wouldn’t the government be wise to free up more land to accommodate these people? A tiny fraction of the £3.5 billion currently given out in farm subsidies could be diverted to purchase land for allotments. Some could also be spent on encouraging even more people to grow their own food, perhaps via a programme of public education about the benefits, with provision of training, support and free vegetable seeds. In the UK we currently consume about 6.9 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables per year, of which 77% is imported at a cost of £9.2 billion – shocking statistics when we consider that our climate and soils are well suited to growing many of these crops. Under allotment-style management, all of our current fruit and vegetable consumption could be grown in the UK on just 200,000ha of land (the equivalent of 40% of the current area of gardens, and just 2% of the current area of farmland). What is it about allotments that enables them to produce abundant food while supporting a healthy environment? There are a number of factors. Small patches of crops are much less susceptible to pests, which find it harder to locate their preferred food amidst all the other crops. Their natural predators, such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies, are generally much more abundant, so even if pests do find a crop they tend not to flourish. As a result, it is easy to grow plentiful fruit and vegetables without using pesticides. Pollinator populations are high, benefiting from the diversity of habitats, so crop yields are not limited by a shortage. By growing dozens of different crops in close proximity, the allotmenteer gets multiple harvests per year, rather than just one. Different crops can be grown between each other, making maximum use of the space. The allotment is never stripped bare (as happens when an arable crop is harvested), so the soil does not erode and organic matter can build up over time. Perennial crops such as fruit bushes also help to hold the soil together.
Farming systems already exist that use these principles. Permaculture, agroforestry and biodynamic farming are all variants on this theme. The only real downside to this type of food production is that it is much more labour-intensive. Industrial farming is heavily mechanised and requires very few people – a major driver of the demise of rural communities. To scale up allotmenting or permaculture would require getting many more people back onto the land, but would that be such a bad thing? It is predicted that many traditional occupations will disappear in the next few years as AI makes humans redundant. One of the ways we could find gainful employment for many of these people would be by expanding small-scale agriculture.
Imagine if the money currently being paid out in subsidies, with the most going to the biggest landowners, were instead given to small-scale, sustainable farming systems, so that they became financially viable. Government-funded experimental farms should be researching how to optimise this type of agriculture. If a gardener or an allotmenteer can get 35 tonnes of food from a hectare of land without the benefit of any training or R&D, imagine what might be possible if we took a scientific approach to properly evaluating the best practices. Researchers could investigate which combinations of crops grow best together, develop varieties best suited to this form of farming, test how to boost populations of useful insects such as ladybirds and earwigs, and work out how best to ensure that the organic content of soils grew slowly over time. With this approach to growing food, we could have a truly sustainable farming system in which wildlife thrived and people had access to plentiful, locally produced, nutritious food. It is not too late to save our planet, but to do so we need to learn to live alongside Nature. If you really want to leave your grandchildren a healthy planet to live on, it’s time to get out into the garden or onto the allotment and start growing food.
Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at University of Sussex. His new book The Garden Jungle is published by Cape.
Illustrations by Emily Sutton www.emilysutton.co
Resurgence & Ecologist