Category Archives: Urban Agriculture

Growing food after oil

This was the headline for a recent article in The Guardian.  I am sorry to say it followed the usual formula of trivialising the issues by focussing on a couple who had setup a small holding to grow salads and raise a few animals. It also included a photograph of a vegan cafe growing their own salad using hydroponics.

James Koch (left) and James Smailes at their vegan cafe, Suncraft, where they grow salad leaves hydroponically. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

Why is growing food hydroponically seen as the easy answer to food security when it is very much part of the oil-based economy?  ‘Hydro’ uses artificial fertilizers dissolved in water to feed the plants. These chemical fertilisers are made using huge amounts of gas, a fossil fuel!

The belief that the nutrients in soil can be replaced by the right chemical mixture shows a deep misunderstanding about how plants get their nutrients. There are other issues including the substrate in which plants are grown, it often includes enerygy intensive, single use material like rockwool, perlite and vermiculite.

Hydroponics is portrayed as a ‘magic bullet’ that provides an easy way out of a complex problem. In reality it boosts the profits of the immensely powerful agrochemical and fossil fuel industries and offers false hope.

The photographs, videos and TV interviews with people growing food underground and in shops and restaurants makes good news stories. The rows of veg, usually salad crops, under  LED lights creates an atmosphere of technology providing self-sufficiency.

The problem is that it takes a lot of words to explain that growing food in water containing dissolved chemical fertilizer under artificial lights is neither sustainable nor self-sufficient.

Hydroponics can never be the silver bullet for food production. Growing fully sustainable and nutritious food can only happen if we change the way food is produced and marketed. That means the end of the supermarket supply chain and a step back from the high tech, high input chemical growing that has such a strangle hold on farming.

We need more small, organic market gardens and farms round the perimeter of towns and cities that can supply local shops. That means seeing agricultural land as a vital part of our survival rather than a commodity to be used for the greatest profit. Until that happens, we will have no food security with a very real risk of starvation and famine in the so called ‘developed world’.

Broccoli Is Dying. Corn Is Toxic. Long Live Microbiomes!

Do you want the cheapest food possible? If so this is what you get: “Data going back to 1940, as reported by Eco Farming Daily, shows: “The level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100 percent.”

This is not anything new, it is well documented and we have mentioned it before – “A study on the mineral depletion of the foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 1991.” see the PDF is here.

There is a stark choice: you either go for the cheapest food and kid yourself that it is good value for money or you buy decent food that is not produced using high inputs of chemical fertiliser and chemical pesticides  –  organic food!

See this piece in Scientific American

New York City’s largest rooftop farm

We need to do this in the UK. There are many urban roof tops that could be used to grow food where it is needed.

(Click image for the full story)

In the coming years the effects of global heating will have an impact on food supply. The impending crisis in the UK shows that we must have a stronger and more resilient local food supply. Conventional agriculture takes time to switch to growing different crops, but roof top gardens could be up and running within weeks.

What is likely to stop that? Local planners and health and safety concerns! I am not saying that we should ignore the safety implications of roof top gardens but

Biochar

I found this book in last week in Oxford last week, Blackwells Broad Street branch.  it just jumped off the shelf. I have known about biochar for some years but not used it in the garden. With the new plot and talk about sequestering CO2 and making better use of nutrients it could not have come at a better time.

What I like about the book is that there is some history, the use of biochar goes back to 450 BCE – 950 BCE. The soils from that era are still black, it lasts locking up atmospheric CO2 for centuries. There is a section about how it works and very useful practical information about making biochar in either in a burn pit or a TLUD: top lit up-draft gasifier.

Making a TLUD from a couple of steel barrels look relatively straight forward so that is what I will do.

It fits in nicely with the yearly timetable as I am just about to start preparing the soil for the winter. I will post some pics of the TLUD build progress soon.

IPCC report on climate change and land

Finally we get to the very basic problem – we ALL depend on the land for survival. It is the top 15 inches (38cm) of soil is that feeds us. Forget that, mess up the land, ignore it or take it for granted and we are dead, It is as simple as that.

The full report can be found here

Extracts about food security:

Coordinated action to address climate change can simultaneously improve land, food security and nutrition, and help to end hunger. The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability).

“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines – especially in the tropics – increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.

