by Tony Rebel Green

When the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership announced that it would be a good idea to build on the Eastbrook allotments they dressed the idea up by calling it 'urban renaissance'. Now my dictionary says that renaissance means a 'new birth', which brings to mind something beautiful and not quite the ugly grey office blocks the Partnership want to erect on whatever greenery in Brighton is left out of the South Downs National Park.

In fact my version of 'urban renaissance' is very different.

In our city there has been a massive increase in the uptake of allotments over the past couple of years for a whole variety of reasons. Be it the constant food scares or people just wanting a little bit of the 'good life' it has meant there has been something of an allotment renaissance. But even when sites are half empty and derelict, this does not mean that they should be seen as 'waste ground'. They are still a valuable resource to the treasured, acting as important green lungs for our towns and cities, as green corridors and homes for wildlife, as tranquil places for people to chill from everyday life, as magical places for kids to play.

Many others like the idea of growing food but find the idea of taking on an allotment a bit daunting. Luckily in Brighton and Hove there are plenty of community groups where you can get involved for a few hours each week, learning and working with other likeminded people in exchange for some fresh produce. Not that all these groups are just about growing veg, some are also about trying to reconnect people with the land. Recently, one women told me that while she was digging her garden, her neighbour's six year old asked if she was going to grow chicken and would not believe it when she was told that chickens come from eggs! So on our site, it's not just producing food that's important, but also about showing kids that spuds and carrots come from the ground and not plastic bags. These community groups are a perfect way of 'thinking globally, acting locally', and with a bit more support could sell their surplus food to their local neighbourhoods. Surely it is better to get fresh produce on peoples plates picked that day with all the health benefits, as opposed to food that has been flown half way across the world, with all the environmental consequences. In fact most of the ecological cost of food is not growing it, but its transport, distribution and processing.

Just think for a minute what you had for dinner last night. Did those potatoes come from Egypt and beans from Kenya? Is that apple you are munching on from New Zealand? These sorts of food are usually flown by plane, and air travel is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, which is warming up the planet and causing climate change.

For every kilo of kiwi fruit transported from New Zealand 5kg of carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere

1 kilo of asparagus flown from California produces 4kg of carbon dioxide. If they were grown in Europe 900 times less energy would be produced

1 tonne of food in the UK now travels an average of 123km before it reaches the shelves, compared with 82km in 1978

Most of Europe's orange juice comes from Brazil. Demand for orange juice has doubled in the last decade, yet in this country there is a richer source of Vitamin C that grows everywhere - rosehip. During the Second World War when it was impossible to get oranges, children were given days off school to go and pick rosehips - by 1943 450 tonnes were picked a year.

And how about this for madness. Vegetables being sold in two superstores on the outskirts of Evesham in Worcestershire were grown just one mile from the town. But before they reached the shelves they had been trucked to Hereford, then to Dyfed, then to a distribution depot in Manchester, from where they were sent back to Evesham. Not surprisingly a quarter of our road traffic is now transporting food.

The BSE and foot and mouth crisis makes a mockery of those that argue that our present way of farming gives us cheap food. On the contrary the current system ensures that we end up paying three times for our food - once over the counter, a second time in tax subsidies for farming and a third time in cleaning up pollution. As the Soil Association points out "The quest for ever cheaper food is at the root of all these problems. It has encouraged farmers to cut corners, compromising food safety and animal welfare and damaging the environment. We all end up paying a heavy price through our taxes to clear up the mess." Professor Jules Pretty of the University of Essex has calculated that even before foot and mouth, the hidden costs of industrial agriculture to our health and our environment added up to at least 2.3 billion a year!

So growing food on our allotments and sharing it with others is a positive, practical step to help reverse this trend. But is it possible for places like Brighton and Hove to become self sufficient in food?

In my book 'Seedy Business' I went round interviewing older Brightonians, who spoke of a fairly self-sufficient town not so very long ago, that was surrounded by pig farms, orchards, smallholdings and allotments. If we are to rid ourselves of our present unsustainable agricultural system then once again every village, town and city will have to grow some of it's own food. Can it be done? Well when Cuba faced economic crisis in the early 90's it turned to organic food production and by 1998 the Capital City Havana had gone from producing virtually no food to 115,000 tonnes with this figure rising all the time, with every available green space and patio being utilised.

The popularity of farmers markets shows that when people are given the choice they will buy fresh locally produced food. So couldn't the South Downs be covered in orchards and small scale farms?

* Couldn't our vegetable peelings, tea bags and green waste be collected and turned into compost?

* Couldn't we have more community groups with demonstration gardens to teach people who want to learn about gardening?

* Couldn't every school that has the space have its own urban farm?

This is the sort of urban renaissance I dream of, a place where our allotments and green spaces are seen as community treasures - not rich pickings for ugly office developments.

'Seedy Business - tales from an allotment shed' can be read at www.seedybusiness.org

Also read:

'The Allotment Handbook' by Sophie Andrews (eco-logic books)

'Wild Food' Roger Phillips (Pan 1983)

'The Food miles report: the dangers of long distance food transport'/ 'Food miles action pack: a guide to thinking globally and eating locally' both by SUSTAIN, 94 White Lion St., London, N1 9PF http://www.sustainweb.org