There is “huge untapped capacity” for Britain to grow far more of its own fruit and vegetables in underutilised urban areas, without turning more of the countryside into agricultural land, a new study suggests.
Increasing the amount of home-grown food could help reduce the UK’s dependence on imports, which have been hit hard following the impacts of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving supermarkets with empty shelves.
The worsening climate crisis is also an increasing concern for food availability with UK importers reliant on farms based in many drought-prone areas where extreme weather is expected to become more common in the coming decades.
Scientists at Lancaster University used Ordnance Survey maps to identify outdoor urban green spaces and then calculated the productive potential of these areas using figures from existing domestic agriculture.
The green spaces include private gardens, parks and other recreational areas such as sports fields.
The researchers said currently only around 1 per cent of urban green space is taken up by allotments dedicated for food production.
But they found if all urban green spaces were converted to food production, and used efficiently, they would collectively have the capacity to support food output eight times that of the current UK fruit and vegetable production.
“This amounts to 38 per cent of current domestic production and imports combined, or [more than] 400 per cent if exotic fruits and vegetables less suited to GB growing conditions are excluded,” the paper said.
However, the authors said such a rise in food production would be the “extreme upper limit” and that achievable outputs would be lower due to factors such as some green spaces not being desirable or available for conversion, the level of available skills and knowledge, resources, and variable growing conditions.
“Britain is a densely populated country that is highly reliant on imported fresh fruit and vegetables, and meeting the dietary needs of a growing urban population in a sustainable manner is a significant challenge,” said Professor Jess Davies, who was the principal investigator on the study.
“Finding ways in which Britain could increase food self-sufficiency is of increasing importance for securing our future food supply.
“Urban agriculture and more people 'growing their own' could play an important role in reducing our reliance on imports, and bolster resilience against disruptions in supply, without converting areas of nature to agriculture, or further intensifying farming. But it was not clear what the extent of that role could be at a national scale, until now.”
Dr Lael Walsh, lead author of the study, said: “Even if only a small percentage of this area is suitable and available for urban agriculture, it could still represent a significant contribution to national supplies of fresh fruit and veg.
“We found that urban green spaces are significantly underused for food growing and that there is huge untapped capacity in our towns and cities for people to grow more given support through targeted national policies. This could prove to be beneficial for improving access to healthier foods as well as boosting wellbeing through better connectedness to nature.”
The team said that if urban agriculture is to expand, then there needs to be policymaking and planning decisions undertaken to help support those wishing to grow food.
They suggested the introduction of policies and initiatives that promote and enable people to grow food in their gardens such as tax rebates or growing subsidies, while dedicated food-growing spaces should be included in new developments.
Education schemes, advice networks and promotional campaigns for urban growing would also help encourage greater participation among the public, they said.
The research is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
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