A Co-operative Approach to Sustainable Urban Food Supply

by Andy Jones

Despite the recent interest in food miles and local food, only a very small fraction of the food consumed in Britain travels less than 30 miles. Glebelands is a pioneering urban market garden project in Sale that supplies Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, reducing this distance to less than 3 miles.

Lesley Bryson and Adam York took over the 3 acre site, which includes a polytunnel and glasshouse, in September 2001. The organic crops produced include 15 types of salad leaf; kale; purple sprouting broccoli; coriander; spring onion; parsley; rhubarb; rocket; basil; cavalo nero; french, runner and broad beans; and several varieties of: chili, courgette, squash, spinach; leaf beet, apple, and cucumber.

The main focus is producing leafy and salad crops, for which freshness is a key issue: being able to harvest for sale on the same day is therefore a major advantage. The main outlet is Unicorn Grocery, a worker cooperative which opened a store in Chorlton in 1996. The shop specialises in the provision of food with high nutritional standards, including plenty of fresh and wholegrain produce, organics, and foodstuffs that have low or no sugar, gluten and dairy content. At Unicorn, Glebelands produce is clearly labelled, with additional information on food miles, organic production and fair trade made available to customers.

The relationship between Unicorn and Glebelands is mutually beneficial. The shop receives high quality produce that is picked for sale on the same day, orders can be altered at short notice and delivered within a few hours. The benefit to Glebelands is that the cost and time associated with admin, distribution and marketing are minimised compared to the farmers’ market and box scheme approach.

The Glebelands/Unicorn model could be described as an experiment to discover how urban food production, distribution and retailing systems can be structured and operate in order to minimise environmental impact and ensure food security. The application of organic methods, a co-operative structure and minimising the distance between producer and consumer are key aspects of sustainable food supply.

However, the structure of food chains needs to be further transformed to adopt a circular or closed loop metabolism – where external inputs as well as outputs in the form of solid and liquid waste and air pollution are minimised.

At Glebelands: food waste from Unicorn is collected to be composted on site; crates used to transport the produce are reused; and some of the products are sold in biodegradable bags, salads are sold loose.

If Unicorn imported salads from southern Spain by truck this would require 26 times more, or airfreighted produce from California 1300 times more transport fuel than sourcing from Glebelands. The ratios for transport related carbon emissions are similar.

Lesley and Adam have worked extremely hard to achieve what they have, with virtually no support from local and central government, while competing with cheap food sold at an increasing multiple retailer presence in the city. Realising only too well that the large supermarkets are cheaper for one reason: they don’t pay for the external social, environmental and economic costs they impose on society.

The Future

A decade ago, climate change was described by the media as being something that some scientists predict could happen. We are now being told, on a daily basis, that we need to tackle climate change without delay. The same thing will happen in terms of how we perceive and respond to peak oil and natural gas. The price of a barrel of oil has trebled over the last few years, the cost of nitrogen fertiliser rose by 30% last year and the vulnerability of gas imports has been shown recently in the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine

If we are to ensure food supplies, local sourcing of organic produce will have to become more widespread as sooner or later there will be a ‘tipping point’. This will be when increases in oil price or disruptions in supply will render the alternatives inoperable.

The Mersey Valley, where Glebelands is situated, was once awash with market gardens which supplied local wholesale markets and schools. This ended due to compulsory competitive tendering, the shift to prepared and processed food and the emergence of the multiple retailers. The consequence has been numerous environmental, economic and social problems. The relocalisation of food supply in Manchester is now being advocated again in a city-wide Food Futures Strategy.

However, the trends are worrying and in some cases alarming. If we consider lettuce, for example, only 1% of lettuce consumed in the UK is produced organically. Since 1990 lettuce imports have increased by 120% and UK production fallen by 45% with UK self sufficiency falling from 75% to 44% over the same period. In effect what we’re doing is moving towards most unsustainable option.

Glebeland has potential to inspire others – by demonstrating that local organic food supply in cities is not only a desirable but a feasible option. If Glebelands receives the support it deserves – to develop as a training and educational facility, generate renewable energy and improve rainwater storage and irrigation on site – all the hard work will have paid off.

In terms of the future, quite simply, if there aren’t many more Glebelands very soon, people in towns and cities could have very empty stomachs.