TEDxWarwick: Feeding the City, Feeding the Mind

Click on the image to see the video of my TEDxWarwick talk.

The full text of is below, along with a sample of the few slides I used:

Four years ago, I began to knit. It was a short-lived, hormone fueled obsession. My daughter was pregnant with the first of my three grandchildren.

The birth of this infant changed my world. The future suddenly mattered very much again. Making a difference took on new urgency.

Making a difference, say, to my home-city of Birmingham here in the English Midlands.

It’s a good place to live. A friendly city. Clean, too, with cheerfully competent refuse collectors — that matters.

It’s also a green city. Literally so.

Once part of the ancient Forest of Arden, it is a city of trees. There are millions of them — including nearly 100,000 street trees. In autumn, our streets are paved with gold.

But not of the precious metal variety. As with many post-industrial cities, it’s been in economic decline since the 80s. Mass unemployment, many youngsters, and likely to stay. And, along with Glasgow, it’s the most unequal city in the country.

But Birmingham, right at the start of the Industrial Revolution, has always been a crucible of ideas. Our industrial legacy is not only engineering and technology. It’s also medicine — think 19th century factory accidents and disease through the sudden influx of a population . . . Today, we have life scientists and medics at the forefront of research.

How could our engineers and scientists — working on everything from fuel cells to stem cells — help us make a better future for the next generation?

And given not just our particular social situation, also the huge global threats facing humanity — climate change, resource depletion, population pressures?

Specifically, at what scale could their intervention make a difference?

For it’s the scale of these challenges that’s hard for governments, let alone individuals. Human cognition can’t handle it — they’re multi-factorial challenges over vast geographies and time-spans.

So at what scale?

A local geography — Birmingham.

A time span within everyone’s grasp, 2050  — even though my skin may not be in that game, people I love — those infant grandchildren — they’ll be around.

And subject matter that’s part of our everyday lives.

Thus over the last year or so, regional scientists have been bending their minds on a scenario planning project . . . about food.

What possible food futures are there for Birmingham in 2050? What might we be eating then?

It’s been an illuminating project. And there’s one aspect it, urban agriculture, that I’m going to talk about.

But first, some basics:

How much food do we need?

The relevant info is in your kitchen cupboard as for example: the label on a can of baked beans.

There you can find the Guideline Daily Amount; i.e. what nutrients each of us needs every day. Let’s just consider calories.

The label tells us we need 2000 calories a day.

There are one million of us in Birmingham —  so it’s easy arithmetic. 2000 times one million — .

That’s 2 billion calories today, tomorrow, everyday . . .

A moment’s diversion to the difficult to-comprehend global scale . . there will be 9 billion people by 2050. Nine billion times 2000, that’s 18 trillion calories a day.

Where is our food going to come from?

Let’s assume ideal conditions: 10 people can live off one hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land under good weather conditions . . .

note however the UN average figures which are less than half that . . . then explore where it doesn’t come from

Birmingham: The square = 200 hectares of the central part of the city. If fertile agricultural land, intensively farmed, it could feed 2000 at best.

Right in the city centre, there are 30K residents, and 160K commuters.

So how much food is grown in the city as a whole, what does urban food growing, allotments, gardens and the like, contribute?

There are stats for Brighton and Hove — 0.14% of what they eat is grown within their city boundaries. So just about 99.9% comes in on planes, trucks, trains . . .

Cities do not feed bodies.

Cities feed minds. Minds that have themselves been shaped by food.

So urban food growing . . . why should we be interested in it when it produces so little of what we eat? 

What it’s really about?

I’ve been pondering two questions:

The first:

How come this urban food growing malarkey, maybe a passing fad, has such beneficial impact, not just on individual lives — did you know gardeners have the lowest suicide rate of any occupation — also on our social and civic life?

If, for example, a primary school has a well-tended veg patch, obesity and truancy go down, and literacy goes up.

What the heck is going on? Magic?

I don’t buy magic. Science is the best defence against believing what we want to.

And my second question is this:

What’s going on in the minds of more than a few urban food growers who hold the belief, often vociferous expressed — I suspect it’s akin to my knitting obsession — that horticultural effort within a city can do more than a gnat’s whisper to feed its population?

Despite their very personal battles with slugs and other pests. Despite the downpours here last summer. Despite the hard cash they — let alone the rest of us — part with to feed their families. Despite the bricks, the concrete, the tarmac of their daily lives.

Why does urban agriculture have the impact it does? What’s it playing with in our minds?

And, if we can answer the question why, we will go some way to understand, even predict other activities that also engage such passion, and have similar social and civic benefit, but without the manure and the backache . . .

Here are three sets of ideas that give insight as to why — as yet unformed, so help me with them:

Epidemiologists have analysed datasets from all over the world. They show that many social dysfunctions, homicide, low educational levels, mortality and ill-health, obesity, teenage mums, lack of trust, et al are highly correlated — not with poverty as you might suppose, but with income inequality.

At least one major cue for income inequality is absent on an vegetable patch.

Turn up with soft hands newly manicured, a tailored suit and expensive shoes and you will, rightly, be seen as a fool. Soil under the fingernails, scruffy old clothes and mud-encrusted boots are de rigueur on this, a feral cat walk.

The second set of ideas is from network theory . . .
Small worlds, the notion that we are all “six degrees’ from each other. Social cohesion — and the spread of good ideas depends on the strength of weak ties; that is, people, social hubs, with lots of casual friendships, not close bonds, acquaintanceships.

Weak ties, casual friendships, abound on allotments, urban farms and community gardens. For veg growing is no respecter of identity — it’s there, maybe inactive, but there in all our minds.

. . .  which leads neatly to the third, from evolutionary psychology.
Food growing was part of our ancestral past — and in fact, our recent past, my early childhood. Every single one of our ancestors knew, intimately knew, the animals and plants they ate.

No wonder so many people today are passionate about what they grow, about the provenance of what they eat.

But that’s a luxury in the 21st-century. It’s counter-intuitive to our core, but if we are to feed 9 billion, we need ever more intensified agriculture. Thus our uncomfortable focus need be on how, somehow, our food provenance, necessarily distant from us, is both adequate and trustworthy and, far more important, enables us to be custodians not pillagers of the planet.

So, given the social challenges of cities like Birmingham — and the huge global threats facing us all — what can we do to ensure our children and grandchildren have happy, fulfilled lives, and will leave a better world for their descendants?

We need come up with and implement lots of ideas, grounded in evidence . . . many will conflict. It’ll be hard, intellectually hard, perhaps too hard  . . . so emotionally not easy. So why should you — or I — bother?

Here’s one, just one of nine billion reasons why.

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