The Glebelands - Unicorn Model
A Cooperative approach to sustainable urban food supply.
by Lesley Bryson, Andy Jones, Lawrence Beedle and Adam York
Despite the recent interest in food miles and local food, only
a very small fraction of the food consumed in Britain travels
less than 30 miles. Glebelands is a pioneering urban market garden
project in Sale that supplies Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, reducing
this distance to less than 5 miles.
The 3 Acre site includes a polytunnel and glasshouse. The organic crops
produced include 15 types of salad leaf; Kale; Purple Sprouting Broccoli;
Coriander; Spring Onion; Parsley; Rhubarb; Rocket; Basil; Cavalo Nero;
French, Runner and Broad Beans; and several varieties of: Chili,
Courgette, Squash, Spinach; Leaf Beet, Apple, and Cucumber. In March 2009,
Glebelands' founders Lesley Bryson and Adam York (who took over the site
in 2001) moved on towards pastures new, handing over to a new four-strong
growing team - Charlotte, Adam, Ed and Sally. With bags of enthusiasm and
a willingness for hard graft, the new team planto continue in much the
same vein, with longer term plans including expanding the business with
The main focus is producing leafy and salad crops where freshness
is a key issue: being able to harvest for sale on the same day
is therefore a major advantage. The main outlet is Unicorn Grocery,
a worker cooperative which opened a store in Chorlton in 1996.
The shop specialises in the provision of food with high nutritional
standards, including plenty of fresh and wholegrain produce, organics,
and foodstuffs that have low or no sugar, gluten and dairy content.
At Unicorn, Glebelands produce is clearly labelled, with additional
information on food miles, organic production and fair trade made
available to customers.
The relationship between Unicorn and Glebelands is mutually beneficial.
The shop receives high quality produce that is picked for sale
on the same day, orders can be altered at short notice and delivered
within a few hours. The benefit to Glebelands is that the cost
and time associated with admin, distribution and marketing are
minimised compared to the farmers' market and box scheme approach.
The Glebelands/Unicorn model could be described as an experiment
to discover how urban food production, distribution and retailing
systems can be structured and operate in order to minimise environmental
impact and ensure food security. The application of organic methods,
a co-operative structure and minimising the distance between producer
and consumer are key aspects of sustainable food supply.
However, the structure of food chains needs to be further transformed
to adopt a circular or closed loop metabolism - where external
inputs as well as outputs in the form of solid and liquid waste
and air pollution are minimised.
At Glebelands: food waste from Unicorn is collected to be composted
on site; crates used to transport the produce are reused; and
some of the products are sold in biodegradable bags, salads are
If Unicorn imported salads from southern Spain by truck this
would require 26 times more, or airfreighted produce from California
1300 times more transport fuel than sourcing from Glebelands.
The ratios for transport related carbon emissions are similar.
Lesley and Adam worked extremely hard to achieve what they have, with
virtually no support from local and central government, while competing
with cheap food sold at an increasing multiple retailer presence in the
city. The new team will face the same challenges, whilst realising only
too well that the large supermarkets are cheaper for one reason: they
don't pay for the external social, environmental and economic costs they
impose on society.
A decade ago, climate change was described by the media as being
something that some scientists predict could happen.
We are now being told, on an almost daily basis, that we need
to tackle climate change without delay. The same thing will happen
in terms of how we perceive and respond to peak oil and
natural gas. The price of a barrel of oil has trebled over
the last few years, the cost of nitrogen fertiliser rose by 30%
last year and the vulnerability of gas imports has been shown
recently in the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine
If we are to ensure food supplies, local sourcing of organic
produce will have to become more widespread as sooner or later
there will be a 'tipping point'.
This will be when increases in oil price or disruptions in supply
will render the alternatives inoperable.
The Mersey Valley, where Glebelands is situated, was once awash
with market gardens which supplied local wholesale markets and
schools. This ended due to compulsory competitive tendering, the
shift to prepared and processed food and the emergence of the
multiple retailers. The consequence has been numerous environmental,
economic and social problems. The relocalisation of food supply
in Manchester is now being advocated again in a city-wide Food
However, the trends are worrying and in some cases alarming.
If we consider lettuce, for example, only 1% of lettuce consumed
in the UK is produced organically. Since 1990 lettuce imports
have increased by 120% and UK production fallen by 45% with UK
self sufficiency falling from 75% to 44% over the same period.
In effect what we're doing is moving towards most unsustainable
Glebeland has potential to inspire others - by demonstrating
that local organic food supply in cities is not only a desirable
but a feasible option. If Glebelands receives the support it deserves
- to develop as a training and educational facility, generate
renewable energy and improve rainwater storage and irrigation
on site - all the hard work will have paid off.
In terms of the future, quite simply, if there aren't many
more Glebelands very soon, people in towns and cities
could have very empty stomachs.