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Local London

Created by Georgina Wilson-Powell

As the sun rises over the Thames, the UK capital’s food producers are already hard at work. From rooftop beekeepers and farmers based in disused warehouses to early-morning deliveries of fish, line-caught on the British coast, London’s food scene has never been so green.

With over £1.4 million of food grown in urban farming in the capital each year, London is leading the way in finding community-based, sustainable alternatives to mass-market food production.

GrowUp Urban Farm in London. Photo credit: Mandy Zammit

GrowUp Urban Farms, launched in 2013 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, is utilizing disused space and aquaponics to grow herbs, leafy greens and salads for restaurants in the city. They now produce 20,000 kg of salad and 4,000 kg of fish a year (that's enough to feed 3,000 people).

CEO Kate Hofman credits their success to knowing what will sell, "We grow leafy green salads and herbs because they grow really well in an aquaponic system and because they are high-value perishable products that benefit from getting to the consumer quickly after harvest.” The technology used on the farm allows a faster growing cycle for high-quality produce.

But it’s not just about saving food miles, it’s about reconnecting with food production, that’s also imperative for a more sustainable future.

“Like a lot of cities, London's population probably doesn't know enough about where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it,” Hofman said. “These are the reasons why we need for farms in cities to reconnect people to the process of food production. When people understand more about how their food is grown, they are more likely to make better choices about what they buy and eat.”

Photo courtesy of SoleShare

Another person, up at the crack of dawn to help feed Londoners, is Jack Clarke, co-founder of SoleShare. Soleshare is a sustainable fish box scheme that has 150 members across London. Clarke and his team buy sustainably caught fish (the fish were caught using lines and rods and in small batches) from five fishermen. They buy whatever has been caught rather than specifying a particular species and pay the fishermen five times the market rate on the day.

Photo courtesy of SoleShare

The fish are in customers’ baskets only a few hours after being caught. "Gunard is great. Not only does it look amazing, but it has thick meaty flesh and can take on bold flavours,” said Clarke. “Garfish are also delicious. They are a type of needlefish somewhere between mackerel and bream." Over the last two years, SoleShare has served up over 40 species of fish, along with recipe cards to help customers become more confident cooking lesser known fish.

Photo courtesy of SoleShare

While this method isn't sustainable on a massive scale, Clarke hopes it can be replicated at a local level and has helped people in France, Sweden, Belgium and Scotland set up similar businesses. "We are trying to change the way fish is bought and eaten to make the whole supply chain more sustainable,” Clarke said. “I know a fisherman who puts his fish in a van to be auctioned 200 miles away in Devon. It's then driven to London to be sold, then to Grimsby 200 hundred miles away to be processed - this is what we are trying to avoid.”

By taking whatever the fishermen catch, Clarke gives his customers a real sense of the ebb and flow of the sea as it changes with the seasons - it’s not something one would find at typical supermarkets.

Photo courtesy of Bermondsey Street Bees

While Clarke delivers his fish to various points around the city, Dale Gibson’s contribution to London’s sustainable food scene takes place on his doorstep - or rather his roof. 250,000 bees living in eight different hives happily buzz between the gables of Gibson’s south London townhouse. Their hard work will eventually create his award-winning Bermondsey Street honey.

Photo courtesy of Bermondsey Street Bees

Gibson learnt all things bee from Buckingham Palace’s beekeeper, and now he passes his knowledge as a consultant to restaurants and hotels who are interested in beekeeping or helping bees by planting appropriate foliage. He also set up the apiaries at Soho House’s new country retreat, helping them to bag an award for their golden nectar.

While it is well known that bees are in decline, it’s not always helpful to just dive in and start keeping them, Gibson explains. It’s much more useful to support the city’s existing bees by planting foliage they can pollinate and feed on.

Worker bees crowd around their Queen. Photo courtesy of Bermondsey Street Bees

“Bees forage for up to a three mile radius; and as much as wildflower meadows look pretty, what we really need are people planting herbs and shrubs - proper plants,” explains Gibson. Bees won’t forage on their own doorstep, and too many hives means not enough food, leading to less honey and poorly bees.

Photo courtesy of Bermondsey Street Bees

Gibson spends a good portion of his life on the roof, making sure his bees are happy, not overcrowded and have enough to survive the winter when they bed down until spring. “What we need is people getting their hands dirty, making more community garden spaces and planting more and spending money sustainably so it goes back into the local economy. Everyone can play a role, it just doesn’t always have to be the same role,” he said. “A hundred years ago most people would have had a garden where they grew veggies and they would have known instinctively that they also needed bees to help them have good crops. Sustainability was just normal life - people knew it in their bones and now we need to relearn it.”

Photo courtesy of Bermondsey Street Bees

Whether it’s learning from the past or creating the farms of the future, London isn’t short of inspirational foodie producers working hard to ensure that local is the best way forward.

September 25, 2017
Prepping fish at the dock for SoleShare. Photo courtesy of SoleShare

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