Benefits of urban growing go far beyond the food and the savings
Act of nurturing even a tiny amount of food expands our awareness of the effort involved
Chef Donal Skehan planting seeds with Nicole Smyth (12) and Glen Dikilu (11), pupils of St. Thomas’ Senior National School, Tallaght, Dublin, as part of the GIY “sow and grow” campaign earlier this year. Photograph: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland
With the very real space constraints, urban food growing is often dismissed as a waste of time 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 absolutely true: one simply can’t grow as much on an apartment balcony as in a field. That’s the maths. So, urban growing is a busted flush, isn’t it?
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 Indian city of 8.5 million souls. Mark Ridsdill Smith, founder of Vertical Veg tells how he grew £900 of vegetables on a London balcony in one year.
Technologies such as vertical growing and aquaponics will undoubtedly help us to grow even more in small spaces in the decades ahead.
Secondly, urban food growing assumes an incredible importance when viewed through the lens of “food empathy”.
Let me explain. The change that happens when people grow their own food, occurs on two levels. The first level is the obvious stuff – you get more exercise, fresh air, better and safer food, etc.
The second level is more subtle, perhaps a little harder to quantify – this is what we call 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 unexpected places. Research has shown that food empathetic people make healthier food choices, recycle more and waste less.
When they do engage with the food chain, they make different buying decisions, buying more seasonal, local and organic food.
Seed of an idea
Take 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, such a person will forever know that squashes aren’t in season in February.
So, if they see them on the shelves in their supermarket in February, they know they’ve been grown on the other side of the world – and are thus probably not as nutritious as an alternative local, seasonal vegetable.
This understanding of seasonality is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal when shopping.
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).