For many years, there has been increasing support for environmental conservation. This has come from every strata of society; from the individual to the government level. Indeed, there currently exists any number of active local groups allied to Wildlife Trusts, as well as organisations that offer training and qualifications in all aspects of conservation. Many more commercial companies are now equipped with teams occupied solely with the environmental implications of their industries as well as independent professional consultancies.

Most of this investment in conservation has contributed, sometimes vitally, to maintaining and restoring various habitats and species. Other aspects of conservation have included measures concerned with sustainability
and the prevention of further environmental degradation generally, such as the recycling of discarded materials, the reduced use of toxic chemicals and innovations in energy efficiency and materials design, all informed and inspired by the environmental imperative.

One step forwards, two steps back often seems to be the case, but this only highlights the need for the establishment of clearer aims and renewed determination to achieve them.

An issue which has caused major scares over many years concerns food production and its implications for human health and our environment; the build up of agrochemicals in the food chain and water cycles, fungicide and pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, outbreaks of B.S.E. in cattle, e-coli, salmonella. As a result, many people no longer trust the food on their plates and are concerned by the damage done to the environment in getting it there.

Concurrent with this has been a heightening in profile of organic methods of farming and a sharply increased demand for organically grown foods. Indeed, governments and supermarket chains have recently tried to catch up with consumer demand by endorsing and encouraging organic practices. The Soil Association’s organic standard is widely trusted as a guarantee of authenticity, quality and food safety

The conventional, chemically-dependant farm, orchard or market garden usually supports a disappointingly small number of wildlife species, whereas an organically managed site depends on its success partly on the dynamic interactions of the multiplicity of lifeforms abolished or seen as a threat in conventional systems. Well-managed organic sites and sensitively managed farms with strategies to restrict the use of chemicals and features such as hedges, ponds, wildflower breaks and uncultivated headlands play host to many beleaguered wild species which can be helpful; weeds which can accumulate nutrients, beneficial insects and predators, such as birds or amphibians, can control pests and help to establish complete ecological cycles including micro-organisms.

It is now recognised that urban and suburban areas, with their back gardens, parks, disused industrial sites, rivers, streams and pockets of woodland are absolutely crucial for the survival of many wild species, some of which were once thought to exclusively inhabit the countryside. The ease with which one can sight foxes, hedgehogs, magpies, bats, butterflies and many migrant birds around urban areas is ample evidence of this fact.

Taking all of these elements into account, it is possible to build an argument in support of local organic food initiatives not just from the viewpoint of human health and well-being, but also from the perspective of conserving the environment and moving towards greater sustainability, which through local Agenda 21 is now an official obligation for our towns and cities. Organic cultivation methods are positively complimentary to the requirements of conservation and the environment.

Practically, this means that existing conservation groups and environmental interests should, if they wish, be involved in food growing projects, but more importantly, that such initiatives should be able to attract funding and grant-aid equivalent to that which supports existing conservation projects. Steps in this direction have already occurred. Landfill tax money is now available for funding recycling schemes that could facilitate community gardening projects. Precedents exist in the commercial sector; Shell’s “Better Britain” campaign already supports a community gardening project in Birmingham and is endorsing the Community Gardens Conference in Bristol.

Although land is at a premium in urban areas, it is often the case that such open spaces are underused and undervalued. Converting carefully chosen and appropriate sites over to various forms of organic food growing, whether as gardens or orchards, provides opportunities for people to understand the realities of their natural environment, actively and intimately becoming better informed about the relevant issues as a result. In contrast to conservation, cultivation requires more frequent ongoing involvement, which can generate a sense of attachment and provide a focus for local communities. This can restore the value of previously neglected sites, increasing the personal and recreational space available to city-bound individuals and families.

On the larger scale, a network of local organic gardeners, including both commercial and community-based market gardens would help supply the huge demand for organically-grown food. Widespread adoption of organic techniques could contribute significantly to attaining environmental and social sustainability targets; from simply reducing traffic, congestion, emissions and fuel consumption to the recycling of putrescible organic wastes into compost or turning autumn leaves into leafmould to replace peat.

Another issue of great importance to both the organic grower and the conservationist that would be consolidated by such initiatives is that of maintaining genetic diversity. Wild species are under threat as their habitats are eroded and agribusiness coerces farmers to switch to the latest genetically-engineered seeds. In fact, it is essential to maintain older seed varieties as active members of the gene-pool for their vigour, nutritive content, hardiness and their adaptive and disease-resisting capabilities.

It would be possible, by concentrating the expertise of both the conservationist and the gardener, to analyse and assess urban open spaces so as to categorise their potentialities. A site contaminated with toxic wastes would not be suitable for food growing, but could be allowed to regenerate through natural or assisted successions of wild plants. Uninteresting areas in or around local parks may make fine sites for community orchards.

Recognising the positive effects that local organic food initiatives can have on our environment could engage and extend the interest and resources of people currently involved in conservation. In many ways, this is a greater challenge than restricting the approach exclusively to wildlife or conservation issues, but it could help to form a coalition amongst several interest groups. It could also improve the prospects of employment for graduates of current environmental training and education programmes, many of whom find it difficult to find suitable jobs, despite their expertise and enthusiasm. Competence in organic cultivation could become a skill required by more employers. It could also benefit trainees personally in the long-run if they cultivated their own food.


Extract from SOFI – its formation – 1998