As the Covid-19 virus rages, people’s minds are obviously on the crisis, their loved ones and the economic and social fall-out. I don’t believe the pandemic tells us much about the environment, but one thing that is being startlingly exposed is the fragility of many of our systems, including the food supply. Put simply, shocks like the C19 disease, or those which climate change is likely to bring, show the value of being able to grow and produce your own food. Already there are calls from some to make British agriculture more intensive and more industrial to maximise food production. This would be a disaster. All stability, all food production, ultimately depends on the health of the environment and the complex and interlinked ecosystems it supports. We cannot farm without soil, clean water, insect pollinators and the rest. Some people may argue there are technological solutions for such things, but this is precisely the sort of complexity that breaks down in times of crisis.
We will probably never be fully self-sufficient in food, nor would we want to be. There are too many things that grow better in other parts of the world, and vice versa. But a truly resilient food supply system needs to be a sustainable one. One that protects the fundamental basis of our ability to grow and feed ourselves – the environment. We also know that nature and biodiversity are in crisis, alongside the climate. These challenges have become no less important and indeed will very likely bring their own shocks in future.
But what does this mean? Well if the fragility of our systems exposed by C19 shows us anything it is the need to do things differently, and not just in the UK. We need a fair and dignified transition, not just to a low carbon world, but to a high nature one. We need to eat less meat and dairy, and less fish. This will allow our oceans to recover, and free up land for more extensive, regenerative farming, for flood protection, for other crops, and for rewilding.
We need more transparency in food supply chains, so we can see the consequences of what we buy. This will help to promote the transition here and in other countries, and help prevent problems of environmental destruction being pushed onto other regions.
And we will need to look at how we use land differently. Many people will write about this in a rural context, but one of the things we need to get over is the idea that the countryside is ‘for food’ and that towns and cities are not. As we seek to rewild and de-intensify farming in parts of the countryside, so we should bring more food production into our cities. The rewilding of the land should be accompanied by a greening of our urban spaces. This would bring many benefits – community engagement, biodiversity and connection to nature, an improved local food culture and of course, fresh fruit and vegetables.
A recent study from Sheffield University showed that using just 10% of the green space in the city could provide five-a-day fruit and vegetables for 15% of its people, around 90,000 inhabitants. That is huge.
Currently just 1.8% of the green space in the Sheffield is given over to allotments. The rest is parks and private gardens. The potential is vast. And if those new gardens were organic, and largely replacing lawns and ornamental beds, the boost to wildlife, in terms of food and habitat, but also connectivity would be incalculable. And imagine what it would give our food cultures? Suddenly there would be local specialities in every region and city. Not artificially, but naturally, based on climate and history. It would be a wonderful, positive antidote to the dislocating effects of globalisation.
Of course Bristol is not as lucky as Sheffield in terms of green space. But there is probably still more than we think. Furthermore there would be tremendous opportunity for suburban market gardens to feed food into the city, as well as far more imaginative uses of space. Think of allotments and community gardens all the way from Knowle to Easton, Clifton Downs to Brislington. Rooftop spaces could be utilised too, along with verges and south facing walls. Fruit trees and orchards could gradually replace some of our imported ornamentals. As we reduce our reliance on private cars, huge amounts of space could be freed up where car parks and parking spaces once were. It would be tasty, fulfilling and beautiful.
In a speech today the UN Secretary General outlined the challenges we are facing. A disease that will kill far too many, and an economic recession deeper than anything we have ever known. But the environmental and climate crises are not separate or lesser to this, they are part of it. We have a responsibility to ‘rebuild better’, not simply go back to our old destructive ways.