Why would you grow your own food? There is a lot of interest in the topic at the moment, lots of media articles on the subject and a huge rise in the numbers of people who are looking for allotment space in towns and cities across the UK. The media think it’s a good idea and they must be right?
Taking a rose tinted view of the world, then yes they are. We have lost a lot by not being involved in the production of our food, we have lost interest in the quality of it, lost satisfaction in the ability to produce it and lost an appreciation for freshness and taste.
But are we going to return to an agrarian society where we all individually produce the food we eat?
No, we are not. There are good reasons why human society developed specialisms, like farmer, tailor, builder, and so on. All these are time consuming skills to learn and apply and it doesn’t make sense for us all to re-learn them and try to turn back the clock. There is also the harsh reality that food preparation is now very scientific, and we expect our food to reach a high standard of ‘quality’ even if this is represented by shape or colour. Some of the standards we measure our food against may have more to do with marketing than health or cost, but we expect our carrots to be orange and straight, and our apples green and round. If we are going to grow our own, we will also have to modify our expectations of our food.
We do need to rethink some of our attitudes to food, since our current attitudes about food have been fostered in an age when it makes sense to fly beans daily to the UK from Kenya. As energy prices rise and fuel supplies reduce it is unlikely that this will remain a viable option in the medium term.
I believe that it will continue to make sense to grow food in a centralised way, through large scale farming, but it will make less sense to store this food and transport it long distances. There have been stories in the press about the number of miles a frozen chicken travels before that last jump from oven to plate. The information startled most people outside the food industry. Generally we expect our food to go from farm to plate by the most direct route possible because that is what has happened in the past. Instead, our food travels to be ‘processed’ in the same way that cars move along a production line. Unbelievably the different parts of the food production line are often in different places, and sometimes even in different countries.
There is a related issue in the mechanisms for food import and export. It has been discovered that the UK and The Netherlands buy and sell roughly equal numbers of chickens to and from each other. Picture, if you will, flocks of chickens flying in opposite directions across the channel, greeting each other en route. There are times when the ‘free’ market looks like an ass.
This type of market led stupidity is coming under more scrutiny, and this is good news for fresh food producers and those who are based close to towns and cities. Farmers markets will increase in popularity, and the market for out of season produce will diminish, but not disappear as fuel prices rise and the push to decarbonise our economies gains momentum. Any effort that individuals can make to replace expensive imports by growing their own should be particularly welcome.
For those who do want to grow their own food, or rather a proportion of it, there are many options. Herbs and tomatoes are particularly easy to grow in small window boxes and grow bags, and allotments are there if you are prepared to wait about 10 years for one to become available. There has been an explosion of interest in this activity in recent years fostered by a society wide interest in being greener, and in an almost equal distrust of the quality of the food we are being sold by the major supermarkets.
Should we be digging up our back gardens and turning our lawns into vegetable beds? Digging up your back garden is probably not a good option as the soil is likely to be contaminated after many years of use of weedkillers and other chemicals. But even a small space dedicated to food production which uses good quality topsoil, and which is ‘farmed’ organically can produce a healthy addition to the table. Fruit bushes and trees produce an attractive display of flowers in spring, so food can be decorative as well as tasty.
I will write an artcile in the near future on permaculture, and what it means for the design of our towns and cities in the future.