Bristol's Food Policy and Urban Agriculture Movement
"Back in 2009, the city council and a sustainability group, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, commissioned a report on what might happen to the city if the world began to run out of oil. One of the most alarming revelations was that the food supply, utterly dependent on cheap oil and gas for growing and transportation, could be severely depleted, which in turn could lead to a breakdown of law and order. In response, the NHS commissioned a report exploring Bristol’s food system in more depth, and the council helped set up a food policy council to produce a plan based on its findings.
One aim of that plan was “to promote the use of good quality land in and around Bristol for food production”. A number of support organisations – horticulturalists, conservationists and a Bristol chapter of the Incredible Edible “guerilla gardening” movement – worked with the policy council on this. At first, the focus was on straightforward ideas such as reviving allotments or encouraging container farms that used hydroponics and artificial lighting. But after a couple of years, the leaders of the initiative began to notice something else happening. More people than they had expected were contacting the organisations with ideas that combined social good and an interest in nature with growing, and these people seemed to have few problems finding volunteers to help with the schemes.
In 2016, a group of residents approached Incredible Edibles to ask if it could help them plant a food and flower garden in the St James Barton roundabout. Commonly known as the Bearpit, it is a blighted, below-street-level crossroads in the city centre where various subways intersect, and problems of rough sleeping, drug use and petty crime are rife. Sara Venn, a horticulturalist who runs Incredible Edibles as well as sitting on the policy council and chairing the Bristol Food Producers network, knew this would be a serious challenge and was worried it might be vandalised, but agreed to support it with advice and her network of volunteers. They planted flowers, herbs, soft fruit and vegetables, with all the food free to anyone who wanted to pick it; three years later, it continues to flourish.
“Incredible Edibles has supported 90 gardens, but the Bearpit had a great impact,” says Venn. “People in the city liked it and it got international attention – I remember getting emails about it from people in Norway, Ireland and Japan. It was a pivotal moment, one that made us all think that a food-growing movement could really happen here. In fact, it could just go mad.” Three years later, the Bristol Food Producers network has 36 producers within 10 miles of the city, and several eateries, including Poco, an award-winning restaurant specialising in local ingredients. “We’re creating networks so people can access land more easily, become upskilled and find markets for their food,” says Venn. “We’re helping Bristol to become as self-sufficient as it can be, but it isn’t just about food. It’s about what we want cities to be and the part food can play in that.”
Three miles north of the Bearpit, next to the M32 motorway, sits perhaps the most fully realised example of Bristol’s urban farming. Feed Bristol is a six-acre jumble of gardens, vegetable plots, polytunnels, offices and sheds, which has been run as a conservation project by the Avon Wildlife Trust since it leased the site – then a derelict former market garden – from the city council in 2012. As well as running programmes for volunteers and community groups to grow herbs, wild flowers and vegetables, Feed Bristol also operates a commercial wildflower nursery and works as an incubator hub for small food-producing businesses; there are currently seven on the site, including veg-box schemes, a mushroom grower and a medicinal herb producer, employing 15 people.
The quantity of food that Bristol’s farmers could produce is open to question. Certainly, they can’t hope to make the city self-sufficient. To produce all the food that one average meat-eating British adult consumes in a year, you would need about half a hectare of land – roughly three-quarters of a large football pitch. Bristol covers 11,000 hectares, so even if you could grass down the entire city, it would feed only 14,700 of the 534,000 residents. The area of publicly accessible green space would feed 1,320, and just 3,300 even if they only ate grains. Having said that, self-sufficiency in specific crops might be just about conceivable. The real output of container farms is contested, but using conservative figures of a 38m2 container farm producing a tenth of a hectare’s worth of salad leaves a year, you could meet Bristol’s lettuce needs (6.9m heads a year, using UK average consumption figures) with about 1,000 containers, which, with no space between them, would occupy only about 3.7 hectares.
Conventional agricultural analysts tend to dismiss new ideas involving small-scale, local food production, citing population growth rates that, they say, mean the world will need 70% more food by 2050, and pointing out that only large-scale intensive farming could hope to get anywhere near that. They have a point, but their figures overlook, among other things, the vast wastage in the current system, which in 2008 was estimated to be as high as 50%. There could well be a role for more small-scale local production, particularly if the oil supply went awry but, as Venn points out, it isn’t just about the food supply.
When looking at cities in this context, she says you start to wonder why we do things the way we do. “Why are city centres so dominated by concrete, with no community involvement? Why is nature so unwelcome in them? Our cities would be so much more vibrant if we looked at the spaces between buildings in a more meaningful way; those spaces are always the last thing anyone thinks about and we could reverse that, looking at what we need and how we could achieve it by using them. Cities can’t continue to be just about economic growth. They have to be about our health and wellbeing as well.”
Of course, the idea of producing food in cities isn’t new and in some ways Bristol could be said to be merely reviving a system of allotments and market gardens that has declined in the past 30 years or so. Nor is it confined to Bristol. There are initiatives in cities across the UK, many adapted to local needs. For example, Bentley Urban Farm near Doncaster has, since it was founded in 2016, worked closely with teenagers who have been excluded from schools, achieving significant improvements in behaviour. The site, Doncaster council’s former horticultural training centre, used to be permanently vandalised, but the excluded children now come to repair it." (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/aug/18/food-after-oil-how-urban-farmers-are-preparing-us-for-a-self-sufficient-future?)
- a report exploring Bristol’s food system in more depth, https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/32619/Who-feeds-Bristol-report.pdf. See: Towards a Resilient Food Plan for Bristol
- food policy council, https://bristolfoodpolicycouncil.org/