A poll commissioned by the RHS in 2004 found,
“80% of the British population has access to a garden … of the 20% that don’t, half of them wish that they did … of those that had a garden only 2/3’s actively looked after it in any way and of that 2/3’s, less than half grow anything edible at all … the complaint was, from those that didn’t, is that they didn’t have time … but nevertheless they had time to work incredibly long hours to earn money to buy food, a third of which would be thrown away.” (Don 2008)
According to that survey only 20% of the British population grow food of any type.
Within living memory most of our food was grown locally and prepared in the family kitchen. Nowadays we have become almost completely dependent upon food supply chains spanning continents and oceans, using vast amounts of cheap fossil fuels. Food security depends not on our neighbours or fellow citizens but upon a tottering system of global finance and fossil fuel extraction.
As we increase our reliance on energy imports, so food grown or manufactured in this country will, relying as it does on energy inputs, be inherently import dependent. … measures to reduce the dependence of the food sector on energy inputs will … also increase food security.” (Garnett 2008 p.38)
If we look at just one staple crop, wheat, fossil fuels are used to manufacture and transport the agricultural chemicals involved, to harvest the crop, to dry the crop, to move the crop to processing facilities, to mill the crop, and to deliver the product. Even as far back as 1975, by the time the crop had been processed into a marketable product, procured and consumed, 37.6% of the energy embodied in a loaf of white bread had been expended on fertilisers and transport. (Chapman 1975 p.23)
More recent British and Dutch studies found the total amount of energy required and equivalent GHG emitted by the typical household for food consumption was roughly equal to energy use for all other household needs including the family car, a luxury also implicated in food chain emissions. (Vale 2000 Kramer K.J. et al., 1999 pgs.23-24)
“Emissions of CO2 from car journeys in the UK to purchase food rose by 27% between 1992 and 2002. They total about the same as those from heavy goods vehicles transporting food from mainland Europe.” (Millstone and Lang 2008 p.63)
Additionally, we are eating more foods out of season. A vegetable grown in a heated greenhouse requires 57 times more energy to produce than a vegetable grown in an open field. (Kol, Bieiot and Wilting 1993 p.28) In a world coping with peak oil this energy expenditure will become not only unaffordable but also unsustainable.
Such profligate energy use has implications far beyond food security.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
As of 2007 the percentage breakdown of the approximately 18% of the UK GHG emissions attributable to food related activities is as follows;
5% - Fertilizer production
39% - Agriculture
6% - Transport from overseas
7% - UK transport
12% - Processing
5% - Packaging
5% - Retailing
8% - Catering
11% - Food preparation in the home
2% - Waste disposal
(Millstone and Lang 2008 p.63)
Refrigeration is not listed above but, as a necessary part of at least 5 of the above categories, is a major contributor,
“… the UK cold chain is responsible for something in the order of 15% of total food chain emissions.” (Garnett 2008 p.39)
Transport is involved in several of the above categories, not than just the two indicated, and is a significant contributor to emissions.
Between 1978 and 1999 the amount of food in transport in the UK increased by 16% while the miles traveled by food increased by 50%. (Paxton and Viljoen 2005 pgs.41-42) Research from September of 2008 published by the Food Climate Research Network indicates that air freighting of fruits and vegetables is particularly egregious,
“...while 1.5% of fruit and vegetables are carried by air, these foods account for 40% of all CO2 arising from fruit and vegetable transport.” (Garnett 2008 p.33)
If the UK switched to food produced entirely locally and organically it could reduce GHG emissions by 22% (Stanley 2002 p.25)
Additionally, as international transport increases due to globalisation, the infrastructure to support it helps to drive local enterprise out of business.
“The presence of new infrastructure makes it easier and cheaper to source from further afield and of course the cost of investment needs to be recouped. This fosters the continuation of, and increase in, long distance sourcing. By contrast, sources closer to home may be less economically attractive because labour costs are higher. … local enterprises go out of business, leaving no closer-to-home choice available.” (Garnett 2008 p.35)
This has negative impacts on local economic resilience.
“Food security means that all people at all times should have physical and economic access to sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food necessary and appropriate for a healthy life, and the security of knowing that this access is sustainable in the future. … Addressing the problem may involve looking at income levels and the availability of refrigeration services, but also, Holben (2003, p161) argues, can be addressed at wider levels including participation in community gardens, learning about gardening, education on nutrition, food storage and preparation, and food safety education.” (Dowler et al. 2001 p.25)
The UK government acknowledges that many of its citizens have limited access to enough healthy food either due to low income or a paucity of retail establishments selling healthy options. (Tomkins 2006 p.27)
“And as new, urban lifestyles lead greater numbers of people to consume more fats and less fibre, more fast food and fewer home-cooked meals, … Urban and peri-urban agriculture can help improve food security in several ways: growing food at home or via a cooperative reduces the cost burden of acquiring food for the poor, puts more food within their reach, and reduces seasonal gaps in fresh produce.” (FAO 2005 p. 1)
The poor are not the only ones at risk. Even the more well off have become dependent upon supply chains spanning the globe for foods delivered out of season and none too fresh.
