The grow-your-own movement is so much more than carrots and kale. In the leafy suburbs of south-west London students on a university campus have been busy cultivating ancient grains. In the act of re-imagining the city, youth volunteers for Growhampton, a student-led food-growing initiative for Roehampton Students’ Union (SU), show that peri-urban spaces are well-suited to meeting the calorific demands of the city, reducing food miles and mitigating climate change.
Re-imagining the Landscape
Over the course of the summer – through our weekly ‘Learn to Grow’ volunteer session – students grew amaranth, quinoa, oats and buckwheat in small allotment beds in front of the 1970s SU building. By attracting people to the beauty of tall, colourful plants thriving in a seemingly alien, concrete environment, we appealed to conversations on the future of urban landscapes and new approaches to feed the hungry city. The aim was to capture the attention of passers-by and spark curiosity: for people to ask about and identify these plants; how they can be used in the kitchen; and whether they can be grown in their own gardens or allotments.
“I am a staff member who is interested in growing my own vegetables at an allotment near my home,” said Marina Lim. “I am impressed with the exotic experiment of amaranth, quinoa and oats in that small plot in front of the SU. They are so colourful and I’ve learnt a lot. I didn’t know we could grow quinoa in London.”
The nutritional qualities of grain and seed, and the increasing shift to a plant-based diet among the youth, has brought much awareness to our dietary choices. Quinoa, with its high content of protein, magnesium and iron, in addition to all eight of the amino acids essential to optimum human health, has brought much awareness to its potential as an alternative to meat. A shift to a more plant-based diet is widely considered a small-scale solution to climate change, owing to the high volume of methane emitted through industrial cattle farming. It is no surprise, therefore, why consumers and farmers in the UK are so enthusiastic about quinoa.
During our volunteer sessions, students discussed grain and seed growing in the context of culture, equality and global economics. As highly nutritional foods such as quinoa and amaranth appear in our supermarkets more attention needs to be paid to their origin(s). In the Andes, where quinoa and amaranth are native to, high demand from health-conscious consumers in Europe and North America is pushing up the price for local populations. Such is the problem with global supply chains, farmers in Peru and Bolivia have not benefited from the surge in external demand. The volume of quinoa imported by the UK, for example, rose from 2000 tonnes in 2013 to 3000 tonnes in 2017, according to the EU’s Centre for Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries. This has had a detrimental effect economically and socially on indigenous communities, who have been cultivating the crop for thousands of years.
Valuing the Vibrant Edge
An interesting element to quinoa and amaranth is that these crops can – and already do – thrive here in the UK. Smallholder farmers in Suffolk, Sussex and Shropshire are already cultivating organic quinoa on a large scale, including the likes of Hodmedod’s and The British Quinoa Company. A major consideration for growers introducing non-native crops on farms in the UK is to acknowledge the very real potential for industrialisation and destroying the market of the farmers who shared knowledge and seed in the first place. Farmers with no cultural link to certain crops – but with greater capital to invest and bigger, more productive farms – can easily outcompete small farmers in the native country of that crop. Small, community-led farms should therefore be favoured as they are less likely to disrupt markets in the Global South.
By exploring the potential of a ‘rurban’ space in south-west London, we wanted to show that an edible urban garden can also be a viable space to cultivate grain. As we seek to nurture through our student volunteering programme, these experiments also create opportunities for individuals to build key practical skills, contribute to a positive vision and gain knowledge on food-growing to realise a low-carbon future.
Leeds University Union through its sustainability project ‘Rooted’ have also trialled urban locations for growing grain. During 2019 they produced about 15 portions of quinoa based on a 2.5-metre-squared plot. “I feel very strongly for the production of grain in urban spaces as a way for people to feel connected and part of nature,” says Ben who helps to coordinate the project. “In that sense it is definitely viable and important for people to understand the wider food production system and how they can change it. I am not sure how viable it would be on a deeper level of production because nobody seems to be in the business of making more green spaces, and what is left is barely enough for recreational use, if we are talking about inner city Leeds.” According to OrganicLea, which describes itself as, “A workers’ cooperative growing food on London’s edge”, the suburbs will play an increasingly important role for feeding cities in the future. Established in 2001 on the premise that more food needs to be grown locally, the project has centred on transforming a once-derelict allotment site on the edge of Epping Forest into a biodiverse green space to grow organic food, provide volunteering and training opportunities, and incubate a new vision for the urban fringes.
