Sunday, May 18, 2014

Growing Communities and the BBC Big Allotment Challenge

Growing Communities (of which Organic Ilford is a member) have a Manifesto for Feeding Cities which sets out the problems with UK food production in a nutshell:

"Our current food and farming system requires us to put in between 5 and 10 calories for every 1 we get out . That means the energy we get out in the form of food is up to 10 times less than it has taken to grow it. And the way we put those 10 calories in is through fossil fuels – mainly oil and gas – in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, in on-farm machinery and in the energy required to process that food and get it from the farm to our plates.
Our current food system also accounts for at least 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it’s dependence on cheap fossil fuels makes it extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in the supply and price of oil and gas."

So I was excited when the BBC announced its Big Allotment Challenge. Over 6 weekly episodes from April 15th 2014, pairs of growers would compete for accolades from three judges - former royal gardener and growing expert Jim Buttress, designer and floral expert Jonathan Moseley, and cookery writer and preserves expert Thane Prince - and try to make it through to the next round.

I thought that the Allotment Challenge provide a way into managing the various grower concerns - techniques to improve different soils for different plants, irrigation without waste, fertilising, protecting plants without poisoning wildlife, and preserving the produce. I thought we'd discover the origins of the different varieties of vegetables and flowers and some pointers about which to grow under which circumstances. Here's how I found the Big Allotment Challenge disappointing.

Differences between the competing teams weren't developed. It would have been more entertaining and educational to be able to relate the outcomes to contrasting techniques used by the growers, and compare the different approaches at each stage of growth. There were hints that one team was biodynamic, another was using permaculture principles of companion planting, another was conventional, and another was experimental, but this wasn't explored in sufficient depth. What was the decision-making behind the different choices of plant variety? This was barely touched on. Similarly I was curious to know which tools they were using, and find out more about the subtle differences of their design.

All over Europe pollinating insects are in crisis, but the Big Allotment Challenge never tried to address the gulf of awareness between scientists and the wider public. They kept cutting in shots of flowers crawling with bees, butterflies and other insects without ever making it clear that the existence of these animals in a garden depends on gardeners avoiding certain cultivars and avoiding poisonous pesticides.

Other BBC challenges such as the Great British Bake-off and the Great British Sewing Bee were at once geeky and accessible. But because the production team over-determined success by the visual appearance of the produce, the programme tended to focus on cosmetic aspects of vegtable growing at the expense of more important aspects. So we got to see people growing carrots in drainpipes to ensure they were straight, but there was too little for my liking about the crucial skill of companion planting to ward off carrot fly, or growing for flavour. The other major problem with Jim Buttress' solely visual criteria of proportion and uniformity is that they reinforce a perfectionist view of vegetables which is implicated in obscene amounts of waste. The preserves challenge failed to take into account the seasonal origins of preserves - namely to sustain communities through the 'hungry gap' in the calendar without excessive vitamin deficiencies. The desirability of preserving nutrients along with flavours was completely omitted.

Finally, there was some coyness about timescales and effort, and I thought the programme over-emphasised the rewarding final stages at the expense some of the most important gardening know-how is at the groundwork stage. I realise that this early work is less photogenic, and that bringing the biology to the fore in an accessible way would increase the budget (visualisations and so on) but this would have been a chance to go a bit deeper into soil preparation, temperatures, and caring for seedlings. I also realise that revealing the hard graft of gardening may make it seem unappealing. Then again, in this era of obesity and fitbits, opportunities for physical effort which is practically free and has a lot of inherent interest may actually be very appealing. I'd have also liked more expert recommendations.

All that said, I'd happily watch a second series of the Big Allotment Challenge. It's a great concept, and there was just enough information which was new and useful to me (beginner or perhaps intermediate veg grower) to make me keep watching. I thought that that mixture of veg and preserves was interesting and the characterisation was entertaining. Reluctantly I'd sacrifice the flowers in order to free up time to go more deeply into the growing - or perhaps I'd have an episode dedicated to flowers. I'd like to see teams selected for their overtly contrasting approaches. Exploring the teams' choice of plant variety and tools would be great. During the judging it would be good to compare the produce by time spent, methods of boosting the plants' development, and methods of repelling animals. I think certain chemicals and substances should be ruled out for reasons of toxicity or unsustainability. And I'd like to see the growing challenge judged by the Growing Communities criteria of resilience and sustainability, including environmental impact of techniques, plant health rather than appearance, and flavour as alternative to appearance of a proxy of the quality of growing techniques.

And if you'd rather eat it than grow it, there's a new veg bag scheme in town run by Organic Ilford, a local Community Interest Company which adheres to the Growing Communities Manifesto. We're on the second week and it's working out well. Word on the street is that there will be deliveries to Barkingside from next month.

Image credit: Growing Communities visit - Hackney. By Southend In Transition on Flickr.

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