“Growing your own, it is argued, can protect a nation from the vagaries of economic and climatic conditions overseas. … is there a specific risk avoidance argument for shortening the supply chain?” (Garnett 2008 p.38)
While shortened supply chains can work to increase food security they can also decrease it, i.e., if a local populace is completely dependent upon food locally grown then it is at the mercy of climatic conditions and events. However, if it is totally reliant on foreign food it is at the mercy of problems anywhere along the supply chain. A position that reduces the risks inherent in both instances is called for. (Garnett 2008 p.38)
Industrial agriculture is reducing the bio diversity of our food supply through the loss of heirloom varieties of produce and seeds. In the US 97% of the original varieties of vegetables and fruit have been lost. Worldwide it is estimated that only 10% of the variety of crops that have been developed in the past are still being farmed. (Millstone and Lang 2008 pgs.38, 58) The UK has suffered as well,
“… over 12 years the average number of plant species in arable fields has fallen by 29%. Wildlife too is under threat and even cultivated crops are becoming more uniform. … There are … 2000 varieties of apple in the National Collection of the UK but today just nine dominate our commercial orchards.” (Raven et al. 1995 p.49)
The wider environment is also being degraded as we convert habitat to mono crop agriculture and pastureland worldwide. Ironically, where rural lands have been degraded by industrial agriculture, urban areas are sometimes havens for flora and fauna.
“… the urban environment is often already richer in flora and fauna than rural farm land; beehives in cities actually produce more honey than those in the country because cities are home to more trees and flowers than most parts of the modern countryside.”(National Federation of City Farms 1996 p.49)
The UK suffers from over nutrition. 8% of men were considered obese in the 1980s, 22% were obese by 2005. For women, the number went from 9% to 24%. The situation is worse in the US. (Millstone and Lang 2008 pgs.26-29)
The developed world has undergone a nutrition transition characterized by,
“• a decline in the traditional staple foods … such as pulses and oilseeds
• an increase in intakes of fat, sugar, salt, and often animal foods
• an increase in alcohol consumption …
• an increase in the consumption of refined and processed foods
• an overall reduction in dietary diversity
Such changes in diet have an impact on health, leading to an increase in diet-related diseases, such as late-onset diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease.” (Millstone and Lang 2008 p.82)
The nutritional quality of food marketed as “fresh” is declining due to the vagaries of the globalisation as well.
There is growing evidence that fresh seasonal food has significant health benefits. Local seasonal foods are consumed closer to their peak of ripeness, which increases the intake of health promoting phyto-chemicals found in the color and aromatic qualities of ripe produce. (Leitzmann 2005 p.758)
“Diets high in fresh fruit and salad vegetables appear protective against cancer and CVD. It is important to take into account the seasonality of consumption in estimating and establishing significance of risk.” (Cox et al. 1999 p.55)
Produce that is both fresh and seasonal can be hard to find, unless you grow it yourself and doing so is a healthy thing to do, in and of itself. Gardening as therapy was recognised in Sheffield by Dr. William Buchan in the 1760s. He observed better health and fitness in gardeners.
“‘… the very smell of the earth and fresh herbs revive and cheer the spirits, whilst the perpetual prospect of something coming to maturity delights and entertains the mind’.” (Buchan 1760 p.143)
Currently in Sheffield, Richard Clare, a local organic gardener and permaculture teacher runs a well attended social and therapeutic horticulture course on a yearly basis through the Sheffield Organic Food Initiative. (Clare 2008 p.1)
Research was done on Sheffield city topsoils in 2005.
“A model of soil variability … was applied to 569 measurements of metal concentrations … in the topsoils of Sheffield … Each of the 35 spatial outliers that occurred in gardens have concentrations exceeding their Soil Guideline Value for residential land use with plant uptake, highlighting a potentially significant exposure pathway. … coal and furnace waste at these sites suggests that their dispersal … represents a significant point contaminant process. … Cr and Ni showed a significant association with disturbed sites … in part due to their prevalence in areas of historical steel manufacture. … Pb concentrations in urban topsoil … were twice the value in the rural environment … highlighting a very substantial diffuse Pb load to urban soils.” (Rawlins et al. 2005 p.353)
Sheffield has centuries of mining activity and steel works that has impacted the soil quality both through direct dumping of waste and airborne deposition of contaminants.
