GIY urban food will feed billions in cities of future
Most of us will be urban dwellers within the next 20 years so it is about time we learned how to grow food in this new environment
With five billion people predicted to be living in cities in the next 20 years, is urban food growing just a big fat waste of time? Can it really have an impact? This is a question I've pondered a lot recently, particularly following a trip to India in the spring.
India is a country where even the smallest of cities (the ones you've never heard of) have millions of inhabitants. The scale of humanity there simply dwarves anything we have here in Ireland, and gives urban food growing a very different context.
Because of space constraints, urban food growing is often dismissed as a waste of time in that won't help people to become self-sufficient and won't help the planet to feed billions of hungry mouths in the coming century.
On one level this is of course, absolutely true. One simply can't grow as much on an apartment balcony as you can in a rural field. That's the maths of the issue. So, surely urban growing is a busted flush?
Well, not quite. First of all, you can grow a surprising amount of food in small spaces. I met a man in Bangalore who gets a year-round supply of greens from his balcony garden in that vast city of 8.5 million souls.
Also, Mark Ridsdill Smith, a speaker at the GIY Gathering in Birmingham last month told us how he grew £900 (E1,050) worth of vegetables on a London balcony in one year.
Technologies such as vertical growing and aquaponics will undoubtedly help us to grow more in small spaces in the decades ahead.
Secondly, urban food growing assumes an incredible importance when viewed through the lens of 'food empathy'. This happens on two levels when people grow their own food. The first is the obvious stuff – more exercise, fresh air, better and safer food etc.
The second level is the food empathy level. Growing your own food creates a deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required.
Acquiring food empathy has a positive impact in all sorts of unexpected places. Food empathetic people make healthier food choices, recycle more and waste less.
A person who has grown a butternut squash for example – having sown a seed in spring, carefully nurtured a plant through the growing season and triumphantly harvested a squash in autumn, will forever know that squashes aren't in season in February.
And that's not all. Because they attach a real value to food and understand the effort and time involved in creating it, food growers aren't always looking for the cheapest food (which should be good news for local food producers).
The simple act of growing some food, and acquiring food empathy, can make us happy, healthy and more sustainable.
At GIY, we believe the food empathy level is where the really seismic change happens. It is at this level that we can have real impact on the food chain, human health and the health of this planet we all share.
So yes, it's true that urban food growers will not grow all of their own food. Rural food growers probably won't either, come to think of it, with different constraints (like lack of time) bearing down on them.
But it actually doesn't matter how much we grow – what's important is that we try to grow something. That we nudge ourselves just a little along a spectrum towards self-sufficiency (and away from complete reliance on the food chain). Does it matter if we never get within as ass's roar of self-sufficiency? Absolutely not.
In the GIY movement, the person who grows some herbs in a pot is just as welcome, worthwhile and valuable as the person with a 10-acre smallholding. That dodgy looking lettuce you grew on your windowsill should be held aloft and celebrated as a symbol of your ability to change the world – one meal at a time.
Food empathy is an equal opportunities concept – it doesn't care that your spuds were small or that your carrots were forked. It's just mightily impressed you grew anything at all.
So, to bring about real change in the world in terms of human health and sustainable living – the real potential of the home-grown food revolution is not just in the actual food that is grown – the food empathy created by the process of food growing is where most of the really good stuff happens.
In that context urban food growing is not a waste of time – in fact, it's the silver bullet. Why? Because cities are where most of us will be living. There's a massive migration of people in to cities happening worldwide. Over the next 20 years, the global urban population will rise to approximately five billion.
Happily, when we talk about food empathy, it's scale that's important. Scale is our opportunity, for it's quantity we need. City dwellers the world over can become an army of food empathetic people. We salute their genius!
Michael Kelly is author of Trading Paces and Tales from the Home Farm, and founder of GIY.