PUBLISHED: 13:57 23 February 2009 | UPDATED: 08:30 28 March 2014
The nation's favourite gardener has called for a revolution in our attitudes to food. Monty Don says it is vital that millions of gardeners grow vegetables in response to a major threat to our food security. He talked to Country Smallholding editor Simon McEwan
Monty Don is a man with a mission. The nation’s favourite gardener has turned radical, spearheading a ‘grow-your-own’ revolution in his new role as president of the Soil Association. He warns that Britain’s food supply is in grave peril – and the answer is to encourage millions of people to grow vegetables.
Monty says he frequently buys Country Smallholding and he agreed to an interview after reading about our own campaign, Grow Our Allotments. “When I saw that in your magazine my thought was that we are all moving on the same lines.”
He says smallholders, from being perceived as peripheral figures, now have a key role to play and are a model of how to practically produce food at a time of increasing concern about food security.
“The Soil Association is very concerned about food security. All kinds of research is showing that our food supply is incredibly tenuous and delicate, and open to every kind of abuse, be it political, practical or meteorological; there are a hundred ways it can be interrupted. It has been recognised at a Governmental level – although it has not been acted upon.
“Unless we wake up and take action, an accident is going to happen, and we are going to have a calamity where there just isn’t enough food.
“On a much more profound, cultural level, the break between producers and consumers has become a great chasm – and that is something that is detrimental to everybody.
“If someone has a sandwich, or a pie or a packet of crisps, they often have no concept of where that food has come from or how it has been produced. There is a level of ignorance which those of us who work in this area, or garden or farm, find staggering.
“One of the things that struck me most, as a gardener, is that every gardener has a direct link to the production of food. It could literally be just a pot of basil on the windowsill.
“That connection, which works on a practical, spiritual and cultural level, can be nurtured to spread. There you have 11 million plus people actively growing things. By getting them to grow food not only do you tackle, to some extent, food security, but more importantly you make the connection so that they, their families and their friends see the process of raising food and consuming it as all one.
“This is nothing new. Every allotment holder knows this in their bones. But what I am saying is why aren’t we tackling this? Why is there this disparity between farmers and gardeners? What is the difference, essentially, between what a gardener is doing on his allotment in the middle of Birmingham and a farmer is doing in the middle of the countryside? They are looking after the land as well as they can, getting the best harvest that they can and then using it as best they can.
“The only difference is that the farmer sells it to make profit, and the gardener or allotment holder doesn’t. In fact profit is one of the great problems in modern food culture. It is really a post-industrial problem – cities that can’t feed themselves have to be fed by someone else. In those cultures the food tends to suffer. Where you have people supplying their own food, the standard of food tends to be better. This is something we can learn from and apply.
“People are now realising that everything is changing. The pieces are being thrown up in the air and they are going to land in a different order. This is because of climate change predominantly, but also because of the financial crisis. What the Soil Association is saying is that there is a food crisis waiting to happen.
“It has said for a long time that, because of the way food is produced, in a commercial, chemical fashion, it is building up all kinds of environmental and health problems that need to be addressed. You can compare it to the financial crisis – we have been borrowing and spending capital which future generations are going to have to pay back.
“One of the things we now have to address is global warming – and the fact that modern agriculture is a significant contributor to this. Another is the rising level of obesity.
“The question is what can be done now to tackle these vast problems. Unfortunately politicians tend to bluster or flounder – they don’t really know what to do; and one of the interesting things about the times we are in is that politicians are not necessarily the right or the best people to do the job. Things are going to change at a grassroots level.
“My perspective, from my background in gardening and television, is that what you have to do is get one or two people to do one or two things, and multiply that a million times – ten million times – the scale you have in television, and a lot happens. All you have to do is to get ten million people growing something. That is a dramatic change. It changes their expectations. If you love eating carrots, and you grow your own, that becomes the yardstick by which you measure a carrot. What matters is that we all grow something and that we grow it as well as we can.
“A few years ago I wrote an article in which I said that if I was king for a day I would get all Cabinet Ministers to take on an allotment, and if they failed to keep their allotment up they would lose their Cabinet posts. We are getting to the stage now where that is not such a crazy thing – because if you grow something you understand what is going on. One of the things about Government is that they genuinely don’t understand what is going on. This Government in particular knows nothing about food and less about agriculture. They are not interested. They just don’t see it as important. It is something other people do.
