It’s not just green activists and radical idealists that are calling for urgent action to overhaul London’s food system. In January 2010, the Greater London Authority published a report1 on food growing in the capital which included such rousing statements as: “Action is needed now. Increasing the amount of food we produce locally is the first step to avoid sleepwalking into a major potential problem for London’s future.”

London boasts a range of inspiring grassroots projects and a surprisingly large amount of farmland, but the vast majority of food consumed in the capital is nonetheless imported , most of it from abroad2. Although “agricultural” land makes up around 10% of the land area of Greater London, much of it is not actively farmed1. Only around 500 hectares in the capital are under commercial fruit and vegetable cultivation3, which amounts to 3% of its agricultural land. A similar amount of land can be estimated to be productive allotments4.

Whilst for many this may represent a surprisingly high acreage of productive soil resting within “The Smoke”, it nowhere near fulfils London’s needs for fresh produce, and yet it could be argued that producing fruit and vegetables locally should be of particular priority in terms of food sovereignty. For one thing, fruit and vegetables have a higher nutritional value the fresher they are. Did you know, for example, that green beans stored/transported for 7 days at 4°C lose 77% of their Vitamin C content?5. The time from harvest to consumption can most effectively be minimised if produce is locally grown and supply chains are short.

Transporting fruit and vegetables over long distances also entails a particularly high carbon footprint since they require both speed and refrigeration. Also, the availability of location-specific knowledge about how to grow a diverse range of foods successfully has played a crucial role in keeping humans alive and healthy over the past 10,000 years. In terms of maintaining local food growing skills and crop varieties, our skills base and gene pool is shrinking alarmingly: nearly half of British crop production is made up of wheat and 84% of the crops we produce are restricted to cereals, oilseed rape, sugar beet and potatoes 6.

On a nationwide scale, only a quarter of agricultural land is used for crop production, and less than a quarter of the crop production focuses on fruit and vegetables6. It’s not surprising; therefore, that Britain is not very self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. According to HM Revenue and Customs, we imported nearly £9bn worth of fruit and veg in 2014, and exported less than £1bn7, and according to DEFRA, we produced £2.5bn worth of fruit and vegetables8. This means that if we actually ate what we produce rather than exporting a large chunk of it only to replace it with imported goods, we would still produce less than a quarter of our fruit and vegetable needs.

OrganicLea is one of the grassroots organisations actively addressing these issues and working towards a more socially and environmentally just food system. They are a workers’ cooperative with a 12-acre community growing site in the fertile Lea Valley in NE London. From humble beginnings on disused allotment plots in 2001, OrganicLea moved to a 12-acre growing site 2007. Their box scheme has grown to an impressive 380 subscriptions and their local, affordable produce is also sold at three bustling market stalls. An estimated 160 volunteers and trainees learn horticultural skills on-site every year, and 17 coop members participate in production, distribution and training. Paid work is also available for up to 20 sessional workers, mostly focused on an extensive outreach programme which has resulted in food growing at local schools, children’s centres, community centres, sheltered accommodation sites and housing associations.

OrganicLea are eager to share their knowledge and skills with new entrant growers in order to help more similar project get off the ground. The long-term goal is to be one amongst hundreds of similar projects within London and beyond, all working towards a socially and environmentally just food system for all.

With invaluable backing and financial support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Enfield Council, OrganicLea have recently launched the OrganicLea Farm Start Project. The plan is to provide at least 6, but hopefully many more, ‘Farm Starters’ with incubator plots over the next couple of years. The project has already begun on a small scale with allotment-based training plots and tailored training and mentoring opportunities. Farm Starters receive support to develop horticultural, practical and entrepreneurial skills, as well as supported access to local distribution systems and necessary infrastructure.

At this stage, OrganicLea are still looking for suitable land in North and East London, Hertfordshire and Essex. They are interested in urban land, as well as larger peri-urban or rural sites. If you know of any land that might be suitable, please get in touch!

OrganicLea are also interested to hear from any landworkers who like to join their Farm Starter database. To date, most of the aspiring Farm Starters are particularly interested in starting projects with a large social element and high value crops, such as salad bags. Their projects are more suitable for smaller plots in an urban setting, but in order to fill the huge demand for fresh, organic produce, larger-scale projects will also be invaluable. The OrganicLea Farm Start project is therefore particularly keen to recruit landworkers who are interested in medium-scale fruit and vegetable production with an OrganicLea connection.

For more information, please visit www.organiclea.org.uk/farm-start.

If you can suggest potential sites, are interested in joining the OrganicLea Farm Start project, or have other related suggestions or questions, please contact: farmstart@organiclea.org.uk

References:

  1. https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/archives/archive-assembly-reports-plansd-growing-food.pdf
  2. https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/archives/assembly-members-jonesj-docs-secure_food.pdf
  3. https://extranet.who.int/iris/restricted/bitstream/10665/108385/1/E72421.pdf
  4. https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/A%20Lot%20to%20Lose%20-%20London’s%20disappearing%20allotments.pdf
  5. http://www.fruitandvegetable.ucdavis.edu/files/197179.pdf
  6. http://www.ecifm.rdg.ac.uk/current_production.htm
  7. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/423616/foodpocketbook-2014report-23apr15.pdf
  8. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/430411/auk-2014-28may15a.pdf