Boris Johnson urged to back WWII-style allotment boom to feed Brexit Britain

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Allotments are good for your health, studies suggest. Photo: John Stillwell / PA Images

UK prime minister Boris Johnson should launch a ‘Dig for Victory’-style campaign, popularised in World War II, to help Brits grow their own food in allotments and gardens after Brexit, according to a leading biologist.

Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex, told Yahoo Finance UK the government could use farming subsidies previously managed by the European Union to promote smaller-scale, more sustainable and amateur farming.

He called for the government to find land for a significant increase in the number of allotments across the country, highlighting the tens of thousands of enthusiasts currently stuck on local waiting lists.

Latest data shows that there are around 300,000 allotment plotholders across Britain and another 100,000 on waiting lists, which can lead to waiting for 10 years, says The National Allotment Society. Allotments are leased from landlords and plotholders pay rent to cover water and other general maintenance bills. These are estimated to cost a plotholder between £25-£125 ($30-$151) a year.

The academic, who has written a paper on the subject for the Food Research Collaboration network, said allotments deserved greater support, providing far more food, far more sustainably and with far more benefits to their users than widely known.

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“There could be a campaign to encourage people to grow their own food, providing seeds and training which wouldn’t cost much. It could be in people’s gardens too,” he said.

“There’s a precedent and a parallel with the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. We were cut off from food supplies and that was very successful, producing an estimated 10% of our food from gardens and allotments.

“Then it was a matter of life and death; now it’s to save the the planet in a different way. You can imagine Boris [Johnson] saying it’s brilliant.”

‘Allotments are surprisingly productive’

Dave Goulson is pushing for an allotment boom. Photo: Dave Goulson / handout

‘Dig for Victory’ was a campaign that was launched by the UK government in 1941, during WWII, where Brits were encouraged to grow their own food to help alleviate the strains of food shortages. Across the nation, open spaces were turned into vegetable patches, including public parks.

It is for this reason Goulson says we can should seriously consider allotments as a viable way of growing much more of Britain’s food.

“They are surprisingly productive. You might not think so as holders are only amateurs, but we quantified how much people produce and it’s a lot,” he said.

He said he found in research some allotment holders were producing 35 tonnes per hectare, compared to between “eight and 10” hectares for many growers of wheat, one of Britain’s major crops.

But Goulson said separate studies had shown allotments were also “surprisingly rich in biodiversity,” and even better than parks and gardens.

READ MORE: No-deal Brexit could wipe out ‘more than half’ of UK farms

“You can have food and nature hand in hand — I think that’s pretty cool,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Finance UK.

He highlighted their environmental benefits, saying they tend to have more organic matter than many commercial farms. More carbon is stored in the soil and prevented from going into the atmosphere, he said.

The benefits to allotment holders themselves from physical activity, engaging with nature and with other people is also significant, he added, with one study suggesting they were consistently happier than their neighbours.

‘Business as usual is hurting the environment’

Goulson suggested backing for allotments, gardens and smaller-scale alternative approaches was long overdue, given a “one-way” drive towards industrial farming across Europe in recent decades.

“Even 50 years ago, large parts of Britain were a patchwork of tiny fields. There’s an inexorable story of fewer and fewer people working on bigger and bigger fields and farms.

“On the face of it, that’s fine — the population is growing, and we need to feed everyone,” he said.

“But it’s the biggest land use in the UK, and it’s hurting the environment and affecting biodiversity — it damages the soil and it has made the countryside less hospitable to wildlife. Bee and bird decline can be partly linked to it,” said Goulson, who is also one of Britain’s leading experts on bees.

“Business as usual could lead to enormous problems like climate change and bees dying out.”

READ MORE: UK could compensate farmers forced into mass slaughter of sheep on no-deal Brexit

He blamed the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s long-running farming subsidy scheme, as well as modern technology for the change.

“Farming is very heavily subsidised with taxpayers’ money, and we’ve been tied to how it’s distributed. Now the more acres you have, the more money you get.

“Someone who owns 2,000 acres in Lincolnshire gets several hundred thousand pounds, whereas it’s not even worth smallholders with five acres filling in the form to apply.

“So there’s no support for small farms but lots for bigger, and we’ve ended up with so many bigger farms not small ones which are often more deserving.

The aim is to eat food produced under 10 miles away’

Allotments deserve more backing, according to an expert. Photo: Ben Birchall - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Goulson said allotments and gardens were not the only way farming could be re-balanced, saying subsidies should also be more targeted at other more sustainable and beneficial alternatives to most commercial approaches.

“Agro-forestry, perma-culture and biodynamic farming promote smaller-scale operations with lots of different crops,” he said.

“It would be wise for the government to invest in more research and development for those, which have the potential to provide much of our fruit and vegetables.”

Goulson also said a wider push for people to buy locally could support farms at risk of being hit hard by new barriers to exports under a no-deal Brexit. He said farms were already experimenting with schemes delivering their produce locally.

“Brexit could be a disaster for farms if they lose their markets, and there’s a real danger we could be desperate for trade deals and sign ones with lower standards.

“But if we move towards more home-grown consumption, that would benefit farms. The aim is to have food from within 10 miles of where it’s produced, but it requires people to be more engaged with their buying choices.

“In a sense, Brexit is an opportunity,” he added.