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The Biospheric Project, on the site of a disused mill in Manchester. Copyright Rob Martin.
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The Biospheric Project: security, sustainability, resilience

by Kat Austen

This weekend, at the Manchester International Festival, an initiative will be launched which explores ways and means of sustainably producing food in urban environments. Kat Austen reports....

Too many of us rely on food processes that distance us from the realities of growing produce

How much do you really connect with the food you eat? You may be one of the lucky ones with access to a garden, an allotment, or even a balcony.  But for many of us who live in Britain’s cities, there are only hard-won opportunities to buy local, fresh produce, let alone experience growing our own food. 

A new project in Manchester aims to address this issue. Launching this July, the Biospheric Project is part urban farm, part research laboratory, and part retail food outlet.  It will endeavour to reconnect city-dwellers with food and provide them with a secure and sustainable means of community food production. The project also promises much more, in the form of research into sustainable and robust farming practices in urban environments.

The site for this new urban farm is a disused mill in Salford, a deprived part of the Manchester conurbation.  One of the main problems for the community in this region is food acquisition, says socio-ecological researcher Vincent Walsh, Director of The Biospheric Project. He initiated the idea of setting up a food-based enterprise after consulting with the Salford community about the major issues they face, for his PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

The Biospheric Project has a multipronged approach, aiming to meld research and food production together from the outset, and hoping to build up research-informed productivity over ten years. Initially it will rely on micro-systems like growing mushrooms and aquaponics for economic output. These will be monitored and scaled up as the Project team discovers, for example, how feasible and productive it is to install a green wall in Northern England, or what the optimal growing conditions are for Oyster mushrooms in their building. 

In another part of the project, the team will be developing and researching agro-forestry, a complex 3-dimensional agricultural system that produces food at various “levels” between the ground and tree canopy.  Walsh is interested in examining how such a multi-layered system compares to more standard high-yield monoculture farming practices currently employed in much of the world.   

His team will assess the methods in terms not only of yield, but also other measures of how the urban farming system impacts on community wellbeing and sustainability. He says: “the forest garden will be looking at more of a social, ecological and economic output”. 

The project’s produce will be sold along with other locally sourced foodstuffs in the shop, “78 Steps”. Named after the distance from the farm to the shop, these 78 steps are a fraction of the extent that produce usually has to travel in the scheme of global food supply. Aside from reducing the food’s carbon footprint, eating this freshly harvested produce will be good for its consumers.  Fruit and vegetables contain the most vitamins, minerals and beneficial phyto-chemicals when they are ripe. 

However, most fresh produce destined to travel before reaching our plates is harvested prior to ripening, resulting in its nutrient content being impoverished.  By harvesting almost on site and selling more quickly, the food quality at “78 Steps” will be higher and the cost lower, says Walsh. Furthermore, the production should provide jobs to residents in an area with an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent - a social output from the farm that Walsh considers to be just as important as the crops themselves. 

The Biospheric Project builds on similar efforts to make fresh produce available in cities, such as The Soil Association’s Sustainable Food Cities. This project, established in October 2011, has galvanised cities around the UK committed to encouraging organic practices, home gardening and better quality food provision by businesses. 

But The Biospheric Project goes much further than supplying Mancunians with fresh produce and popularising gardening.  By researching metrics for different types of agronomy, The Biospheric Project’s team are trying to establish best practice for a more sustainable and resilient type of farming in Britain. 

This is no small aim.  Local farming is considered so important to food security that it is one of the future-proofing indicators for NGO Forum for the Future’s Sustainable Cities Index. 

The fear of a global “food bubble” has brought to the fore concerns that even those in the West may soon be going hungry, and fears over peak oil and climate change only discourage transport costs that could be avoided. 

One key aspect of fostering food security is biodiversity, an important part of the project’s agro-forestry research.  Because many of our most popular cultivars have been bred from a handful of wild varieties, their genetic ability to ward off diseases is limited. But there are diverse leaf crops native to the UK that grow well, such as sorrel or Good King Henry lettuce.  If cultivated, they create a more resilient gene pool, so if a pest or disease attacks one food stuff, the odds are that the rest will survive. 

But growing these plants makes little difference unless people will buy and eat them.  What’s needed is a system change - a change in our attitude to food.  Too many of us rely on food processes that distance us from the realities of growing produce.  From the outset the project has actively included the community surrounding its Salford location to try to embed the values of sustainable and responsible urban food supply. Teams there will be running workshops on everything from cooking to permaculture to pique people’s interest. 

In this aim, the Biospheric Project is not alone. Other outreach efforts, like this summer’s IncrEdibles festival of edible plants at Kew Gardens, are popping up, trying to alert us to the realities of food, the narrow variety of edible plants we now consume, and effects like seasonal variability.  As Walsh says: “All that monoculture food that we are bringing in, the majority is Mediterranean sun-loving crops, whereas our systems are based on perennial foods for a UK climate”. 

By embedding both agronomic research and farming practices in the community, and giving residents ownership of the project, Walsh hopes to create a whole new understanding of how food makes a difference to the way people behave. He says “We need to start re-engaging with the ecology around us - look after your gardens, raise biodiversity and develop gardens that have complexity and a range of different ecologies.” And most of all, be it in a back yard or balcony, “grow crops resilient to the climate.”

Kat Austen is a researcher, artist, writer, and edits the CultureLab section of New Scientist. Follow her @katausten or visit her website 


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