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A lot to learn Dave Goulson wonders whether allotments can save the Earth

Is it impossible to grow food and support Nature at the same time? If we pursue intensive, industrial farming, we will ultimately wipe ourselves out, for our very survival depends upon a healthy environment. Some organic farms look pretty much like conventional farms: they are still trying to grow large monocultures of crops. Even on an organic farm, a large field of wheat does not have high biodiversity, so there are few natural enemies to control outbreaks of pests and diseases. I think there are better ways to grow food, and farming could learn something from allotments. Let me tell you a little more about them.

First, a recent study from Bristol University, based on data collected from around the UK, found that allotments had the highest insect diversity of any urban habitat – higher than gardens or city parks, and higher even than city Nature reserves. Secondly, data we have been collecting at Sussex University on productivity of allotments suggests that they can produce a lot of food. Competent allotmenteers can produce the equivalent of about 35 tonnes of food per hectare. This compares very favourably to wheat and oilseed rape, the main arable farmland crops in the UK, which produce about 8 tonnes and 3.5 tonnes per hectare respectively. Bear in mind also that allotment produce generates zero food miles, zero packaging, and healthy fruit and vegetables often grown with minimal or no pesticides. Thirdly, allotment soils tend to be healthier than farmland soils, with more worms and higher carbon content, helping to tackle climate change. Fourthly, a study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age. To summarise, allotments seem able to produce lots of food, support high biodiversity, have healthy soil, and make people healthy. A win–win–win–win.

It is sad, then, that an estimated 90,000 people are on waiting lists for allotments in the UK. Given the benefits,

20 Resurgence & Ecologist

January/February 2020

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