Grow your own food security?

There is an increasing recognition in both the scientific literature and amongst the general population of the benefits of ‘grow your own’ food.

Not only does growing your own provide you with fresh and healthy produce straight from your own back yard, there are a myriad of social and environmental benefits as well. Gardening can support a wide range of biodiversity and help keep soils fertile and sustainable, as well as helping people spend time outdoors, learn new skills, make friends and take exercise. The ‘Sustainable Food Cities‘ movement is encouraging people to get involved in growing for these reasons, but the tide of enthusiasm has been rising for a while. Waiting lists for allotments around the country increased from under ten people per hundred plots in 1996, to over fifty per hundred in 2011.

Food crops growing on allotments in Liverpool, tower blocks in the background.
Liverpool allotments, in the heart of the city. Photo by Miriam Dobson.

Sowing the seeds

This renaissance in interest in growing your own food has been felt across society. More and more schools are teaching children about the importance of growing, with the ‘Eco-Schools‘ movement encouraging schools to garden in their playgrounds, so children can see where food comes from and learn about how growing food can support wildlife and benefit the environment. Some towns are even growing on road verges and other bits of public land – Todmorden, home of the ‘Incredible Edible‘ movement, boasts an apothecary garden at the hospital and raised beds outside the police station, fire station and even at the train station.

Traditional soil-based food growing isn’t the only avenue for renewed interest, either. It is the twenty-first century after all, and ‘high-tech’ agricultural solutions that can be deployed in cities or anywhere with limited space and resources are booming. Whether this is growing on rooftopsup the sides of buildings, or in indoor soil-less systems, it seems like we have only just begun to scrape the surface of the potential our cities have to become sites of food production.

A black plastic aquaponics system with small plants protruding.
An aquaponics system. Photo by Hamish Cunningham.

Does growing your own actually increase food security?

Despite all this interest and enthusiasm, does ‘growing your own’ actually increase food security? Perhaps surprisingly, we don’t know! In the UK, the last time a national-scale estimate of the amount of food produced by own-growers was made was during the Dig For Victory campaign, now over half a century ago. We really have no idea how much food people are growing in their gardens and allotments, and what contribution this is making to food security on a personal and national level.

“We are working towards producing the first estimate of how much food gardeners are growing in the UK”

Food security becoming an increasingly important issue as the stability of our food system as we know it faces threats such as global climate change, soil degradation, and Brexit. Understanding the contribution that ‘growing your own’ can make is important. We have set out to answer the question of how much people are growing, how productive own-growing is, and what potential there is in the UK for increasing the amount of land dedicated to own-growing.

A researcher recording data about plants growing in a polytunnel, on a paper pad.
The MYHarvest team recording growing areas on allotments in 2017. Photo by Miriam Dobson.

The MYHarvest (Measure Your Harvest) citizen science project, which you can read about in the latest issue of Plants, People, Planet, is collecting data from around the country. Since the second summer of data collection in 2018, we now have information from nearly 500 participants who have submitted data on what and how much they are growing. By combining data from two intensive summers of fieldwork around the country and the citizen science data submitted by MYHarvest participants, we are working towards producing the first estimate of how much food gardeners are growing in the UK – and whether we are still ‘digging for victory’.

Miriam Dobson

Read the paper: Edmondson JL, Blevins SR, Cunningham H, Dobson MC, Leake JR, Grafius DR. (2019) Grow your own food security? Integrating science and citizen science to estimate the contribution of own growing to UK food productionPlants, People, Planet. doi: 10.1002/ppp3.20

Miriam Dobson

Miriam Dobson joined the University of Sheffield in 2016 after completing her MSc at the University of Edinburgh and spending a year in New Zealand working on various growing projects around the country. She is studying for a PhD on the environmental benefits of urban agriculture.