In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than ever, we must unlock land around cities to create a renewed model of peri-urban food production across the UK, argues Sustain’s Programme Director, Sarah Williams...
Only six weeks ago our Capital Growth team, based at Sustain, hosted a packed Fringe Farming event, with many of London’s best urban farmers, to discuss what London’s handful of agro-ecological farms had achieved and why there weren’t more of them. During the event, Brian Kelly of Organiclea talked about a new wave of ‘Market Garden Cities’. This idea and the energy in that room got me buzzing. I left with a new determination to unlock the barriers urban food production faces and help double the number of peri-urban farms in the capital in coming years.
And now? Well as implications of this crisis grow I am starting to wonder, not because I was wrong, more like hugely under ambitious! Doubling the number of farms growing food on the edge of our cities is not enough – now is the time to take our local food supply chains seriously and use the green belts to feed our urban populations.
We already knew things had to change
In the face of the climate and nature emergency, soil degradation and loss of natural ecosystems, growers and campaigners have been looking at food system shifts. These would change how we value food and factor in the public goods that the best types of farming provide. Farmers and farming advocates have been pushing to get the recognition that agro-ecological and nature-friendly farming is a necessity - not the ‘nice to have’ that it seems to have become - if we are to halt the worrying loss of the natural systems on which our survival depends.
We know that conventional farming, on which large retailers depend, cannot continue to produce food that damages our environment at the scale it does with the high volume, low-margin, frequently wasteful model the system proliferates. And in some ways this has been highlighted centre stage; one of the earliest signs the pandemic was on its way was empty supermarket shelves and a drop in consumer confidence as everyone panicked to fill their pantries, not knowing or believing how long the next delivery would be.
We already have mounting evidence that agro-ecological farming can feed us (See IDDRI Report ) with the right conditions (as I mentioned above: access to land and infrastructure, markets and skills). And we know this can flourish on the edge of cities, shortening supply chains, bringing food closer to the people and building a better understanding of how our food is produced. Farms like Organiclea’s Hawkwood site, Growing Communities in Dagenham and Sutton Community Farm all in London have shown us the way over the last decade; not only are they are producing tonnes of organically grown food, they provide training for hundreds of people, many far from the labour markets and are getting them into work. They give access to nature for city dwelling volunteers and visitors and (as early results from the Farm Carbon Calculator are showing), helping sequester carbon in their organic soil matter.
And while not easy to access, the land we need is out there. For example 59% of London’s green belt is agricultural land. That’s 94,000 hectares that could be farmed for local markets, but sadly is more often used for grazing horses or sitting in a developer’s portfolio.
On top of this we have acres of community food gardens with the potential to grow more and top up people’s daily consumption of perishable and high value salad, herbs and soft fruit crops, while facilitating learning, health and community cohesion. A recent study by Sheffield University suggests urban land in Sheffield could grow 5 A DAY for 15% of the city’s population, with another recent study suggesting this could be even more.
We already knew things had to change. But what next to help build the case for peri-urban farming near and around our cities?
A lesson in diverse supply chains and good news
Well if the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything so far (I am sure many lessons/blogs/research projects will come…), it is that our food supply chain is vulnerable and, arguably, people do not trust the mainstream system to meet their needs in time. This was indicated by the early panic buying scenes and the heart-breaking amount of waste it created. (Read Professor Tim Lang’s thoughts on this.)
And the good news story? Well for me, so far, it has been the dramatic rise in people seeking out the good food alternatives, including box schemes with many joining local food providers such as the Better Food Traders, who have seen a rise of 35% in a month. The great thing is that you cannot panic buy from this ‘family of traders’ (most are built on a model of sharing the harvest, rather than weekly whimsical buying – smart!). They also enable farmers to pay the living wage meaning they are more resilient to labour shortages too.
We have seen people rallying round to keep street markets open, local businesses adapting to new models and to help those most in need, and a new appreciation for those who bring food into our cities. These champions of the small and diverse are showing how things can be done differently. They are spreading the risk as opposed to putting all our ‘eggs’ in the basket of the big supermarkets - the option our government has leaned into, shifting millions in public expenditure to multi-nationals (now recipients of Free School Meal replacement vouchers), who are set to dramatically profit, in the process.
We have seen resilience where short supply chains exist, as people’s worlds shrink and they start to truly value the opportunity to grow their own food. This is shown by seed sales surging – the Organic Gardening Catalogue for one, reporting an 800% surge in sales. We have seen and celebrated the start of a resurgence in localised food systems, particularly in small towns and farming communities where farm-led box schemes have also benefited. But what does that mean for a vast metropolis like London, which depends on the rural farms to feed us?
No time to wait
London and other cities will probably always depend on other places to feed us, but now we see we cannot be complacent. We are also far from out of the woods as we face worrying farm labour shortages over the busy spring, summer and autumn harvest times. We are yet to see if shifts in purchasing habits are maintained, or if loyalty wains. But there is no time to wait. Urgent action is needed to build capacity and resilience into our cities' food systems. And part of this means growing more food in and near our urban areas and shortening complex supply chains; we overlook this as part of the future of food supply at our peril.
The farms around London and other urban areas have shown this can be done with amazing results for people and planet. We are seeing an emerging new market in the wake of the crisis; more people are buying food via local systems working with farmers in and near our cities, who can be relied on in times of crisis, adapt to the tough conditions, and whose custom we now need to maintain as normal service resumes.
What next? As well as supporting the new generation of urban growers keen to grow near friends, families and diverse urban communities and plentiful markets, we need to focus on unlocking land around our cities. Land, particularly suitable areas owned by the public sector, needs to be made available for agro-ecological food production and the benefits it provides us city dwellers, to bring food and nature within reach of our cities. And we need to do it now. That means mapping who owns it, what condition its soil is in and how we can kick start not just the five new farms that I hoped for, but dozens of them around every city in the UK as part of a marketing gardening renaissance on the fringes of all our cities.
Things already had to change, but now our collective experiences have created an imperative and hopefully created a new found optimism to make it happen. So here’s to more food growing in and around our cities and the first of many Market Garden Cities.
Know of land in or around cities or have ideas on how we can find it then get in touch.
Coronavirus Food Alert
Coronavirus Food Alert: Sustain's work on food resilience in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.We are helping secure food for vulnerable people and supporting local emergency responses.
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Sarah is Programme Director for Sustain having joined in in 2009, as part of the Capital Growth team who successfully supported 2,012 new community food growing spaces in London. Sarah has developed new areas of work at Sustain including the national Big Dig programme and work on our Growing Health project. She currently oversees most of the London programme of work, run under the London Food Link umbrella and represents Sustain on the London Food Board.
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