Farm the city

Farm the city


says that urban agriculture is vital for food
security and sustainable development

couple in plotIt is Tuesday morning, and like every other morning of the week Señora Luna, a poor city dweller in Valparaiso, Chile, is feeding the leftovers from the previous day's meals to her chickens and guinea pigs. Before breakfast, she checks the fence around her tiny, one-twentieth of a hectare plot, repairing any damage done by the local free-ranging goats. And she is there again at the end of the day tending her crops: vegetables in raised beds, cucumbers and zucchini vines on her fences, and seedlings and herbs growing on her roof.

Every year she grows one-third of her family's food - including two-thirds of their requirements for protein and micronutrients. Her herbs are sold for cooking and medicine by a grocer near her husband's job. She produces her own fertilizer by composting organic waste from her family and her neighbours and uses old kitchen and bath water for irrigation. Her plot is green from boundary to boundary and her children are far healthier than average.

Señora Luna is just one of hundreds of millions of urban farmers around the world. Nine out of ten of those families in Nairobi who have access to land are food producers - as are two-thirds of the families in Maputo and Greater Moscow. Urban farmers in Calcutta produce over one-third of the fish and vegetables consumed in the city, largely using urban waste as fertilizer - and many other cities, from Shanghai to Bamako, are self-sufficient in vegetables. Forty per cent of the jobs in Chinese cities are agricultural. Fifty thousand Berliners rent land to produce crops - with 14,000 on the waiting list - while 16 million urban American families grow vegetables.

Urban needs set to increase

By the year 2020, Habitat projects, two-thirds of the world's people will live in towns and cities, and the number of urban dwellers will double in many developing countries. Land is being converted from rural to urban use at three to five times the rate of urban population growth, as city expansion is largely unplanned and widely dispersed. UNEP has found that three-fifths of the world's agricultural cropland is now degraded; as this proportion increases, worldwide crop yields could be cut by one-seventh by 2020, and by much more in some areas. Meanwhile, the World Bank warns of looming water shortages for agriculture. One-seventh of the world's population already does not get enough to eat and urban hunger seems likely to increase.

Yet towns and cities in many countries could produce half the food they need by the year 2020. In the past, it has appeared unalterable that food is produced in remote rural areas and that farming is inappropriate in towns and cities. For a century we have been separating where we produce our food from where we live. But since the 1970s, evidence has been accumulating - most notably through a landmark global study by the United Nations University in the mid 1980s - that agriculture in towns and cities has been increasing even faster than the phenomenal growth of urban populations.

Catering for local economies

Urban food security now increasingly depends on expanding supply lines operating on fossil fuels, feeding growing cities from shrinking land and water resources. Macroeconomists say it will work out if urban residents have enough money to pay for the food. But they do not. In African cities, and many others elsewhere, half of the total economy is informal, or non-money, and the proportion is growing. In Señora Luna's community - where three-quarters of the economy does not depend on money at all - people can 'buy' from her through barter; they cannot do so from global agribusiness.

In the next century, urban food security could partly depend on locally grown and raised food, with production based more on local resources than on fossil fuel. It is not, of course, the only solution. Reducing hunger and spreading economic development and environmental conservation may best be achieved by advancing technological research, rural development and urban agriculture evenhandedly. But it would be prudent for cities with low-income residents facing food insecurity to convert waste and idle land into food: the necessary technology is well known and tested. Indeed, it may not be possible for a city to be ecologically sustainable without urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture produces three to 15 times as much per hectare as common rural methods. It is more organic and sustainable because urban waste - which is 70 per cent organic - is more abundant than rural waste, while the urban farmer's labour-intensive methods use less land and water per unit of production than industrial agriculture. Using waste reduces pollution and enriches the soil while regenerating its biodiversity, while urban agriculture reduces the city's 'ecological footprint' and so conserves the rural environment. Its intensity and proximity to habitation, however, will require new methods of regulation and monitoring.

A city with agriculture is greener and cooler - and healthier and more prosperous. Food production in poor urban communities provides important food security: in parts of cities from Los Angeles to Nairobi, where families go hungry three to ten days a month, physical access to food from one's own or a friend's urban farm has been found to be an effective food security intervention. Farming broadens a city's economic base, and feeds the processing and marketing sectors while making minimal demands on transport and infrastructure. Urban farming provides jobs disproportionately for women, youth and the elderly. It requires cooperation and partnership and so creates communities - and reconnects urban people with nature. Producing food where the demand is, by returning agriculture to the city, is part of a reasonable shift in functions between the rural and urban spheres - just as the information age and computer-managed manufacture is moving some former urban functions to rural areas.

Governments are slowly beginning to support this new trend, even if agribusiness and agricultural research and education institutions - with but few exceptions - have yet to do so. Cuba - four-fifths of whose people live in towns and cities - reversed strong long-standing policies against urban food production in 1990. It now helps city farmers get access to public land, seeds and inputs, extension services and markets - and even broadcasts two television programmes a week for them. A programme in Argentina has grown from 50,000 to 550,000 participants in five years and now has 1,100 partner institutions. The city of Harare dropped an anti-urban agriculture policy, on an interim basis, in 1992: within two years the area in green cultivation doubled, with no reported negative impacts and many benefits.

The United States Congress passed the Community Food Security Act in 1996 which specifically encourages, and funds, nutritional self-reliance in urban communities. The Government of the Republic of South Africa is promoting urban agriculture in fulfilment of an election commitment: urban farmers are being supported there by hundreds of non-governmental organizations, dozens of towns and cities, several provinces and the national Ministry of Agriculture.

Señora Luna, and the hundreds of millions of other urban farmers, can greatly benefit from genetically improved crops designed for the city, improved access to land and markets, support in accessing and processing urban solid and liquid wastes and appropriate extension advice and credit.

In the past, our civilization accumulated hundreds of years of positive experience in urban agriculture. This has been carried forward in literature, particularly from China and Japan, and is now being rediscovered in Inca, Aztec and Mayan texts and sites. Combining these historical resources with today's leading-edge research augurs well for the development of green, healthy cities in balance with nature.

Jac Smit is President of the Urban Agriculture Network, and recently co-authored Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities (Smit, Nasr and Ratta, UNDP, 1996).

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