Britain now imports 40 per cent of its food and needs a radical and new approach to meeting the food needs of the people, argues Laurie McPhun, communist and professional gardener.
Fresh thoughts for an agrarian revolution
By Laurie McPhun, Cambridge University Gardener
Britain is a country of many gardens. From sweeping rural estates to fluttering urban window boxes, via village displays and metropolitan ‘spaces’, our ancestors have been turning the soil and honing their craft for at least twenty-seven centuries. This tradition, though changeable, is extremely unlikely to end. We all need food. We also need nature’s calming influence and a place to be ourselves.
The challenge for us, in modern Britain, lies in how we should set about defining, or re-defining, our relationship to the natural world around us. It is a very delicate balance. Huge swathes of Greenfield land are lost to urban development every day and over forty per cent of the food we now consume is imported from outside the UK. Farmers can make huge profits by selling their land to councils or large private corporations.
Grocery chains, both small and extensive, can benefit from buying items that are more cheaply produced abroad. This is not an ideal situation. Increased food miles not only generate higher pollution levels, and much less wholesome food but they also contribute to a culture whereby people are further separated from the very process which ensures our survival. A new approach to land management is required. An approach best initiated in the areas where most people live.
Modern towns and cities with their densely packed populations and numerous small-scale plots of land can be the breeding grounds of a future agrarian revolution in Britain and the world. The main tools are already in place. Countless private gardens could be transformed into productive food-growing arenas, without losing their beautiful or recreational aspects, while larger plots of urban, i.e., derelict sites, redundant car parks, etc., would benefit from a much more radical overhaul.
New laws may have to play a part. Local councils could make it easier for community groups or co-operatives to purchase pre-used private land for relatively cheap prices. This movement would, ultimately, aim towards creating an environment where young and old, rich, poor and vulnerable might work together in helping to change their perception of and, therefore, the reality of the world as it exists around them.
Similar experiments are already flourishing in parts of the western hemisphere. In Cuba, a vast network of urban food gardens, known as Huertas, have sprung up in Havana, Camaguey, Pinar del Rio and various other towns and cities. These are largely community plots
rather than individual allotments and everybody reaps the rewards. Workers produce rice, corn, sweet potatoes and beans, not to mention numerous tropical fruits, for themselves, their families and, if there’s anything left over, the public markets.
Of course, such projects would not be nearly so successful without the active encouragement of local government. In Havana, Cuba’s capital, this is especially important. More than sixty horticultural information points have been set up around the town. They provide everything from seeds and light machinery, to advice on how well a particular crop may fare in specific areas and conditions.
This advice is usually much appreciated. Cuba has a warm, tropical climate, generally, but with high mountainous regions alongside long stretches of damp, marshy, flatlands, it is home to various soil types and many different suitable crops.
In Cuba, the urban, co-operative garden culture is still in relative infancy. It has emerged from a society whose recent history – both political and economic, is very different to our own yet, nevertheless, it is still relevant when assessing the needs of a 21st Century European state. We all share the same planet. None of us can survive without the physical, social and environmental bounty that it provides. We have, therefore, a duty of care.