by Sarah Smith•15th December 2011
As food prices rise and concerns over carbon footprints gather pace, growing at least some of your own food is beginning to make both financial and environmental sense. And if you fancy having a go at growing vegetables and herbs at home, you're no longer in the minority. Sales of vegetable seeds have been higher than those of flowers for some years now, and waiting lists for allotments are getting longer and longer.
Global agriculture and transport systems mean that our food is no longer restricted by the season, local soil or climatic conditions. Tomatoes, green beans and strawberries can be flown in from around the world to supply the supermarkets year round. In fact, on an average evening, your dinner could well be better travelled than you are. But the production, storage and transport of food have become environmental issues, with an estimated 17% of UK carbon emissions being associated with the food we buy.
Food miles are a popular way of measuring the impact different foodstuffs have on the environment. The concept is simple: the further each food item is transported from farm to plate, the greater the carbon emissions associated with that food. Partly in response to this, the market for locally produced food has increased over the last few years. Farmers markets have sprung up all over the country as shoppers become more concerned about the provenance of the food they are buying. But, in terms of local produce, home grown is pretty much as good as it gets. With fresh, seasonal ingredients straight from the garden or allotment, you know exactly how your food has been grown and how far it has travelled.
But there are hidden carbon costs to look out for when you're planning to grow your own. These could be adding food miles to your home produced vegetables and herbs without you even realising. So, whether your kitchen garden is a just few pots on the patio or a large vegetable plot, here are three easy ways to make it that bit greener.
First, making your own compost is a great way to recycle organic kitchen waste. In addition, bags of multi-purpose compost from the garden centre may well have been transported over large distances. Having home made compost means you can buy fewer bags, saving money and keeping food miles to a minimum. If you don't have space for a compost bin, try to buy peat-free compost. Large amounts of peat are still being imported from Eastern Europe for use in British gardens. The lowland bogs from which the peat is extracted are important habitats, both for the local wildlife and the wider environment. In fact, peat bogs act like giant sponges, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the soil, a process which is reversed when the peat is dug up to be spread on the garden.
The second thing to consider is how you are growing your vegetables. The debate over whether organic or locally produced food is better for the environment is likely to continue for some time. But you can achieve the best of both worlds by growing food at home without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. And you also benefit from the insects that thrive in a chemical-free garden, helping keep pests at bay and pollinating your beans and courgettes. Working with nature, you can produce tasty vegetables with no residues.
And finally, if you are buying young vegetable plants to grow on at home, bear in mind that those sold by the larger chain stores may have been trucked in from abroad. If possible, buy plants from a local grower, or from one of the many mail-order companies who send out healthy, British-grown seedlings ready to plant in the garden. Not only will they have travelled a shorter distance before they reach you, but you may well find a larger range of varieties to choose from.
Growing your own food may take a little more time than buying everything at the supermarket, but the rewards are worth it. And if the satisfaction of producing fresh, tasty ingredients for your kitchen is not enough, you can feel extra good about keeping the negative environmental impacts of the food you eat to a minimum.