Scaling Up to Tackle the Climate Emergency
In terms of the skills, knowledge and equipment to make grain-growing a worthwhile venture for community farmers, we found that amaranth was the easiest to harvest and most productive of the four grains we grew. In the early autumn, students helped to collect, thresh and winnow the grain. In total, we produced approximately 1.5 kilos of amaranth, 1 kilo of quinoa, 750 grams of oats and 500 grams of buckwheat. Although these are not significant amounts, they were grown in four 3-by-1.5-metre allotment beds and we encountered few issues with pests, or the so-called ‘rainy’ London climate.
One question to ask is whether it is feasible to scale up on the University of Roehampton’s 54-acre grounds? It would certainly be welcomed by the flock of 20 hens living on campus, who enjoyed snacking on the home-grown grain over the autumn and winter months. Beyond the university grounds, there are several other parcels of land which local authorities and city government could make available to support arable and vegetable crops, and take meaningful action to tackle the climate emergency.
Initiatives are already under way elsewhere in the UK to revive locally grown grains and cereals. The cultivation of oats and barley, for example, which are native to the UK, is being rolled out among smallholder farmers and market gardeners by the likes of the Gaia Foundation and Transition Town. This is an especially important initiative, given that hundreds of varieties of native grain have been lost through corporate industrial farming and the global dominance of wheat. This loss in the availability of seed varieties correlates with data from the National Farmers Union which notes that the UK’s self-sufficiency in food production dropped from 78% in 1984 to 62% in 2015, and is projected to fall to less than 50% by 2080.
Against this backdrop, the remainder of grain we harvested has been saved to ensure a supply of organic, resilient seed is available for the coming growing season. We have also shared seed with other organic growers locally through the London Freedom Seed Bank, a network of food growers and gardeners dedicated to saving, storing and distributing open-pollinated seeds.
From Field to Fork
If you are wondering whether we cooked any of our grains? The answer is, yes! Ella Chaloner, a volunteer and first year linguistics student, prepared a fantastic porridge dish using the amaranth. Blueberries and chopped nuts were the perfect topping.
“Initially, I thought the amaranth plants were purely decorative,” said Ella. “It wasn’t until we started to harvest them that I learned they were edible and extremely nutritious! It was fun taking a sample home and including it in a porridge recipe. I really enjoy the cultural and creative aspect of cooking, especially with ingredients I was previously oblivious to. This is a real benefit of being part of a community food-growing scheme.”
The other half kilo of amaranth was used by Growhampton’s conscious chef, Emily Wright, at The Hive Café, to prepare a banging spiced winter butternut soup using campus-grown ingredients. See @easypeasy.lemonsqueezy on Instagram for the full recipe and check out Emily’s food blog for other edible conversations.
“Nothing better than whipping up a recipe with local, seasonal produce,” says Emily. “Not only does it taste better and have less environmental impact, there is definitely a sense of personal satisfaction involved too. Like, wow, I did good! Saving the planet one vegetable at a time.”
Ultimately, our grains initiative demonstrates that experimentation, art and story are important to pilot new ideas and deliver a constructive response to the challenges brought by industrial agriculture in terms of climate change, nutrition and connecting people to the soil. We are thankful to the volunteers involved – and excited by the air of possibility – and how, after six years of our existence, new angles can still be found to engage students and staff on food, farming and sustainability.
We have installed a small photographic display of our grains story “From Field to Fork” in The Hive Café at the University of Roehampton. The cafe serves up piping hot vegan meals using produce from our veg garden and other organic outlets. We are open to the public from 8.30 am to 4.00 pm on Monday to Friday (during term time).