Gardening could save the planet, according to research published today (11 July) in a book that advocates food production through allotments and small-scale sustainable farms.
Professor Dave Goulson’s book, The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet, contains research that suggests allotments are in many cases more productive than industrial farming.
Goulson argued that post-Brexit the UK had a golden opportunity to start to farm on a smaller scale, producing more products locally. This would improve soil quality as well as insect and bee diversity.
Allowing some of the £3.5bn farming subsidies spent on UK farming, which mostly goes to industrial farms, to reach smaller sustainable producers would be a way of supporting this change.
The Sussex University biology professor revealed that per hectare allotments can produce up to 35 tonnes of food. This is much more than the main arable farmland UK crops of wheat (8 tonnes per hectare) and oilseed rape (3.5 tonnes).
Goulson said: “They can be astoundingly productive and people are genuinely surprised that they compare so well to a field of wheat.”
There is a growing interest in small-scale sustainable farming and waiting lists for allotments are long. Goulson said: “It seems to me that people could make a living out of small-scale farming if it was supported by subsidies. Then a small proportion of the population might be interested.
“If we could get perhaps a million people farming in that sort of way, in a belt around our cities – that’s clearly a very sustainable and different way of feeding our cities, which we should at least be thinking about because what we are doing now isn’t working.”
“It doesn’t have to be done overnight. We could start by finding more land for allotments to give to people who are on waiting lists. That strikes me as achievable.
“We could then go a step further and even ‘encourage’ people to grow foods by offering training – a lot of people haven’t grown anything before – and free seeds.”
Goulson outlined his ideas in a briefing for the Food Research Collaboration, aimed at improving food policy in the UK. But not all the benefits are directly related to food production. Growing different crops together in allotments or small farms increases soil fertility, supports wildlife, while keeping pests in check – meaning food can be grown without pesticides.
UK surveys have noted a steady decline in butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies over the past 50 years. And in Germany researchers found insect biomass on nature reserves has dropped by 76% over the past 26 years. This is ‘alarming’, said Goulson, because insects are vital to the functioning of all ecosystems.
• The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet is available from the Penguin imprint Jonathan Cape.