This is a direct transcript of the talk I gave at Toby Bucklands' Garden Festival at Bowood House on Friday 5th June!!
Bowood Garden Festival -Food Security, Sustainability and the Value of Urban and Allotment Soils
We live in a pretty scary world.
We live in a world where our food supply relies on finite resources from the point of sowing through to harvest and then distribution until it’s final delivery into stores.
This summer we were threatened with food shortages not because of scarcity of seed or freak weather, but because there was concern that we didn’t have sufficient HGV drivers for the distribution systems to keep up with demand.
We live in a world where if a child is asked where an apple comes from the answer is as likely to be Tesco as a tree and when you ask the child who answers with Tesco but where did it come from before then the answer could be, and has been, a lorry. Where children look at you incredulously when you ask where meat comes from as the connection between livestock and food is, in some cases, completely lost.
In 1996 The World Food Summit defined food security as existing ….
“When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food, to maintain a healthy and active life.”
And yet even in the UK we have people going hungry, relying on food banks whilst on the other hand we throw away a third of the food we produce before it even gets to a store, and often simply because it has been labelled incorrectly, or it has been deemed ugly or unfit for purpose.
In the UK we have used the same 38% of land since the I industrial revolution to grow our food on. Our population has grown tenfold in that time and the only way we have managed to grow such increased yields on that same amount of land is by relying on the petrochemical industry to provide inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides whilst paying little or no attention to the health and well being of the soils on which they are relying for their crops. it is interesting to note in that time space too we have almost used up the finite resources that it took the earth 200million years to make. A frightening statistic if ever there was one.
In fact in 2014 the University of Sheffield published research that shows that there are only 100 harvests left in some of the soils we rely on to produce our food. Following this the Soil Association have recently published a report that says that we are globally losing 30 football pitches of fertile soil every minute.
So how do we address this? 2015 is International Year of Soils and surely we are addressing this as a nation as a priority……. How do we ensure that we have accessibility to fresh, healthy and sustainably produced food heading into a future where we know that oil is no longer finite resource and that our soils are slowly dying. And what of this word sustainable? What does that really mean, loved and overused as it is by corporations worldwide. What is sustainable food?
If you go home and Google Sustainable Food the sites that come up at the top of the page are all from Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer, those huge petro chemical companies that agriculture has come to rely on. But truly sustainable food is food that allows us to be food secure.
Sutainable food is accessible.
It is food that is nutritious.
It’s food that keeps us healthy in body and mind.
And it is food that is grown in a way that cares for the world in which it is grown through good methods of agriculture that insist on earth care alongside food growing.
Moving forwards, in a world where the finite resources we have come to rely on are going to become less accessible and more expensive this means relying on local food where possible and supporting local growers.
And allotments have a vital place in this.
iN 1943 there were nearly one and a half million allotments in the UK and those plots provided 10% of food needed to keep the nation fed, albeit in the difficult circumstances of WW2. Today, according to thE national Society of Allotment Holders and Leisure Growers we have around 330,000 plots, with waiting lists of 93,000. Much of the historic allotment land has been sold off for development but much of it is still there, unused, by the side of railways, being grazed by ponies or simply just sitting there, waiting.
A report was published in 2014 by the University of Sheffield proving that allotment land is significantly healthier than our traditional agricultural soils. In Leicester soil samples were taken from 27 plots across 15 sites in the city, alongside soils from parks, gardens and agricultural land in the area.Amongst the properties tested were carbon levels, nitrogen levels and the ration between carbon and nitrogen which are all signals to show the amount and the quality of organic matter in the soil. The results were quite remarkable.
Compared with the local arable soil the allotment soils has 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios and were significantly less compacted.
All of this was put down to allotment holders using sustainable soil management techniques, with 95% of the allotment holders composting waste matter created from their plots in order to feed their soils.
As allotment holders we understand the importance of feeding our soils and the healthy glow it gives us as we barrow around a couple of tons of rotted manure each winter.
We also understand the need to look after pollinators.
To cover the soil with green manures when they lie fallow to stop those pesky weeds using all the nutrition we have worked so hard to fill our plots with.
On our urban plots, across our cities nationwide, farmers regularly bring large deliveries of their waste into the city to feed our soils from the peri-urban surroundings of the city.
So to increase food sustainability and security should we be looking to using those urban soils that traditionally have been used by allotment holders? Should we encourage allotment holders to grow more? Or should we increase the amount of food grown in our cities by allowing local small producers to access allotment land that isn’t being used for whatever reasons.
We certainly ought to be encouraging allotment use as well as community food growing projects in our urban and peri urban areas, reuniting people with lost skills, skills that could be far more important heading into the future but which are being lost as our connection to food is lost.
But we also should be safeguarding this land. With the majority of Grade 1 soils being in areas that are floodplains these soils may become what is needed to feed us and yet as it stands, road and house building always seems to be more important than food growing land, often with cities making little effort to find alternatives to putting these high grade soil assets under tarmac, losing them forever. Only a change in policy to protect these soils will change this and this is vital if all the allotment sites under threat across the UK are anything to go by. These pockets of valuable land, our heritage and part of what could be the story of creating a sustainable and secure food system need to be shouted about and change demanded.
To quote Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design and Vegetation Technology at the University of Sheffield,
“We need to dramatically rethink our approach to urban growing and use the little space we have as efficiently as possible. Cities must become places of food production”