Magazine article Geographical

Salad Days

Magazine article Geographical

Salad Days

Article excerpt

Organic farming has seen a massive resurgence since the recent concern over genetically modified crops and pesticides. Sara Chamberlain takes us into our inner cities, where gardens and allotments are blooming and city farms are on the increase

THE SWEEPING CANOPY of a willow tree protects a linen-draped table from the threatening sky. Serving plates piled high with succulent slabs of barbecued lamb and bowls of broad bean, beetroot and new potato salads jostle for room with summer vegetable ratatouille. Golden mounds of home-made butter sweat next to loaves of freshly baked bread, goats cheese and spinach tarts. Jugs of ice-cold elder-flower cordial and an array of red, white and rose wines stand ready for pouring.

An idyllic afternoon in the British countryside? A midsummer picnic in the West Country? The reality is somewhat stranger, and to the uninitiated, seemingly incongruous: it is a celebratory meal in the inner city borough of Tower Hamlets. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, is holding a feast to launch its City Harvest report on the feasibility of growing food in London. Appropriately, the ingredients were all grown, raised and harvested in the Greater London area.

The report, which is based on three years extensive research, documents a resurgence in British gardening not seen since the Second World War. Consumers spending roughly 1,665 million [pounds sterling] a year on plants, tools and garden furniture alone and, in response, primetime television is packed with gardening programmes. This voracious interest in greenery is not restricted to the rural hinterland; London is blooming too. More than 13,566 hectares, or ten percent of the greater London area, is farmland -- producing an estimated 8,400 tonnes of fruit and vegetables each year, contributing three million pounds to London's economy, and providing around 3,000 jobs. Although most of this farmland is located in green belt areas, urban London is also productive, with an astounding 30,000 active allotment holders and an estimated 1,000 beekeepers at work in the city. Londoners not only grow surprising amounts of fruit and vegetables, but they also raise livestock, attracting some 650,000 people a year to London city farms and community gardens. But what about acid rain, contaminated soil and petrol fumes? Who in their right mind would eat food grown in the Big Smoke? Tara Garnet, author of the City Harvest report, acknowledges that pollution is potentially hazardous to city food production and describes preventative measures, such as putting a barrier layer of crushed shells down before building raised beds and importing clean soil. She also points out that the commercial food economy is hardly a healthy alternative. Grown in chemical fertilisers and sprayed with pesticides, much of the fruit and vegetables we eat are picked unripe so that they can be trucked and flown around the world without damage. In the UK, 29 per cent of our vegetables and 89 per cent of our fruit is imported. This globe trotting, jet-set food economy is having a negative impact on the environment.

On the road

In the last decade the amount of food transported on UK roads has increased by 22 per cent, and the average distance travelled by 46 per cent. Increased `food miles' - the distance that produce has to travel before reaching our plates -- means increased pollution. An estimated 76 to 97 per cent of London's toxic air emissions are produced by road traffic. If this wasn't bad enough, the agricultural industry is now tampering with the genetic make-up of the things we eat, so that they can be transported farther and sit on our supermarket shelves longer. According to Garnet, in 1996 cardiovascular disease accounted for 41 per cent of premature deaths in London followed by cancers at 24 per cent. So how will growing food in London improve the situation? A closer look at the banquet under the willow tree presents some persuasive evidence. …

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