Urban food cultivation in the United Kingdom: Quantifying loss of allotment land and identifying potential for restoration

My latest piece of research has now been published online with Landscape and Urban Planning: Urban food cultivation in the United Kingdom: Quantifying loss of allotment land and identifying potential for restoration. Read the press release here.

Highlights:

    Allotment land area in Britain has declined by two-thirds since its peak.A quarter of former sites have the potential for reconversion to use as allotments.The most deprived urban areas have experienced eight times the level of allotment land loss than the least deprived areas.The history of site closures provides insights to help meet present day demand.

It has also been reported on in the Independent, the Telegraph, and Horticulture Week, amongst others.

Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

‘Freshly clicked’. The advertisement on the back of the Tesco delivery truck promised efficiency, convenience and fresh produce delivered to right outside my door. Sounds great, right? Online shopping has saved people time for years now, bar the occasional “Oh no, I tried to order 1kg of apples but I accidentally just ordered 1 apple instead” (true story).

The play on the common phrase ‘freshly picked’ shows just how far we have come from a tangible relationship with the harvest we consume. Food can be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day with contact between farmer and consumer non-existent. It is not surprising, then, in a situation where the food we eat is so divorced from any knowledge of the soil in which it was grown, that the food system has grown ever more international and complex.

Knowledge of the impact of food miles on greenhouse gas emissions, and an understanding that consuming local food encourages local farmers which in turn builds resilience against any coming shocks to the international food system, is certainly increasing. The rise in interest in, and success of, local food shops, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and veg box schemes demonstrates this – albeit confined primarily to a particular social demographic. However, progress remains limited: in 2015, the UK imported £9.1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit, and only exported £1 billion worth. That’s a pretty large trade deficit.

Supermarkets continue to dominate the grocery sector in the UK, which means cheap and unseasonal produce remains the name of the game. Consumers have become used to food availability that simply is not possible without huge levels of international imports to get around the fact that the UK climate does not produce all the food all year round. Eating seasonally is inconvenient for us, now, and not just a necessary way of life as it used to be.

Continue reading Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

How Should My Garden Grow?

How can you most effectively reduce your carbon footprint through your choice of what food you grow yourself?

5

Growing your own food is often, and justifiably, talked about as an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding the environmental impact of food miles and out-of-season veg from the supermarket. In the UK, between 20 and 30 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – from pesticide use to refrigeration and transportation.

Over half the world’s population now reside in urban areas, and urban food production is becoming increasingly popular as a way to mitigate climate change, improve food quality and reduce personal carbon footprints.

The variety of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown by allotment holders, community farms and the like are endless – just take a wander around the town of Todmorden for example, where peppers grow outside the police station in homage to the Beatles, and the hospital boasts an apothecary garden with herbal remedies galore.

However, for those just starting to venture into the world of grow-your-own, especially those doing so from a concern to reduce their impact on our planet’s delicate climate, choosing what to grow can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you, like the vast majority of us that live in urban areas, suffer from limited growing space. What on earth should you choose – what is the most effective way to grow food and save the planet?

Continue reading How Should My Garden Grow?

See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

Image licensed under Creative Commons, used with permission

Yosemite, 1869. John Muir, father of the modern conservation movement, writes with rapture of what he sees:

…the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered  bryanthus, the mountain’s own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe by a thousand miracles, seeming always finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes…

John Muir is credited by many as having begun the movement towards environmental conservation of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Following his rapturous writings on Yosemite, in 1872 the area became the world’s first dedicated National Park. Many others have since followed globally, conservation stemming from a similar belief that places of “outstanding natural beauty”, biodiversity and spiritual value should be protected from the rampaging progression of industrial capitalism, saved by legal designation from becoming another high-rise or industrial estate. Muir’s environmentalism has influenced conservation and environmental ethics for centuries now, elevating values beyond profit and production, and cementing ideas of wild and wilderness in the psyche of modern-day Western civilisation.

Continue reading See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

the bush is not dying – it is being killed

In a dark alcove of the Te Papa national museum in Wellington, a lament plays on. Across
the walls of this semi-hidden corner runs a list of unfamiliar names: huia; moa; kairuku. As you sound out the words in your head, the lament music builds and fills the alcove. This is the tribute to the extinct animals of New Zealand – and the list goes on.

