My allotment was once a casual hobby. Since lockdown, it’s become a lifeline | Alice O’Keefe
Smugness is a well-documented side-effect of having an allotment, and at this time of year, with raspberries, gooseberries, currants, new potatoes and other goodies ripening and making it to the table, the condition becomes particularly acute. “Notice anything about these spuds?” I can’t help myself asking, faux-casually, over dinner. “And how about the chard? Particularly delicious, no?” To which the only acceptable answer, clearly, is a chorus of: “Oh yes, I noticed that immediately, I’ve never tasted such magnificent chard in my life.” (For some reason, this is not a response that comes naturally to my children.)
Many plot-holders will be even more insufferable this year, as we’ve had so much more time than usual to spend tending our plots. Allotments have been open throughout lockdown, designated as safe spaces for daily exercise. I nearly gave mine up before the pandemic, as I was too busy working and socialising to keep the weeds at bay. Boy, am I glad I kept it: as a mother of two energetic boys without much outdoor space at home, our plot has been a lifeline.
In those dark days of early lockdown, the plot was one of the few places we could relax outdoors (we dearly love our local park, but less so in the period when you had to pretend to do push-ups if you didn’t want to get moved on by the police). It retained a precious air of normality, while the world outside turned upside down; plot-holders are used to relating to one another at a distance, offering a friendly wave or a pruning tip from a few metres away. And it gave me a sense of purpose, in the absence of work and human contact. There’s no better cure for existential angst than a vigorous weeding session (check out The Well Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith for more on the many mental health benefits of gardening).
When supermarket shelves were ominously bare, growing food started to feel like a genuinely useful choice of hobby. It’s no surprise that demand for seeds and compost boomed this spring; the pandemic gave all of us a sharp and shocking lesson about the vulnerability of supply chains. Even before the pandemic there was a surge in demand for allotments, with waiting lists in England growing from fewer than 10 people per 100 plots in 1996, to more than 50 for every 100 plots in 2013.
Councils have a legal obligation to provide enough growing space to meet demand. And yet, a recent study by the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield found that the quantity of land used for allotments in urban areas has fallen by 65% over the past 50 years. And – you guessed it – poorer areas have lost out most, with eight times the number of closures seen in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. Restoring old allotment land into use could, researchers claim, feed an extra 14,107 people.
Those of us lucky enough to have a plot may come to appreciate it even more if our government gets its way with new, non-EU trade deals. There has been much ado about the prospect of chlorinated chicken, but the implications of a trade deal with the US are equally grim for fruit and veg. The American government will insist on our loosening regulations around the use of pesticides, so we can look forward to apples containing higher levels of malathion (an organophosphate insecticide linked to cancer which can impair the respiratory system) and grapes with added propargite, an insecticide that has been associated with cancer and can affect sexual function and fertility. Oh yes, and then there are neonicotinoids, all but banned in the UK because of their toxic effect on bees, and chlorpyrifos, banned by the EU over concerns about its impact on the brains of foetuses and young children. Enjoy your meal!
If a US deal goes ahead we may not get a choice about whether or not we buy this stuff. British producers will be stuck between a rock and a hard place: not only will they be undercut by cheaper alternatives, but if UK food starts to contain more toxic pesticides they will struggle to meet EU standards, losing their primary export market. Overwhelmingly, the British public wants high food standards; it is likely to get a race to the bottom.
But the really bad news is that allotment-holders could be about to get a whole lot smugger.
o Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist, and author of On the Up