According to Richard Clare, “In the ‘70s in Sheffield due to industrial pollution, there was a public health recommendation not to grow food anywhere in the city.” (Worthington 2008)
Complicating the situation is the difficulty in getting reliable recommendations from soil testing. While there are laboratories to get contamination testing done,
“There are no widely available reference materials for bioaccessibility testing validated against human or appropriate animal in-vivo studies. … For lead, comparing in vitro data with human in vivo data indicated that the in vitro methods used by most of the laboratories in England and Wales underestimate bioaccessibility. … This is clearly a matter of concern if such test results are used to make decisions within the risk management of land contamination. (Barnes et al. 2007 p.67)
Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires “… a science based risk assessment which takes account of toxicological information, and site specific … circumstances” to determine if significant possibility of significant harm (SPOSH) exists. The Act also “requires that local authorities identify contaminated land and ensure that significant risks are dealt with.” (Defra 2008 p.3) DEFRA published a software tool, the Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment (CLEA), to assist local authorities with this. The Act establishes to what degree remediation must occur primarily through a link to planning and development requirements.
The guidance provided by DEFRA is intended to assist local authorities, not the individual, with implementation of the Act. (Defra 2008 p.3) By leaving assessment of contamination primarily up to the planning process, are backyard gardens and existing allotment sites being overlooked? How does the homeowner or allotment holder gain access to CLEA tool for assessment of exposure on allotment sites? (COT 2008 p.1) My queries to the council to determine the extent of compliance have received no reply. See appendix #9 for details from the Sheffield City Council website regarding implementation of The Environmental Protection Act.
Research done by Dr. Rule, professor of biogeochemistry Loyola University, indicates that,
“Most soil contaminants will bind tightly to the soil particles and will move very slowly to the soil below.” (Rule 2008)
With the increasing interest in urban agriculture in Sheffield, are more of its’ citizens being exposed to existing, unmeasured, contamination of the soils?
“… vegetables, particularly leafy crops, grown in heavy metals contaminated soils have higher concentrations of heavy metals than those grown in uncontaminated soil. (Guttormsen et al. 1995; Dowdy and Larson 1995) A major pathway of soil contamination is through atmospheric deposition of heavy metals from point sources such as: metaliferous mining, smelting and industrial activities. … foliar uptake of atmospheric heavy metals emissions has also been identified as an important pathway of heavy metal contamination in vegetable crops. (Bassuk 1986; Salim et al. 1992)” (Kachenko and Singh 2004 p.1)
Given the lack of guidance for the individual citizen regarding the risks of food-growing in the city from soil contamination, as well as the evidence that there could very well be significant contamination, it seems prudent to apply the precautionary principle and assume that soils within Sheffield are guilty until proven innocent.
Urban Agriculture and the developed world
The food supply in Sheffield, like many western cities, is heavily dependent on cheap energy. With the onset of peak oil and the projected shifts in growing seasons and rainfall patterns due to climate change, the developed world could soon begin to resemble the developing world. Food security in urban areas will become more of an issue.
“In the ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme report (2001) the problem of food poverty in the UK ‘where 20 per cent of the population cannot afford healthy food especially where fuel and rent take priority’ is worthy of inclusion in a booklet about environmental justice.” (Sheriff 2005 p.35)
As fuel poverty increases, so too will food poverty.
Valuable lessons can be learned by the developed world about urban agriculture in the developing world. There are obvious similarities: land and labour are at a premium. Labour saving technologies to enhance intensification and verticalisation are called for. Land is likely to already be burdened with contamination and proximity to dense population makes use of agrochemicals especially dangerous. Preservation of the limited soil and water resources is of paramount concern.
“… we pay for our food three times: firstly at the shop, secondly through subsidies via our taxes and thirdly through the cost of clean up. In terms of water pollution, for example, UK water companies have had to spend £1 billion to filter pesticide residues out of drinking water (Lang and Heasman 2004, p224).” (Sheriff 2005 p.30)
Regulations will need to be drafted and enforced to ensure that urban agriculture doesn’t create additional health issues.
The differences between rural farming and urban agriculture (UA) mean that different approaches must be utilised when considering how best to plan for and implement strategies and policies to support UA. Urban populations are more heterogeneous than rural farming communities. Social networks are likely to play a more important role compared to technical knowledge. Food security is not the only issue; financial resilience can be enhanced as well. (RUAF 2001 p.76)
Just as on larger farms, income can be improved through the production and marketing of produce and value added products.
“One example of a successfully implemented strategy to enhance micro enterprise development in urban agriculture is the Brazilian initiative PROVE … a programme designed to promote and sustain small agricultural production, processing and trade involving several urban agricultural systems such as vegetable gardening, fruit production and livestock systems with low-income groups as the principal beneficiaries.” (RUAF 2001 p.56)
Policy makers and activists should plan for this type of development with policies dealing with access to land and credit, land tenure, market support, waste and hygiene, and training programmes. Production businesses foster processing business, as well as input and service delivery business. (RUAF 2001 p.52) Urban growers will have a better knowledge of the local markets and have less impacts and costs due to transportation than rural farmers. (RUAF 2001 p.46)