s site at Hawkwood, Chingford and the Sutton Community Farm in Sutton. “If London and other cities were ringed by these type of peri-urban farms, this together with produce from the rural areas could provide a more sustainable and resilient, (in terms of climate change) system. We still see a role for international trade. We think it should be possible to have coffee, tea and bananas, for example – but it’s about the balance.”

A recent Government report, the Green Food Project, has attempted to lay out the global predicament of food insecurity and its impact on our own agriculture. “The project steering group agreed that as a country we have a moral obligation to do what we can both domestically and through our influence on other countries to help address the critical long term food security issue, as well as the more pressing issue of hunger in some parts of the world,” it says.

Professor Tim Benton of the Global Food Security programme sat on the synthesis group for the report: “Look ahead to 2050 and the world will be a very different place,” he says. “Resource security will really be an issue, and it is not just about producing more food, and doing it sustainably.  The elephant in the room is who consumes what. There are a billion people who are starving, but we also have those who are overweight. It’s a case of tackling the demand side as well as the supply side – that is tackling the amount of food people want, how to reduce it, and encouraging people to eat in a more healthy, sustainable way and reduce waste.” Tim says due to a “huge diversity of opinion” deciding on the appropriate path is difficult and follow-on work is needed. “There is follow-on work for Green Food Project stage 2, and this needs to tackle both the demand side, and the supply side: how do we manage landscapes to provide sustainable production appropriate to the place?”

While Government chews over the policy on how to change the way the UK operates its food system, it is those with no political power that are enabling a step-change from the bottom up, coming up with the brightest of ideas. Kerry says it is not just about changing how we grow our food, but how it is traded.  “If we only change the way we produce our food, i.e. a switch to smaller sustainable farms, urban and peri-urban growing, then those farms and growers will go the same way as so many small and sustainable farms have gone over the last 20-30 years — squeezed out of a retail system which is designed to benefit monocultures and agribusiness.”

So what lies in these sorts of models becoming the norm? Kerry suggests her ideal scenario: “If more community-led box schemes and markets can be established, more farmers will switch to supplying those schemes rather than supplying supermarkets. This will enable more new farmers and growers to start up and link up with communities in and around cities. We need more farmers and growers but they need the outlets and markets that communities like ours can provide.”

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