“The other people in question are a tiny handful of mega-corporations – largely American – controlling the world’s supply of mass-produced food, be it soya, beef, wheat, or whatever, a lot of them with more resources than small countries, and amazingly powerful lobby groups, and of course our supermarket groups. These are all people who have financial vested interests in controlling the food supply. What I would like to see is the public undermining that by providing some of their own food, that is not based on profit – that is the key. If you don’t do it for profit, you are immune to the vagaries of profit. It is such a simple idea, but it is a beautiful one – because at a stroke you are free.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have to buy food or you don’t need to earn money or you don’t have to make a profit if you are a farmer – of course you do. I am not calling for the overthrow of capitalism. I am saying let’s try and get a little bit of liberation from the iron grip of mass-produced food.
Smallholders’ key role
“Smallholders have a key role to play here. What is interesting about smallholders is that, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, they were a pretty marginalised group. They were at best seen as escaping from the world at large, and at worst as an irrelevance – not least by farmers and food producers. I think they are enormously relevant and are a model of how you can practically produce food in the 21st century.
“Smallholders by definition are adaptable and flexible. They are not dependent on one crop or harvest. Most of them have another job of some kind, doing B&B maybe, or having some campers on their land. It is a model that is applicable because of its modesty and smallness. And it is within the reach of a lot of people.
“One of the things smallholders do brilliantly is they relate directly to the consumers of the food, not least because they are an important consumer of the food.
“I am effectively a smallholder – I have a farm of 60 acres. At the moment we have only got half a dozen steers. Now the most important consumer of those steers is going to be me and my family. So I really care what they taste like – as well as how much money the ones I don’t eat make.
“I honestly think that you have to get things personal, and small and modest, on a smallholding, back garden, or allotment level, and then it builds up from there, rather than the other way round.
“As far as allotments are concerned, there has been quite a lot of back-slapping going on recently about how good they are, but the truth of it is that allotment provision has been going from bad to worse since the Second World War and at best the decline is just halting.
“I heard the other day about people who have to wait at least four years for a plot in Oxford. In parts of London there is a 10-year waiting list. Now why aren’t councils reacting to that and saying ‘right, we need more allotments’?
“What I would love to see is every new housing development only being given planning permission if they also provide allotments. When you build an estate of 50 houses, why aren’t there 50 allotments – or even 25 allotments, and houses share?
“I went to allotments in Birmingham last year where there are up to eight students sharing one allotment. That worked very well. The Indian and Asian populations in Birmingham have a long history of families sharing allotments.
“The reason allotments work, of course, is because they are a direct descendant of common land, where people could graze some animals and grow some vegetables.
“They are not an industrial thing, they are a rural entity that came with people from rural communities to urban set-ups and provided that link. They have a deep, earthy, atavistic base that everybody responds to.
“There is that sense of community which is so important. Unless we break it down into small communities, the future is bleak. But the really good news is that things like landshare, allotments and Transition Towns are changing and happening fast, and people are responding well to them.
Transition Towns are spreading like wildfire.
Moment of reckoning
“One of my jobs is to try and spread this message – that this is about us, not somebody else. Unfortunately, without being too paranoid, there are huge vested interests that want to destroy that message, and say this is just for a few snooty, middle class, rich people and that the masses, the real people, deserve cheap food. What we are going to find out, if we don’t know already, is that there is no such thing as cheap food. There is always a price to pay. It is just that we haven’t been picking up the tab.
“I think we have got to get real. There is an analogy here with what is happening in the economy – there is no such thing as cheap money.
“In the end everything has to be held to account, and I think the moment of reckoning has come. But that’s exciting and good, and I don’t feel gloomy about it. At the last Soil Association conference there was a real sense that we have to roll up our sleeves and do something about this. We cannot stand back. Unless we all pull together and sort this out, there is going to be a mess of a proportion that is impossible to contemplate.
“And we can sort it out. There is a lot of good going on. And funnily enough smallholders, from being perceived as peripheral figures, are right in the centre of this. Now is your time!”
Monty Don has been writing and broadcasting for many years.
He and his wife Sarah initially set up a business designing costume jewellery.
Monty has no formal training as a gardener. He describes himself as an “amateur gardener and professional writer”. He says his only authority comes from a lifetime of gardening – and a passion for it. He is a keen proponent of organic gardening and has written numerous books about gardening.
Monty has also written about his battle with depression and says working with the soil has helped to cure him.
He helps drug addicts turn their lives around by getting them gardening and caring for animals at a smallholding project near Worcester.
Last year he suffered a minor stroke, and gave up his job as presenter of the BBC’s longest-running show, Gardener’s World. He says he has now made a good recovery.
Monty and Sarah live on a small farm in Herefordshire. They have three grown-up children. They have recently bought a small farm in the Black Mountains, and plan to move there this year.
He is now working on various TV projects related to food and is writing a couple of books and newspaper columns, in addition to his voluntary work for the Soil Association.
What drives him? He says: "I am driven by the need to share with people the engagement with the land and what you can do for yourself."