Continue reading the bush is not dying – it is being killed

Divestment: From South Africa to Fossil Fuels

Originally published in Post Magazine, ‘Potential Energy: The Politics of Energy in Scotland’ which is available to order here.

The global fossil fuel divestment movement has seen some important achievements over the past year. Universities in the USA, Sweden, New Zealand , the Marshall Islands and the United Kingdom have all committed to divestment; thirty-five cities across the world are divesting (in reality, this means the investments and pensions funds of public sector workers); over fifty religious institutions, including the World Council of Churches. have announced their divestment; and many other institutions have joined them – most notably, perhaps, the Rockefeller Foundation, whose very wealth was built upon the oil industry. The movement, comprised of local pressure groups but brought together globally under 350.org’s “Fossil Free” umbrella campaign, has successfully garnered the attention of big energy companies, with Exxon Mobil mobilising in October last year to publicly and strongly decry the campaign. The above, taken together, suggests that Fossil Free campaigners are not only making progress on the ground, but creating enough global attention that their hugely powerful targets have begun to twitch. All in all, the divestment movement enters 2015 looking stronger than ever.

But where can it go from here?

Continue reading Divestment: From South Africa to Fossil Fuels

Five environmental issues that will make headlines in 2015

(Originally published at Clarity News)

1. Fracking

Over the last year, fracking politics have entered mainstream political discourse in the UK. The Infrastructure Bill currently making its way through parliament has the potential to legally oblige the Government to extract all available oil and gas reserves in the country, which would necessarily include fracking. This has prompted widespread public outcry and the creation of numerous community groups to oppose widespread fracking across the country. A list of licenses for unconventional gas exploration given by the government is due to be released this year, and decisions from planning authorities, the UK and Scottish governments regarding the extent to which fracking and unconventional gas exploration will be allowed, will also be announced. This will shape the direction of energy politics in Britain for better or worse, and is worth keeping a close eye on.

Continue reading Five environmental issues that will make headlines in 2015

Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This has also been published on Scottish Land Action Movement.

The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

xxx

Recent news that Edinburgh City Council are planning to increase the rental prices of allotments by an average of 105% – and up to 500% for some renters – has caused serious backlash from the city’s allotment owners. This news comes at the same time that new research has shown city allotment soils are far healthier and more productive than much of the United Kingdom’s depleted farmland. Globally, around 30% of the world’s arable land has now been abandoned as poor farming practices leave soils depleted of nutrients and exposed to the risk of erosion.

Food security is one of the most serious concerns we currently face: from depleted soils, to the threat of climate change, to corporate agricultural practices that force small farmers from their land and leave the global food system vulnerable to market fluctuations. With over half of the world’s population now residing in urban areas, food production in cities is an increasingly essential development if a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 is to be sufficiently nourished.

Continue reading Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This land is your land, this land is my land?

[Originally published at Clarity News]

 

Only 432 people own half of all Scotland’s private rural land. How did it get like this and what can be done about it?

Walking the West Highland Way recently, a 96-mile trail that stretches from just outside Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, I passed through Tyndrum Community Woodland. I’d be happy to pass through a community-owned woodland anywhere; repairing damaged land, forming healthy ecosystems, providing resilience against future climate change, and land used not for an individual’s profit but for the long-term health of the group of people who live and work in its vicinity. However, in Scotland community ownership is nothing short of revolutionary in a country where the feudal system was only abolished in 2004.

432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land (private land accounts for almost 90% of land in Scotland), the figure which informs a new report on land reform for the Scottish Affairs Committee in the Westminster Parliament, 432:50. Put another way, 0.025% of the population of Scotland own 67% of the private rural land. Over the past two hundred years, most European countries have introduced reforms to ameliorate similar situations and put some power back in the hands of the people. In Scotland, the situation has remained relatively unchanged until recent years, when the Scottish Government have begun using their powers to introduce incremental reforms.

Interests of private owners of land have had vastly damaging effects on the tenant communities, not to mention the long-term health of the land itself. Instead of their livelihoods and interests being supported, in many cases communities are and have historically been left to struggle. Environmental damage has been exacerbated by the introduction of vast numbers of sheep, who eat the shoots of any small trees before they have a chance to grow. This problem has deep historical roots in the Highland Clearances – but the attitudes underpinning the Clearances still exist today.

