Science in Society Archive

The Full Monty on Food

The paradigm of food security has shifted back to self-sufficiency and local food production; celebrated organic gardener Monty Don says we must grow our own food to save us from the global economic and food crisis that no governments can fix. Sam Burcher

A back garden food revolution

Monty Don is the new president of the Soil Association. In a recent lecture in London, he said he was appointed because of his passionate belief that everyone can reconnect to nature through gardening and growing [1].  The skills, knowledge and resources of British gardeners can transform, rebuild and stabilize our food systems and our society, he insisted. It’s about food security, an entire cultural approach to food that can harness horticultural skills as a serious part of our national food supply and integrate into our whole approach to life.  In that way we can feed ourselves healthier food in the face of social and economic crisis, and if we do not, we will suffer as a nation.

Monty understands that nowadays gardens are smaller, fewer people are growing, and the production of food has gone increasingly into the hands of bigger growers and industry. He blamed governments for the most part of the problem and for the crisis of trust that has spread and undermined community relationships.  He saw the food industry as a greedy giant in league with the oil and chemical industries against the garden potterer whose skills and relationship to food production have been relegated to a hobby. And, in response to the multiple global crises that apparently no government can fix, there is more that we can do as small groups and individuals to mobilize small scale food production in gardens, allotments and common land to reclaim our power.

Small is beautiful

In Monty’s world, small is not only beautiful, but absolutely essential.  Good, well grown vegetables are the order of the day, not vegetables grown in depleted soil under thousands of acres of plastic by people that are degraded as ‘cheap labour’. According to Lord Haskins, the UK wastes 20 million tonnes of food each year, costing £10 billion; while

the National Health Service spends £6 million on food-related diseases annually, and one third of British children are now obese.  The cost of avoidable food waste is rising and we should be ashamed and horrified by our behaviour enough to want to change and to do it now. Monty emphasised that over the last fifty years our knowledge, experience and skills as growers have been deliberately abused in the name of commercial profit, which goes against all the precepts for growing good food that nourishes both body and soul.

Good food works wonders

The theme of reconnecting a physically and mentally healthy society to good food was illustrated by a project that Monty started a few years ago with drug addicts.  The idea was to get them growing food and looking after animals so they would have a connection with something that had meaning that they could own and identify with. The biggest problem he encountered was not heroin or even hard work, it was the fact that these people did not know how to sit round a table and eat food together, and the concept of sharing food had become alien to them.  It was common for a newcomer to the group to sit in a corner to eat, or to snatch food and stuff it in their pockets for later.  Eating together around the table was the major social barrier that had to be broken down. When Princess Anne recently visited the project, a young man turned up to meet her, who Monty thought he had failed dismally as the young man had relapsed into drugs and gone back into prison. Nevertheless, Monty was delighted to see how the lad had transformed. “When I asked him what he had been doing to look so different, he replied, ‘I’ve been eating.’”

Community and co-operation for food security

Monty’s message is that the appreciation and awareness of good food starts at home.  The very best food is something that belongs in the kitchen cupboard and in the fridge and on the table, not as an exception in a fancy restaurant, or as part of treating yourself, or as medicine, he said.  It’s the baseline for everyone, no matter what they do, or where they are. This moment in our history is critical when it feels like the house of cards is tumbling around us we must celebrate those who are growing more food.  (For more on the diversity of small scale food production worldwide see I-SIS report Food Futures Now Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free [2]).

The UK Government was roundly criticized for “a spectacular lack of interest in food, agriculture and the countryside” and the pursuit of profit is a bad fit in relation to good food. So too is the insanity of modern food production that rapes the rainforest for soya, sugar and cattle production and daily rejects tons of food because of it being

not straight enough, round enough or clean enough. Co-operation to reconnect food with the process of growing cannot be led by governments, bureaucrats, or large corporations, but by communities, he argued.  We must celebrate our non-conformity and diversity, and take pride in how little we buy, and work with our families, our neighbours and communities to share what we grow. He added that we must also get used to a society that eats less and pays more for it. More help must be given to the consumer if they cannot afford to buy food, not necessarily always the producer.  Co-operation evokes a sense of community and when people work together to make things happen so the beauty of sharing surplus becomes a virtuous circle.

The meaning of local food

How do you define local? Monty explained that local is what it means to you; it’s personal, it has identity, it has a smell. The anonymity of globalization has tangled the lines of communication so we no longer know or care where our food comes from. The essence of food and trade should be based on giving away things and accepting what you cannot provide yourself.  This doesn’t mean that money can’t change hands, but it must be based on those principles. It’s a model that cannot be driven by consumerism because we need to encourage a society that uses less, not more, and place values on growing more and buying less as part of our sustainable food future, he said.

References were made to post-crisis Cuba’s successes in becoming self sufficient despite an embargo on oil and agrichemicals in the 1990’s as well as the knowledge and skills that have been hardwired into the minds of 11 million Cubans for future generations as a result. Furthermore, there is huge potential for the majority of UK households that have gardens (see Box) to link and share food in similar ways. There is resurgence in the use of allotments in the UK, which are a residue of the first industrialized cities that served the dual purpose of allowing workers from the countryside to boost their meagre wages by producing their own food, and crucially kept their peasant skills alive, an independence that our post modern society lacks. Of the one and half million allotments in the UK in 1943, there are now just 300 000 remaining.

How do UK gardens grow?

80 % of population has access to a garden, which is nearly 50 million people

10 % of population that don’t have a garden wish they did

43%  of population without kids grow food in their gardens

37% of population with kids grow some food in their gardens

95% people in the West Midlands have gardens

60% Londoners have gardens

Source:  MORI poll 2004

Get back to the garden

Monty said gardens are personal, intimate spaces.  Gardens are what we can see and touch that makes ordinary people out of everyone. Gardens are also landscapes that reconnect you to the rolling hills so that when you grow your own food, even if it’s just in a window box, you are connecting to the landscapes beyond.  And, beyond those landscapes he described a biological analogy of gardens connecting and fitting together, sharing, adapting, changing and interchanging, integral, but also parts of a whole, rather like the dynamic connections between the cells in our body.  The ability to see the holistic connections between the soil and the food on our plates, and between gardens (and farms) and landscapes whether it be in practical or philosophical terms is a really powerful agent for change that is self-motivated, bottom-up and outside of governments. However small your garden, grow something edible in it, and as Monty advised me at the end of the evening, for the best results, always plant in warm soil.

Article first published 22/10/08


  1. The 11th Lady Eve Balfour memorial lecture 3 October 2008, Soil Association,
  2. Ho MW. Burcher S. Ching LL. & others. Food Futures Now Organic and Fossil Fuel Free ISIS/TWN, London, 2008.

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