Food, water & ecology

Imagine feeling like you’re part of a community and having more time to spend in a natural environment. Picture yourself eating organic, locally grown food that hasn’t cost the Earth to produce, wearing clothes made from locally sourced fibres, and writing on paper that didn’t come at the expense of a forest; all made by local people. We CAN make this a reality. More importantly, with the wheels beginning to fall off the global consumerist machine, we simply have to.

The problem

Although the UK has a thriving farming sector it is not self-sufficient when it comes to food. According to the Global Food Security website we import 40% of the total food we consume and this proportion is rising. As oil and gas become scarcer, and energy prices rise, it will become increasingly difficult to import this food. So, what will cities like Birmingham do? Around 915,000 ha (or 70% of land in the West Midlands region) is used for agriculture. However, the industry only accounts for 1.3% of employment. Conversely, more than 20% of employment is in retail, finance and real estate.

Bioregion Birmingham argues that in preparing for a re-localised economy, and in order to meet the food demands of a population exceeding more than 5 million people regionally, more citizens will be required to grow food, in more diverse ways. This essentially calls for a seismic shift of focus by our political representatives; from economic models built around retail, and largely unskilled labour, to provisioning models based on having a population well versed in food production and self-reliance.

Modern agriculture is problematic in that it leads to soil erosion, while requiring high energy inputs made possible only by the availability of oil. Its monoculture approach to food production is also susceptible to crop failure while heavily reliant upon pesticides and herbicides – which have known health risks – and non-organic fertilizers, again produced using high energy processes.

Large areas of farmland in the West Midlands are used for the cultivation of livestock, which creates an environmental issue of its own, since non-organic livestock farms demand high yields of grain and cereal for feed while emitting huge amounts of CO2. A 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that livestock were responsible for about 18% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

The solution

Organic farming plays a key role in soil carbon sequestration, which, instead of relying on chemicals for soil health, simply returns carbon to the soil from the atmosphere. Organically produced food is also free from pesticides and herbicides - which means it is better for us and and the pollinators we rely upon to fertilize plants, and generally more nutritious.

Moving closer to the urban centre of Birmingham, there are opportunities to use public spaces – including parks, allotments and undeveloped brownfield sites – to develop market and forest gardens. Such projects have been shown to improve community relations while making those communities self-reliant. There is also evidence to suggest that forest gardens yield greater varieties of food, using much less labour intensive methods, while improving the biodiversity of an area significantly. They also protect and enhance our top-soils.

In a world where clean drinking water is often in short supply, we should recognise its value. Exploring the region's hydrology, particularly existing aquifers and our potential to catch and store water, should be high on our list of priorities. As one of the few areas in the UK subject to fluoridation, we should also be doing more to examine its potentially damaging effects on our tap water.

Thinking beyond food and water, there are certain crops that can be grown to provide all kinds of useful fibres and seeds. For instance, hemp and flaxseed can be used to produce paper, clothing, construction materials, plastics and proteins. Hemp provides four times as much paper per acre than trees, and grows in a fraction of the time, taking just one season to reach maturity. We can grow and process this crop right here in the West Midlands, creating jobs in the process.

The future sustainability of food production and consumption requires a switch to less energy and labour intensive methods such as those found in permaculture and organic, eco-friendly agriculture. The more locally food and fibres are produced the less need there is for transport too; making urban food projects a no-brainer.

Finally, in permaculture we often create or reserve space in which nature can thrive and become wilderness. This allows flora and fauna to flourish without human interference, ultimately increasing biodiversity and building resilience. As well as providing enchantment, such spaces can be observed, enabling us to learn more about natural systems. An effective bioregion will value wildlife and ensure that wilderness is protected for the benefit of future generations.

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