Memorandum submitted by Jill Sanders (SFS 56)


Our food chain is more vulnerable than it has ever been. Very little is produced locally or on a small scale. The great majority of our food supply is beyond the control of those who consume it. The chain of production and delivery is uniquely at risk of just about anything and everything that could occur from point of growth to plate: disease, maintenance of energy supplies and freedom of movement, commercial interests, consistency of supply and demand and much more. Imagine any shortage of any product significant to a healthy household: panic at the supermarkets.


I am typical of thousands of small growers across this country, and there could be many more households like ours. We have an allotment on the Thames alluvial flood plain in East Molesey, Surrey. The soil is good, with a topsoil layer of probably something approaching one and a half to two spits (spade lengths). We improve the soil with organic farmyard/stable manure annually and our own compost made from organic vegetable matter. We also rotate our crops to minimise pests and disease build-up. We work the soil each winter in order to expose it to the beneficial effects of frost. The health and condition of our soil is important to the success of our crops, and it never ceases to amaze me how fertile it is and how much we can grow on a small area. We can secure a significant proportion of our own food supply, which we augment with hens in the garden. Many more people could do the same with more allotments and better utilised allotments and gardens. This form of resilience (i.e., providing one's own food) should be encouraged and developed because the interest is very much there among individuals and local communities right now. Surpluses could be used locally, perhaps to provide schools - we have one opposite our allotments but there are no links - and local greengrocers and farmers' markets. If we are looking at reducing food miles, this is the sort of thing to encourage.


We run our allotment along organic lines, though we occasionally use a topical proprietary application to nip blackfly in the bud when there is no real alternative: an infestation can leave you without a successful crop of beans, for example. In the main we propagate our seeds in a small plastic "green house", which is just a series of shelves inside a polythene cover, before planting them out in spring, after the danger of frost has passed. The trick is to propagate plenty of seeds so that if some young plants fail you have more ready. We find that on the whole there is no requirement for chemical sprays or other measures to repel pests. Healthy crops do well, and we have no objection to our indigenous birds having a share of the soft fruit. Where there is a need to protect, we simply put some netting over for the duration.


Physical measures are used to manage weeds. We find that weeds grow back where other allotment holders apply herbicides. Our method is to dig clean edges to define the growing area and to water only the growing plants. This we do by hand, with topical application of water from a can to the roots of the plants. This does not have to be done every day, even in drought conditions, and it makes for strong and healthy plant growth. It brings the added benefit of discouraging pests, especially slugs, which flourish in warm, moist conditions. This is the method I have observed used by Ugandan farmers, who are first class growers often cultivating two or three crops at one time (beans beneath coffee trees, for example). I have managed to make myself a tool that is widely used in Africa by farmers growing vegetables: the hack hoe. This is a lot less strenuous than the fork as you don't lift the weight of the earth but just turn it and pull it. I have seen very elderly men and woman farming with a hack hoe.


I tell you this to let you know what is possible because you may not have this knowledge. Having described what we do, how we do it, and what we derive from it, I believe there are answers here for Government, bearing in mind the Committee's terms of reference and series of questions. Right now, in January, I have many, many jars of bottled fruit in safe storage awaiting consumption - rhubarb, apple, soft fruit coulis, jams. I also have even now a two to three month supply of potatoes and onions in sacks in the shed. There are still parsnips, carrots, beetroots and leeks in the ground as winter crops, and I have been able to cut spinach up until the recent frosty weather. I also dry apples and tomatoes in a low-energy consumption dessicator which then keep very well in jars tied off with greaseproof paper, with some sugar for the apples and some salt for the tomatoes as an indicator that the produce is good and dry.


I have not been a food producer before, but in the past few years have accumulated these skills and knowledge. Early in 2008 I felt we might need to seriously produce food so this year - just a gut feeling - we put a lot more effort into it. I also work full time, so it is quite possible to find time in a busy life to grow your own food locally.


There are very many advantages to learning about, growing, harvesting and storing food produce, as I am sure the committee will appreciate from this submission. I know that in the war this was fully appreciated and most people kept hens and grew crops of some kind. Also, areas were made over to vegetables and fruit. I would like to see, for example, community orchards of apples, pears, plums, damsons, etc. Grapes grow well, as do soft fruits like raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and other native fruit. Food could be grown on school grounds and corners of parks, waste ground and land owned by utilities, councils, care providers and voluntary and community organisations. Why don't we have some local food champions who would be willing to work with teachers, students, youth clubs and others in a position to become food producers?


If I can run a household allotment and garden that produces almost more than we can eat, and with a range of foods, I don't see why the population of any temperate country should go short. For myself, I feel more secure for having a resilience that comes with a personal food supply. Should it be necessary, I could probably feed our household for six months, even now at this time of year when we have gone through many of the stores. And my situation is sustainable - there will be more again next harvest. And there is more we could do - bee-keeping for example.


As regards Government policy, I don't think it is coherent or joined up, or practical. If it were, there would be robust working connections between DEFRA and the departments for schools and local communities, to take advantage of and benefit from locally growing food. Most of us are city-dwellers now, but this kind of activity can re-connect us all with the earth and living things as well as giving us skills and healthy outdoor exercise. You can grow many crops in pots - there is no reason why anyone with a patio, balcony or window sill couldn't get involved. There is also a great sense of reward and satisfaction from presenting and eating your own produce. Now is the time to tap into society's increasing awareness about locally produced food and seasonal produce.


The UK's food system is not robust, as we see any time there is a disease or a scare - especially among animals. The dependence on a complex logistical network of far-flung suppliers, how these are monitored and how the quality of the produce is assured, what chemicals and drugs are applied in the agri-industgry, how well the food is stored and preserved - all these things concern people and impact on the health of not only the humans that eat the food, but also the wider environment and the animals themselves. Supermarket-bought food puts us at risk of everything, we can know not what: from food poisoning (it's a leap of faith to consume pre-prepared dishes that require no heating, like pate for example); from busy lorry-filled roads; from chemical usage/dosage in mass production.


I should like to see an emphasis on local food production down to an individual and community level to build resilience widely. When the chips are down, grow your own potatoes - it's the best thing you can do. We can reacquire the skills they continue to practise in Africa because they know their importance, skills that our grandparents had.


Jill Sanders

Allotment holder and small grower


January 2009