“We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.

The report records that about one third of food produced is lost or wasted. Causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries, as well as between regions. Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security.

“Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others,” said Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change,” she said.

We need more allotments – now!

Here is a bit of very radical action, well not that radical; the government must make more land available for the  “90,000 people on waiting lists to get their own patch of land to grow vegetables.” In short more allotments! Not that difficult, would not cost billions and would help in all sorts of ways. See this link for more information

The British countryside is being killed by herbicides and insecticides – can anything save it?

“From orchids and moths to hedgehogs and toads, our wildflowers and wildlife are dying out. Making the meadows safe again is a huge challenge – but there are glimmers of hope”

The Guardian – 31 May 2018

Gloomy prospect … meadow flowers in Upper Teesdale. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian

What has been obvious this year is the lack of insect strike on the windscreen of cars! Some say that it is a good thing, but it emphasises the huge decline in insect numbers and should sound alarm bells. The link to insecticides is obvious yet there is no response from government.

Pesticides are now sold in supermarkets alongside cleaning products. A sign of how normalised they have become. This was evident in a local branch of Tesco where pesticides were shelved next to food!

In the garden it is lawns that get the full treatment. In Spring each year there are endless TV adverts show ways to blast weeds with the latest product. For a pesticde free lawn, see this site

With climate change happening now there will be a huge impact on food supplies. Keep a small area of unsprayed grass but use the rest to grow food!

Things you can do:

  • Make a pledge to become a pesticide free household, especially if you have young children.
  • Think seriously about growing some food. Start with one metre square raised beds, all the information you need it here.
  • Become more informed about pesticides in food and how to avoid them.
  • Check out the Pesticide Action Network for more information.

 

 

Edible Mach Maethlon (Machynlleth)

As part of a project for Eyam Green Group I visited Edible Mach Maethlon (Machynlleth) last week. There are various sites in the town that are planted with edible crops which are available for anybody to pick. There are even planters at the local Co-op who are actively supporting the project. An interactive map of the sites is available here.

There are other farming/horticultural projects which train people in growing and coordinate small growers to supply a local box scheme. It was an inspirational visit that clearly demonstrates what can be achieved with enthusiasm and cooperation.

The first gallery includes photographs of the show garden located at Y Plas. It is an impressive and well kept garden with a number of raised beds. It was a volunteers day so there were people around tending the gardens. The volunteers then moved on to the library which is near the centre of town.

It was not possible to visit all the sites around the town but I did stop at the Co-op. There are planters each side the front and rear entrances. The planters at the front door contained a good selection of herbs. At the back entrance each planter had an apple tree and some soft fruit.

Reinventing the (gardening) wheel?

For many years we have argued that we need to grow more food at home. Now Grow it yourself, or GIY, has suddenly become popular partly because of a looming no deal Brexit and fears about food security.

There are many other benefits associated with gardening including exercise, improved mental health, zero food miles and having fresh food readily available. It also reconnects people where the land.  For us it is also about growing sustainably with no pesticides or chemical fertilisers.

A research group – the Food Research Collaboration  have recently published a paper: ” Brexit and Grow it Yourself, a golden opportunity for sustainable farming”. Not sure about the farming bit but I get what they mean.

It is good to see the role of GIY being recognised but it will need more than an academic paper to get things moving. There is a chronic lack of allotment space in the UK and with ever more land going to feed the insatiable appetite for housing it will not be easy to find space to grow food.

While we agree on the need for more allotments we would argue that the typical allotment plot is far from sustainable. There are often high inputs of the same agrochemicals and chemical fertilisers used in farming. A few years back at an event in a south midlands town to encourage more food growing the local allotment society stall consisted of a table full of the chemicals they  used!

Carrots, 64 per Sq.M

The way forward is to use intensive sustainable, organic growing on small plots, something we have been promoting for years.  See this trial from 2009  Quick and easy square metre beds

A lot can be grown in a small space with relatively little effort. Our new garden has a growing area of 15 square metres. We estimate that it will produce 90-120kg of food per year based on previous trials.

Many gardening skills have been lost and there would need to be a programme of short courses, demonstrations and mentoring of new gardeners. Time is short with Brexit on the horizon and the effects of a warming planet already evident. We need to act now to get things moving!