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Concrete jungle: Should Londoners be eating ‘local’?

Composite image showing, clockwise from top left: Peter Newton bottling London cider, images from the Capital Growth show garden at The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, London-produced cheeses from Wildes Cheese

Urban Food Fortnight starts this weekend, showcasing surprising examples of food growing and production in London. But should we be aiming to eat more locally produced food in urban areas?

It is a common, sad sight in suburban gardens: piles of rotten apples going to waste as apple trees hit harvest time.

Their owners can't eat enough of them, or make enough apple pies, compotes and chutneys to prevent them going off.

When Rochelle Schwarz and Peter Newton noticed windfall apples going to waste in their neighbours' gardens, they decided to start collecting them to produce cider.

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"We observed the abundance of fruit trees in our local area and leafleted, asking if [people] would like to donate their fruit in exchange for a small amount of cider.

"There was an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from those happy to oblige and, since then, word-of-mouth has taken off and we now collect apples and pears from more than 100 gardens and the list is growing."

In autumn 2012, the couple collected eight tonnes of unwanted apples and pears for their company London Glider Cider and are recognised by the Campaign for Real Ale as the only commercial cider made in London using London apples and pears.

The wide variety of food being grown, produced and eaten in London is being showcased in the second Urban Food Fortnight.

The event covers gardening and allotment projects; urban fish farmers; street food collectives; restaurant pop-ups and cookery schools.

The aim is to offer consumers locally made produce and a chance to connect to the community and to where their food comes from.

The growing appetite for locally made, artisan food is shown by the popularity of farmers' markets since they first appeared in the UK in 1997.

The National Farmers Retail & Markets Association (FARMA) identifies 20 farmers' markets in London, and about 250 in the UK. It estimates that is about a third of all farmers' markets, with most not certified.

The appeal of becoming a food entrepreneur, particularly in London, has become a trend in the last few years for professionals seeking a change in lifestyle. BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme made a programme on the subject in June 2011.

Picking apples in a back garden Some Londoners have been donating their garden apples in exchange for a taste of cider

Among them is Californian-born Kristen Schnepp, founder of Gringa Dairy, who makes Mexican cheese under a railway arch in Peckham, London.

"I could not move to the countryside, despite a great desire to do so, but I decided I could not let that stop my dream of being a cheese-maker."

Her product would not exist if the entire supply chain was limited to within the boundaries of London. You certainly can't keep many cows in Peckham.

But her milk comes from as close as she can realistically source it, from a herd less than 30 miles from where the cheese is produced.

Kristen Schnepp, founder of Gringa Dairy, making Mexican cheese Kristen Schnepp makes her Mexican cheese under a Peckham railway arch

She accepts that being able to buy food from a wide range of sources has benefits, but says this has "played a role in breaking down communities".

For Ms Shnepp buying food produced locally is a way to connect.

"So, eating local is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint as well as a pretty simple and enjoyable way to establish or strengthen your ties with the people around you."

Just how much land in London is available for food growing and production is not easy to estimate. A July 2013 City of London Corporation report declares London "the greenest major city in Europe" and the third greenest city of equivalent size in the world.

Capital Growth, London's largest food growing network, has identified and supports more than 2,100 urban food-growing spaces.

A 2001 report by ADAS, an agricultural and environmental consultancy, showed there to be 13,608 hectares of farmland within the M25, including all London boroughs.

But food growing spaces in the city are not limited to conventional plots of land and allotments. Enthusiasts have been finding creative ways to grow their own.

GrowUp is an urban farming business using innovative techniques such as vertical growing systems to produce salads, herbs and micro-greens.

The team have created a fish farm using a recycled shipping container in which they rear tilapia - a resilient and adaptable white fish - while a greenhouse for fruit and vegetables goes on top.

The vegetables are grown in a water solution in a system called hydroponics, while the waste from the fish provides nutrients and the whole process is known as aquaponics.

New growth

Tom Webster from Grow Up growing salad using a hydroponic system

• Hydroponics is a means of growing plants in water and not soil. Some farmers claim hydroponics uses less water than traditional growing methods.

• Aquaponics combines raising fish in tanks with hydroponics. Fish waste is fed through to the hydroponic system and is broken down as nutrients for the plants. Water is then directed back for the fish.

Tilapia fish are often farmed using an aquaponic system as they're hardy enough to be grown at the optimum temperature for the system.

Kate Hofman, co-founder of GrowUp argues that this method can reduce food waste.

"Because we can deliver to our customers within hours of harvesting, our produce is fresher and lasts longer, so it's less likely to be wasted"'.

"We also believe that growing food on GrowUp farms is a really visible way to produce food - most people in cities never see where their food comes from and so they don't have a good understanding of what it takes to produce it".

However London could certainly not produce all its own food as it is one of the most densely populated parts of the EU.

The idea of local food in a large metropolitan city is a misjudged marketing ploy according to restaurant critic Jay Rayner.

In his book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, he aims to "debunk a supermarket trolley full of myths and shoot a lot of the food world's most cherished sacred cows".

"If you live in a rural community, there are good reasons for eating locally. It's good for the rural economy; there's no doubt about that.

"But living in a city like London, forgive me, but I can't think of a particularly good reason to do it.

"The carbon footprint is not going to be smaller, so it's not more sustainable. The most you're possibly going to be doing is giving [local people] a source of income. It's not a great environment in which to raise food. Cities aren't. They're brilliant at other things."

Mr Rayner argues that large-scale agriculture is set up for efficiency in a way that smaller farms never could be.

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He gives the example of Mansfield, a Kent apple company that has increased its yield through novel planting techniques such as packing trees together closely so that they are forced to grow upwards.

Kent has ideal growing conditions for apples so it makes sense for the company to concentrate UK production in one place.

Mr Rayner also claims the arguments over supporting local shops against supermarkets to be more complicated than many people think.

"Knee-jerk responses against supermarkets actually miss a lot of the value that they provide.

"Mostly if you are buying from local shops you are making an aesthetic choice. You are deciding to do it because you like that bread more, you like those sausages more.

"But on issues of sustainability, carbon footprint and so forth, it's not going to stand up to much examination."

However Mr Rayner will admit one advantage of growing-your-own in the city.

Urban food production gives a "value in re-connecting children to where food comes from, so that they are educated in the agricultural process.

"But only if it's a way of showing how things grow, rather than suggesting urban farming as an ideal."

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