By Marie-Amélie Viatte, 1st November 2023
How deliberate investment into regenerative urban food growing can be the catalyst for change we’ve been looking for.
Over 500 people gathered in Edinburgh last week to hear Professor Johan Rockström, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists. His message was stark and sombre: we’re on a path to disaster, without any evidence whatsoever that we can support nine billion people in the world as we know it at anything above 2 degrees celsius (we’re on track for 2.7 degrees celsius by the end of this century).
Outside, Storm Babet was brewing. The devastation it caused over the following days was a further reminder of the huge financial and human costs of climate change. Enough to feel powerless and helpless.
Yet, Professor Rockström’s lecture also brought hope and a sense of priorities. He said that in order to tackle the planetary crises we face, we need nothing less than a ‘food revolution’.
Our food system (from production to consumption, including processing, packaging, storage, transport, retail and food waste) is the single greatest contributor to climate change, representing 34% of total global GHG emissions. It is also the main cause of biodiversity loss and the single largest cause of ill-health globally. There are therefore many reasons why overhauling the food system must be our collective number one priority.
“Simply put, we fix the food, and we fix the health for people and the planet. But this never gets any headlines, and never generates any top summits.” Prof. Johan Rockström
Now for the good news! A food revolution is already underway – and it’s not coming from where you might expect. It’s coming from inner cities and often from low-income communities.
For the last decade, I’ve been increasingly drawn to what’s happening on my doorstep in Scotland’s capital, and further afield across the UK. I’ve seen first-hand how local residents are rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty, and coming together to grow nutritious and delicious fruits and vegetables, while creating beautiful havens of tranquillity for all to enjoy – humans and non-humans. They’re transforming the physical space and social fabric of their neighbourhoods, creating places to reconnect with oneself, with others, and with nature. They’re growing food wherever they can: on street corners of Council estates, in long-forgotten historical walled gardens, in schools, colleges and universities, on vacant land awaiting development, in their shared tenement backgreens, on shared allotment plots, even in shipping containers! All around the city, from the margins to the centre, in the most unexpected of places.
Urban food growing has become a burgeoning concept and ‘sector’. It has captured people’s imagination, and provided that much-needed sense of agency, shared purpose, belonging, and civic pride. What they produce is so beautiful and life-giving, it’s irresistible once you’ve experienced it. Like a rich soil that allows mature forests to grow, this micro scale of community food growing activity has prepared the ground for larger scale market gardens and urban farms to germinate.
Most often, those leading the way live in low-income areas. They don’t seek the limelight and are easily overlooked. Yet, they understand only too keenly how fragile our food system is and what food insecurity looks like.
Urban areas give us a particularly powerful opportunity. Because that’s where most of us live and work. That density and its inherent diversity are a strength. It allows us to create momentum that can ripple out of the city walls and across the whole country. It makes it possible for communities to experience first-hand what good food looks like in our own streets, tastes like on our plates, feels like in our guts. Once we see it, we understand and value it. Once we experience it, we cherish it.
So, while heeding the stark reality of Storm Babet and Professor Rockström’s warnings, I hold onto food as the solution that unites us all. I rejoiced at the recent news of the City of Hull deciding to grant its residents a right to grow food on Council land; a first in the UK. They’re highlighting this as a powerful vehicle to address the economic, social, and environmental struggles of the city.
Funding from a wide range of enlightened funders preoccupied with the environment, health, poverty, and sustainable communities has been key to enabling community food growing to get this far. We now need to consider how to better support what already exists so it can truly flourish, and how to harness the evident appetite for more so that, collectively, we optimise its potential. With ambition, imagination, and leadership we can turn what’s been a ‘nice’ thing to fund, into a recognised necessity that’s appropriately resourced.
It’s both the scale of funding and the nature of it that need to shift – the what and, critically, the how. If we want regenerative work on the ground, the flow of money must be regenerative too. It requires a different starting point: seeing the whole urban growing ecosystem in its context (i.e. the situation it operates in), rather than a variety of isolated projects dispersed across the land and competing with one another. Funders can also operate as an ecosystem, supporting one another in their great diversity and seeking collective impact long-term. This promises to be far more impactful and enjoyable than the current top-down and siloed decision-making structures.
Crucially, we also need to invest in the human dimension: the people doing the work on the ground (and those enabling it to happen) as much as the outcomes in themselves. This can be done by purposely creating a relational culture that nurtures everyone’s wellbeing, and their personal and professional growth. Because the biggest risk to social change is burnout; it’s a very real threat to all of our capacity. Instead, we can forge a culture where mutual appreciation and support means we’re tapping into our full, shared human potential.
So, what if we saw the opportunity before us and decided to make it our number one priority to invest in food growing in urban areas? What if we considered it a key insurance policy to secure us as we navigate the stormy seas of the 21st century? What if we used a place-based collective investment approach to make community food growing the centrepiece of regenerative localised food ecosystems? What if we invested in that local ecosystem as a whole, enabling the different actors to feed off each other and synergise so as to create a resilient local circular economy? From those who grow, to those who wholesale and retail, cook, eat, educate, compost, seed-save and more!
Urban growing movements in other countries (e.g. France, Belgium, the US, Argentina and Cuba) are ahead of the UK on this front, so let’s join them and make a conscious decision to invest in urban food growing as a key plank of a deliberate and coherent strategy for social and environmental change. Whatever our specific interest, let’s unite behind a vision for agroecological urban food ecosystems that lay the foundations for greater resilience and wellbeing of people and planet. This is the lynchpin of our collective efforts to address the polycrises of our times: food security, climate mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity, health, poverty and social exclusion. Community-based food growing has already demonstrated its positive impacts and alignment with so many policy priorities. Without a step-change in how we invest in it, we will miss a major opportunity to realise its potential.
Let’s make this the catalyst for change that ripples out through all our lives.