The Highland Clearances were the emptying out of the Scottish Highlands and Islands of people to make room for the landed gentry’s grouse-shooting excursions and the sheep which brought more profit than the humans. For the century between 1760 and 1860, inhabitants of the Highlands, Western Isles and beyond were forced increasingly to leave their homes as land owners began renting out the land to sheep grazing and farmers from the Lowlands and England. Any resistance to the forced evictions were met with armed response; many Highlanders died, or were forced overseas by the policy. As others were forced onto increasingly small areas of wasteland from which they were expected to subside, undernourishment and disease took hold. If you visit the Isle of Skye today, you can still see the imprints of this subsistence farming on the land – but the population of the countryside has never recovered (Tusdale glen population is currently under half what it was before the Clearances almost three hundred years ago).

Walking across Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited area in Britain (fifty square miles) last week, it would have been easy to delight in the expanse of moorland and plethora of wildlife around me, a land that I could kid myself had been unscarred by human pressures, a wild land left for the environment to flourish in unspoilt bliss. But the ruined cottages that crop up at points along the Drovers’ Path across the moor tell a different story. In a phrase that has stuck with me vividly since I first came across it, the Highlands are not an empty landscape, but an emptied one.

The history of local dispossession by faraway land owners has not been forgotten. Indeed, the figures above would suggest that very little has changed about the situation. Whilst legislation has ensured that a repeat of the Clearances would be illegal now – and one would hope that our society has reached a point where there would no longer be public, royal and governmental support for the armed eviction of tenant farmers – the situation in rural Scotland is still far from ideal. With such a vast amount of land held in private hands for profitable purposes, communities are still forced to live in uncertainties of their futures.

The Isle of Eigg is a prime example. In 1997 the Isle of Eigg Trust, a community group, purchased its own land after support and fundraising from thousands of members of the public. The impact and importance of this event can hardly be exaggerated: citizens standing up to take back control of their own land, their own livelihoods and futures, after years of what the island community have themselves described as “instability, neglect and lack of secure tenure”. This event kickstarted the land reform movement in Scotland. Rather than exist subservient to an absentee laird who nevertheless had the power to change rent prices and terms as and when they saw fit, the communities of Eigg wanted to take back the power over the ground under their feet.

Land reform is a question that goes to the very heart of the issue of people versus profit. Community land ownership in Scotland goes some way to addressing centuries of putting profit before people, to the detriment of lives and livelihoods across the Highlands and Islands. But it has implications far beyond the Scottish borders. In a world where corporate land grabs seem endemic and the privatisation of everything appears to be the direction that British governmental policy is heading, community ownership offers a glimmer of hope for people that would rather be in charge of their own futures than subservient to the wishes of someone else’s profit motives. And when you own the land you depend on for your home and your nourishment, it isn’t a great leap to suggest that concerns over the long-term health and protection of such land against the threat of climate change will take a greater place of priority as well.

 

Further reading and links:

The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland, And How They Got It by Andy Wightman – The best introduction out there to the Scottish land situation, tracing the deep and bloody roots of laird land ownership.

Soil and Soul by Alistair McIntosh – The inspiring story of the Isle of Eigg community buy-out and the fight to save a mountain on Harris from destructive mountaintop-removal mining practises.

The Highland Clearances by John Prebble – excellent historical account of the Clearances.

Community Land Scotland: http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/

Making sustainable food affordable

[originally published on Clarity News]

Is there always a trade-off between low prices and eco-friendly food? Can we make sustainable food affordable?

Food has become a key issue for activists and campaigners in recent years, and when you look at the statistics, it’s easy to see why. A new report has found that there has been a 54% increase in the number of meals given to people in food poverty from 2012/13 to 2013/14; in the same time span, there has been an increase of almost 300% in emergency food assistance given by Trussell Trust foodbanks (not to mention numerous food banks run by other organisations).

