Set against the backdrop of rising food prices, climate change, the end of cheap energy and a frightening obesity crisis, a conference was held on Monday 1 July at London’s City Hall entitled quite simply, ‘Growing Food for London’.

Organized by the London Parks and Green Spaces Forum, as part of the London Festival of Architecture, the day’s premise was that traditional supply chains are starting to break down, and we necessarily are looking closer to home for our food. Will our farmers be able to provide it?

Already an aging bunch (only 1 percent of UK farmers are under 30), and unable to make their businesses commercially viable in many cases, this seems unlikely. What is clear however is that the urban poor will be hit the hardest by rising food prices. And that means many of the people living in London.

With speakers ranging from university academics researching the field of urban agriculture and environmental consultants to farmers and environmental artists, the overall consensus was that the situation in London, or the UK for that matter, is not particularly rosy. They did however, through their ideas and local food-growing and -sharing projects, provide much scope for optimism.

At the moment there are approximately 400 farmers in the GLA (Greater London Area) – this represents only 0.25 percent of all holdings in England – and the total land managed is 30,000 acres. Only 10 percent of farming in the GLA is organic.

The problems affecting this very special group of farmers, also known as ‘fringe farmers’ because they work on the so-called urban fringes, include: a lack of infrastructure (the nearest abattoir is often 40 to 50 miles away, spare parts may be 1 30-mile drive away), decreased availability of labour, high housing costs (for labour), farm crime, complaints from neighbours (many of them city dwellers who have moved to the country), aging farmers, a steep decline in family succession, and problems with getting planning permission to diversify their activities in order to survive.

Peter Clarke, 61, is just one such ‘fringe’ farmer struggling to make a living within the confines of London. Kingcup Farm, which he runs, is a 50-hectare property located in Denham, West Greater London, only 17 miles from Marble Arch. “Very few commercial farms are left in our area,” he says.

He finds this hard to accept given that there are literally “millions of customers on our doorstep.” Labour is the biggest problem he says and with a staff currently from Eastern Europe where economies are  picking up, he’s not sure what he would do if they started returning home. Another huge headache, he movingly recounted, is crime. This ranged from fly-tipping and vandalism to illegal encampments. He and his staff were forced to dig ditches and fill them with rubble to keep caravans and people out of their fields - these makeshift ditches have to be cleared and rebuilt at the start and end of each and every single day.

Some of the solutions that Clarke and other experts attending the conference posited for feeding Londoners were better links between the major London food markets and the urban fringe farmers; developing a fair trade scheme in the UK (thus avoiding predatory supermarket promotions, which the supplier almost always ends up paying for); abolishing the ‘derelict land tax’ for people who use the land productively; expanding the number of London farmer’s markets (with 80 percent of Clarke’s produce being sold at these markets he plainly stated that they had almost single-handedly “kept him going”).

Similar to the farmer’s markets scheme, an array of market-garden projects and organic box schemes have sprung up in London. Growing Communities was set up in Hackney, East London, about a decade ago and runs a pick-up organic box scheme (to which 89 percent of members cycle or walk). The boxes are filled with produce sourced from farms in and around London as well as produce grown in their three urban market gardens located in Hackney. Mainly the group grows mixed salads and leafy greens in these three gardens, applying a ‘common sense’ model to their project whereby more perishable items, such as salad crops, are grown closer to the consumer.

The enterprise also introduced a Good Food Swap in 2006, an occasion to barter allotment surpluses and an opportunity to show off personal produce and get to sample unknown crops. Julie Brown, Growing Communities’ director, believes that the scheme provides an “alternative to the current food system” and “is a way of tackling climate change and making our communities more resilient” by taking the food back from supermarkets and agri-businesses.

Another inspiring example of urban farming came from the once-deprived northern town of Middlesbrough. It all began last year when disused urban spaces, gated alley-ways, parkland, school playing-fields and people’s gardens were turned into fertile vegetable and fruit gardens by more than a 1,000 residents. The project, called Dott07, culminated with 15 outdoor meals during which 2,500 people were fed from the food that had been grown and 8,000 people attended. Ian Collingwood, Regeneration Consultant on the project said the food bill for the day was £180 (roughly $357). “And we talk of five loaves and two fish,” he joked. This year, the project is being reprised and the results could be even more spectacular with 31 out of 51 schools involved and 18 new allotments.

Though many of these small community projects are heartening and motivating, Tim Lang brought us all back down to earth. Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University, he is frequently invited to speak on national TV and radio. “It’s critical to look at how they did that,” he says about the Middlesbrough Project. Too much of what is being done within the food movement is not properly analyzed and too much evidence is anecdotal, says Lang. What is necessary is hard data and facts that can be presented to governments and business as a credible alternative to the current system.

He reminded us of some of the most salient factors underpinning the current food crisis: 95 percent of the food we eat is dependent on oil (from the oil used in tractors and fertilizers to the oil used for packaging). “Consumerist culture expects food to be cheap” and “33 countries have now had riots because of food,” says Lang. This is both the “most dangerous but also potentially the most interesting era in food policy in my lifetime,” he says. He is 60.

“For 60 years we have left it to the supply chain. Now we have to harness the moment; the food industry has rarely been in a more listening mode.” Lang threw out a gauntlet to us all. “We have to have clarity about what the urban agriculture movement can achieve. We need more data. We have good vibes but good vibes ain’t enough.”

Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

London's conference on urban farming
The UK gets ready for expensive oil through locally-grown food in the "Growing Food for London" Conference.