A green economic recovery must include increasing access to land for agroecological farming at the edge of UK cities; to kick-start a new wave of community enterprises that connect urban and rural economies with multiple benefits.
A green economic recovery has to be more than a fashionable label and must listen to what has arisen in the traumatic and destabilising last 12 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. One area of serious concern has been increased challenges in access to foods and threats of shortages – which reflects and re-entrenches British society’s pre-existing structural inequalities. The UK’s just-in-time delivery systems and “leave it to Tesco et al” default policy have been exposed, with community food organisations rallying to cover a creaking and inept food system that has, for a long time coming, required a radical re-think.
This blog focuses on one element of an integrated approach working towards a green economic recovery; a strategic investment in agroecological food production at the edge of UK cities with the opening up of land by local councils and other landholders – which Sustain is working on developing this year as part of the Fringe Farming project.
Demand for agroecological food, demand for land to grow agroecological food: lets connect these!
With a rapid increase in demand for veg box schemes in 2020 in the UK, including waiting lists growing to 6,700 people, there is a clear business case for meeting this increased demand for community-based food production. Alongside this there is a great need for land to set up agroecological enterprises to meet this demand- which can be met by a new generation of growers and farmers. For a green economic recovery, there is a clear case for the inclusion of sustainable, community-based farming that meets both the demand for agroecological food and the demands for land to grow food- let’s connect the dots!
The kind of farming is also relevant in terms of a green economic recovery: agroecological farming approaches not only provide more jobs per acre than industrial chemical farming, they also increase public goods such as biodiversity and carbon emissions reduction, and often enable education programmes and community development initiatives. The multiple benefits of agroecological farming not only support access to healthy, culturally-appropriate foods they also support council targets on climate change, education and community access to green space.
Agroecological growing often integrates education and skills development alongside other public goods Credit: Sydenham Garden, south east London
Peri-urban farming as part of a green economic recovery
Some initial research in London in 2020 found that the conversion of 1.4% of land growing cereals and grassland to vegetables around London could produce an additional 1.3 million kg of food for communities.
Agroecological farming on the fringes of cities supports a green economic recovery by using farming methods that retain the ecological benefits of peri-urban areas while also building collaborative economies that connect the urban and the rural.
Historically cities developed with food growing, especially the most perishable foods, just outside of the city walls – and this still makes sense today with close proximity to markets and also being connected to urban populations who can access education and training programmes.
As recently as 50 years ago market gardens ringed many cities, but increased food imports through increasingly dominant supermarkets with centralised systems, have resulted in many food businesses on the edge of urban areas closing up. With some of the most fertile soils for food growing situated at the edges of cities and at risk of urban sprawl, the time is now to support a new wave of agroecological farms.
Accessing land is one critical barrier preventing a growth of agroecological farming for new entrants, and peri-urban farming more specifically. The well-reported waiting lists for allotments, also highlights this critical urban land issue more generally. So, what might it take to revitalise a peri-urban farming sector as part of a green economic recovery with access to land such a predominant barrier?
Land access solutions: ‘three acres and a cow’ and county farms for 2021
Just over 120 years ago UK local authorities, with national government backing, implemented a national initiative to support a way into farming for cash-strapped young farmers during a long agricultural depression: the setting up of county farms. On the promise of ‘three acres and a cow’ landless tenant farmers were offered cheap rents on land that councils bought up and leased out. Fast forward to 2021, and these farms are a national public asset and in England alone cover a huge 200,000 acres, although these have halved in the last 40 years from 426,695 acres in 1977.
With 800 small holdings and associated livelihoods being lost in England since 2016, publicly owned county farms in peri-urban areas certainly can have a critical role to play in providing land access for fringe farming economies and agroecological job opportunities. One approach is to sub-let county farms close to cities into smaller units for new entrants to offer an accessible entry point for skills and business development.
The point of the county farms story is not just to outline this public resource as an avenue for peri-urban farming, it also highlights more generally the role that councils can play with national government support in invigorating economic opportunities through working with farmers.
While councils may not be in a position in 2021 to purchase land for new entrant growers, local governments have the potential to utilise the resources they do have such as other land or funds, to back peri-urban market gardens in support of an economic approach that integrates food, health, fair livelihoods, biodiversity, and education.
This requires whole-system and innovative thinking in development of governance strategy. For instance, while councils taking up tree planting schemes is to be welcomed, how might schemes also increase habitat creation and reduce carbon emissions through integrated agroecological farming landscapes? How might tree-planting resources support a drive for edible food forests that provide job opportunities and also integrate targets on climate change, education and access to green space?
In terms of ways in which to implement peri-urban growing as part of a green economic recovery, the ‘Preston model’ is a strong example of how to build community wealth through co-operative enterprise, and the Community Interest Company structure is a potential model for developing food systems with the knowledge of people where a business is based.
Fringe Farming project in 2021 and emerging council actions
Sustain is coordinating a Fringe Farming project to explore potential avenues with communities, farmers, researchers, and councils to identify the limitations and opportunities of increasing access to land for agroecological farming at the edge of cities from repurposing golf courses to freeing up brownfield land. The initiative is initially focused on Bristol, Glasgow, Sheffield and London and will create collaborative action plans to support a new wave of peri-urban market gardens.
Actions that councils could take emerging from initial stages of the Fringe Farming project are to:
- Champion new nature-friendly farms on existing agricultural land in the urban fringe with long-term leases/land access
- Set up a good food and farming investment fund to support new good food jobs, and kick start new enterprises as part of a green new deal
While the recent promise of 250,000 green new jobs makes for an alluring headline, increasing access to public land for agroecological farming can be one part of an economic approach that integrates health, education and skills, climate change, and fair livelihoods towards an equitable green recovery.
We are supported by the Farming the Future Fund for this work.
Published 10 Mar 2021
Fringe Farming: The Fringe Farming project is a collaboration with partners across the UK to understand barriers, identify land opportunities and local actions, and develop national policy to enable agroecological farming at the edge of cities as part of a green economic recovery.
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Aryo is the Peri-Urban Farming Officer at Sustain. His aim is to grow the movement for agroecological food production at city fringes across the UK, both nationally and at a local level: currently, in Bristol, London, Cardiff, Sheffield and Glasgow.
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