Around 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK alone – which accounts for almost 10% of British greenhouse gas emissions. About 870 million people in the world are severely undernourished, and 1.5 billion are overweight. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, fishing and forestry have nearly doubled over the past fifty years – the global food system is the single biggest human cause of climate change.

Food is an environmental, social, and economic issue. It’s also something that every human being needs in order to survive.

The tension between food poverty and sustainable systems

However, there is a disconnect in the UK between different kinds of food-related campaigning organisations – a disconnect that stands in the way of effective systemic change. On the one hand, organisations like the Trussell Trust, who have become particularly prominent during the last year and a half due to the unprecedented rise in the number of people needing emergency aid from food banks, provide immediate relief to people in food poverty through, for example, co-ordinating food banks. You could classify these organisations as working on “food poverty and access”.

One the other hand, many organisations throughout the UK are focusing on what could be classified as “healthy and sustainable diets”, for example promoting organic food; campaigns to shop at independent grocery stores; and campaigns to buy only locally-reared, grass-fed meat.

The question, then, is where does the link come in? How do we provide for people in dire need of emergency food aid whilst at the same time creating a system that provides a more sustainable food system for everyone? How do we ensure that “food poverty and access” is not detached from “healthy and sustainable diets”, further entrenching the class divide evident in these issues?

If somebody is in need of assistance from a food bank – or even if they are not at that dire stage, but are on benefits or minimum wage, and have dependents – preaching the evils of 99p packs of sausages and insisting that the person in question must only buy meat directly from the farmer who lives two bus rides away might not win you any supporters.

An interconnected world

However, it is undeniable that climate change is going to change our food system drastically. We are interconnected throughout the world in an unprecedented way, and the same is true of the global food system. In 2008, the effects of Cyclone Nargis on rice production in Myanmar caused a spike in the price of rice, which impacted prices of grains globally due to the imbalance caused in the global food market (financial speculation which treated food as a market commodity was also at play here), leading to foot riots throughout the world and a drastic increase in food insecurity. It is only since the world has become so interconnected that one localised poor harvest could cause such a rippling effect on food prices throughout the world.

In light of this, it becomes clear why one of the key responses to climate change is localising food production and reducing “food miles” – not only does this cut the carbon footprint of food, mitigating the climate impact of the produce, but it also creates a resilience amongst communities where they break free of dependence on the global food system.

If cheap, imported food is therefore unsustainable in the long run, is the opposite also, inevitably, true? Is sustainable food simply never going to be cheap?

The alternatives

Luckily, cheap and sustainable food is not a pipe dream, and there are people and organisations working to create a food system that bridges the gap.

Jack Monroe is one such writer. Ms Monroe rose to fame through her blog, A Girl Called Jack, particularly through documenting how she was able to feed herself and her young son through a period of poverty. Instead of reaching for ready-meals, she would cook more nutritious, and tastier, recipes using basic ingredients. Through the emphasis on nutrition and taste as well as price, Monroe demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to eat well on a tiny budget – but it takes determination to tread the middle ground in the face of bargain-basement ready meals and those with more disposable income whose faces light up in horror at the mere mention of supermarkets.

Another example of such determination comes from the Yorkshire town of Todmorden, home of theIncredible Edible movement. The Incredible Edible premise is simple: “If you eat, you’re in”. Incredible Edible began from the frustration of waiting around for the government to do something about climate change, and the belief that health and community could be transformed through local food projects.

From its outset, Incredible Edible worked on the premise that if the work they were doing was exclusionary to the most disadvantaged members of the community, it would be in vain. This key tenet of the movement meant that whilst the temptation may well have been to create a community growing project suitable only for people with land to grow food on, and the spare time (and money) to participate, Incredible Edible however actually moved beyond this and focused on providing training, education and above all inclusivity in their campaigns.

The future

Food activism should not be about dictating to people the need to eat a diet they simply cannot afford. However, it should also move beyond immediate aid to look at the underlying structural causes of food poverty, the UK’s dependence on a fragile global food system threatened by climate change, and ways to improve health and community in a society where people are increasingly alienated from each other. Food activism should be about building resilient communities in the face of opposition from slow-acting governments and dominant corporate powers.

When we talking about food, what we are talking about is no less than the future of humanity, and bridges between different strands of food activism should reflect this complex and incredibly important vision.