Is urban food-growing just a big fat waste of time when we know there will be five billion people living in cities in the next 20 years? Can it really have an impact?
This is a question I've pondered a lot recently, particularly following a trip to India last spring. India is a country where even the smallest of cities (the ones you've never heard of) have tens of millions of inhabitants. The scale of humanity there gives urban food growing a very different context.
Because of the very real space constraints, urban food growing is often dismissed as a waste of time that won't help people become self-sufficient and won't help the planet feed billions of hungry mouths in the coming century.
On one level, this is of course absolutely true and inarguable. One simply can't grow as much on an apartment balcony as you can in a rural field. That's the math 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. Mark Ridsdill Smith told a GIY Gathering in Birmingham, England, last month how he grew £900 of vegetables on a London balcony in one year. Technologies such as vertical growing and aquaponics will undoubtedly help us grow even more food in small spaces in the decades ahead.
Second, 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, direct level is the obvious stuff: more exercise, fresh air, better and safer food, etc.
The second level is subtler and perhaps a little harder to quantify: it 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 all sorts of unexpected places. Food empathetic people make healthier food choices, recycle more and waste less. When they engage with the food chain, they make different buying decisions, buying more seasonal, local and organic food.
A person who has grown a butternut squash for example -- having sown a seed in the spring, carefully nurtured a plant through the growing season, and triumphantly harvested a squash in autumn -- will forever and a day know that squashes aren't in season in February.
So, if they see them on the shelves in their supermarket in February, they know it's been grown on the other side of the world -- and consequently that they're probably not as nutritious as an alternative local, seasonal vegetable. That understanding of seasonality is an incredibly 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).
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 systemic 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 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 actually it 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 an 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 ten-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 that you grew anything at all.
So, to bring about real change in the world, in terms of human health and sustainable living, we don't have to try and get people to disengage from the food chain, move to a commune, grow beards, and start living off grid. The real potential of the homegrown food revolution is not just in the actual food grown - the food empathy created by the process of food growing is where 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 to cities 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!