A British Ecological Society Special Interest Group
Britain is a nation of gardeners. As a testament to this fact we now have The Big Allotment Challenge, the green-fingered enthusiast’s equivalent to the Great British Bake Off. As viewers will know, demand for allotments is outstripping supply as more of us want to produce our own food; a response to the harsh economic climate and the desire to know what is on our plate.
We are a small country with many competing demands on our land to provide food, homes and energy. This is a global dilemma leading major economic powers to buy or rent agricultural land from some of the world’s poorest countries. In 2009, the Guardian reported that 2.5 million ha of land in sub-Saharan Africa had been acquisitioned, making impoverished Africans even more vulnerable. Evidently our current global reliance on just three annual crops: rice, wheat and maize is not viable. We must develop environmentally sensitive farming methods that make maximum use of our available land. Such techniques might not be appropriate on a large scale but could enable local communities to become more self-sufficient.
The Home Garden approach could be one solution. This tree-based agricultural system, grown close to dwellings has been established in the tropics for over 12,000 years. The majority of crops are perennials, grown over several levels: the tallest trees supply timber, fruits or nuts; shrubs and bushes provide fertiliser (i.e. Legumes). Lower down there are perennial herbs, vegetables, groundcover plants and root crops. Climbers and vines spread themselves throughout the canopy.
Typically Home Gardens are managed to provide numerous social, economic and environmental benefits. Professor Roger Leakey is well acquainted with these systems. For over 25 years his research has been pivotal in improving agricultural production, in harmony with the environment, in rural tropical subsistence communities. Primarily he has worked with poor farmers to help develop fruit and nut trees that are of local cultural significance, though little-known in the Western world, into a new generation of crops. A recent example is the Food for Progress programme of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, that has evolved to include 10,000 farmers and 200 communities in West and Northwest Cameroon. Those involved have received assistance in developing plant nurseries where they propagate and sell these new crops. Over the last decade, the income from plant sales has risen from USD 145 to USD 16,000 and transformed the farmers’ lives: their increased income has enabled them to send their children to school; new employment opportunities have arisen for all ages; their health, diet and nutrition have all improved. Could our local communities achieve something similar? Professor Leakey expresses caution “The socio-economic conditions in the tropics and in UK are so different,” he explains, “Tropical community gardens are probably more about food, nutritional security, and livelihood benefits, than about profit. The converse is probably the case in UK.” Is it?
In the 1980’s Robert Hart introduced the Forest Garden approach to the UK. Based on the Home Garden system, this method is gaining popularity here among horticulturalists, farmers, schools and the public as a more sustainable form of food production compared with planting annual crops. Forest Gardens are attractive as their predominance of perennial plants results in less maintenance, soil disturbance and fertiliser, than annual crops thereby reducing the environmental impact of the ystem. Martin Crawford, Director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, is Hart’s former pupil and one of the leaders of the UK’s Forest Garden movement. Though there are only a handful of community-run enterprises at present, his comments confirm that British Forest Garden growers adopt the same principles as their Home Garden counterparts. He explains, “most Forest Gardens are owned or run by individuals for their benefit, mainly to become more self-sustaining and to improve their environment. Typically they are not set up to be commercial so have little direct effect on local economies.” Unlike the tropics though, there is little if any research on multi-layered agroforestry in temperate climates such as ours. Traditionally agroforestry systems here in Europe have been two storey plantations: the upper layer a tree which provides fruit or timber and the lower ground layer either grass grazed by livestock or a cereal crop.
For a nation in recession with high unemployment, obesity and poverty, the Home Garden system is an inspirational example of how community food production can be managed to improve the livelihoods, health and well-being of local people. Forest Gardens are a novel and exciting new approach and one I hope will bear fruit. The next step is researching this system to assess its agronomic, social and environmental benefits for Britain.
To Emma Pilgrim is a BBSRC sponsored Daphne Jackson Fellow based at the University of Exeter, looking at the impacts of Forest gardens in the UK