Cities have always imported food, but Birmingham (England’s 2nd city) is an extreme case. Land is reserved for housing, industry and leisure, but not for food growing. This import-dependency is too risky, for a world with 7,000 million people, all of whom will be competing for food. We are using a lot of land in other continents to grow our food, which may not be available for much longer. Food prices are rising because of population pressure and the stresses of climate instability on harvests.
Modern farming is very energy-intensive and completely dependent on oil. Transport of fresh and perishable foodstuffs, especially by air, is going to be much less viable in future. ‘Food miles’ must be reduced to give a secure food supply for the future..
Farming is a very inefficient process, as monocultures of grain and oil seed are grown, then fed to animals, with only a small amounts of meat and milk reaching the dinner table. Perishable food should be grown where there are hands to pick it and mouths to eat it. The low wastage will compensate for lower yields than commercial farming.
Farming, even in Britain, is about maximum mechanisation and minimal labour, but in Birmingham we have a million pairs of hands. Birmingham people should not be seen only as food consumers, but allowed to be growers. Human bodies evolved to be active in procuring food. Passive eating and passive leisure have ruined city dwellers’ health. Many people have spare time and are looking for healthy exercise and affordable fresh food.
Spending time outdoors exposes people to the sunlight so their skin can make valuable vitamin B. Our bodies evolved to spend energy at getting our food, not for passive indoor inactivity. Being outdoors in winter burns off excess fat and avoids the ‘blues’. Gardening is definitely therapeutic, counteracting stress and depression. It has social benefits, bringing people together across ethnic divisions etc, to give a sense of pride in homes and neighbourhoods. There is evidence that working in gardens can benefit people’s mental health, , make them more employable and even lower the rate of petty crime 1.
We may see a reappearance of skills and culture around growing and cooking good food. This can be an intergenerational project, valuing the knowledge of elders. We should prepare for a great reconnection between people and their food, with the city as a ‘farm of the future’.
What to Grow ?
Supermarkets and takeaways have oversold the wrong foods and made us unhealthy with too much fat, sugar and empty calories. Birmingham is now said to be the ‘fattest city in Europe’, with 29% of the adult population are classified as obese2. There plenty of cheap calories, but not the 5 portions of fruit or vegetables that we are advised to eat every day, for good health. As prices rise, people on low incomes are cutting back on just the fresh produce that has the vitamins and minerals. Home grown food will not replace food from shops, but would complement it.
Salads and fruits are the most likely foodstuffs to be thrown away and wasted because they are the most perishable3. Fortunately it is fresh herbs, leaves, fruit and vegetables that can most easily be grown on small city plots close to where it will be eaten. Food can be picked and eaten in the quantity and at the time at the time of optimum ripeness and nutritional value.
City Farms show that ducks and hens can be kept successfully and eggs sold to the public. Fish tanks, mushroom beds, hydroponic roof gardens and hanging gardens are all possible. These can be temporary and do not require soil. We can keep small stock such as chickens and ducks, perhaps goats which will produce useful manure.
Where to Grow ?
Birmingham people need to rebuild relationships with the surrounding countryside. Farmers markets can be complemented by ‘veg box’ schemes direct from growers. ‘Pick your own’ could be revived instead of using migrant labour from far away.
It is time to identify and conserve whatever soil there is within the city – we will need it! There is a lot of ‘public open space’ owned by public bodies that produces only grass cuttings; parks, golf courses, hospital and school grounds. They can follow the lead of the National Trust in allowing people to cultivate strips for food.
Allotment gardens are popular in Birmingham and are mostly fully occupied, but some wards, such as Sparkbrook have none, so more sites should be identified and reserved in the ‘Neighbourhood Plan’. A number of small sites will help everyone who wishes to walk to their allotment. Former allotment sites must not be built on, but taken back into cultivation.
Growing sites would ideally co-locate with a composting site for garden waste and food waste, for a supply of soil nutrients. Composting can be done at neighbourhood level. Birmingham City Council pays for a collection of garden waste from every street which is transported to a composting site out of the city. There could be ways to save on the transport of this waste and use it. Autumn leaves could be included. CSV Environment has run community composting schemes in the past. Composting garden waste of social landlords within the area makes sense. There is a national Community Composting Network to advise such schemes4. Thought must be given to the water supply, e.g. river, or rain, or boreholes for underground water.
Much space has been provided as domestic gardens, attached to houses, which is the ideal place to grow food. Domestic gardens are 25% of the land area of even an inner city ward, such as Sparkbrook. The trend to slabbing over gardens should be resisted.
Some people have lost control of their long gardens and no longer want lawns and private hedges. Balsall Heath Forum green team communalised much of the garden space behind Cheddar Road, with the residents’ approval, giving a grassed area for children’s play. Such reclaimed areas might be divided into raised beds for cultivation.
Garden sharing is one approach, matching gardeners with who want growing space with those who cannot manage their garden.5 Another is Grofun, used in Kings Heath, where garden owners help each other bring gardens back into cultivation6. Demonstration City Gardens would help people to see what is possible. There seems to be a need for training in gardening skills and knowledge, somewhere to buy plants and seeds, tools to borrow and share.
Birmingham is an orchard, with many fruit trees in private and public gardens. There may be gluts of fruit at times, that people cannot use or store. Produce-swapping events have been held by Birmingham Friends of the Earth, an idea that can be used anywhere. A scheme called Urban Harvest picks the members’ fruit, and sells bottles of juice7.
Any new homes built in future should have gardens attached, or nearby, where people will be able to grow food. These have to be protected from slabbing over for car parking. Gardens can be havens for wildlife; bees, insects and birds displaced from the intensively-farmed countryside.
However, any space can be a growing space. Builders’ bags on concreted or tarmaced sites have been used by Birmingham Friends of the Earth. Edible Eastside uses boxes just 1 x 2 metres filled with compost and vegetables http://edibleeastside.net/tag/digbeth Any building can have an element of food growing, even car parks!
No one can say just how much food might be grown in Birmingham. We do know that the benefits are clear, so the journey has to begin.
1 Benefits of gardening http://www.skillsdevelopment.org/pdf/Roots%20to%20work%20report.pdf
2 Association of Public Health Observatories http://www.apho.org.uk/resource/item.aspx?RID=50321
5 Transition Town Totnes Gardenshare www.transitiontowntotnes.org/projects/gardenshare
6 Grofun, Kings Heath http://kingsheathtransition.wordpress.com/projects-2/grofun/