Making a Case for Urban Agriculture

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"Only recently, with the spread of factory farms and the global food system, have we turned away from real food, local farm sources and meals as shared events."
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"Urban Agriculture" takes a detailed look at how food is taking root in our cities. It offers inspirational advice and working examples to help you dig in and become more self-sufficient with your own food choices. "Urban Agriculture" offers guides to windowsill and balcony gardening; edible landscaping; farming the commons; community gardening; and more.

The following is an excerpt from Urban Agricultureby David Tracey (New Society, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 1: Home Sweet Farm: Kitchen Gardens in the Kitchen.

The new food revolution will be fought at home, meaning your home, in the kitchen. All the more reason to begin with the simple act of starting a few windowsill plants in pots, the nearest farm you’ll ever know, which we’ll discuss later in this chapter. But before we go there, let’s agree on why this all matters and why the kitchen is the perfect place to start.

Big Food doesn’t just want you off the family farm. It wants you out of the kitchen too, except for the minute or so it takes to zap some factory “fuud” product in the microwave — the polar opposite of a home-cooked meal using real food. Why? Because factory farming and factory fuud go together like high-fructose corn syrup and type 2 diabetes.

Let’s forget for a moment the central role a traditional kitchen plays in the alchemy of spreading love through sharing food. Preparing a real meal takes time, which many of us now find in short supply. So is it really that wrong to pop a sixty-second solution into the microwave? If we’re tired or busy and it’s on sale and even says something like “healthy” or “lean” right on the package?

I won’t judge, lest I be judged for the dubious food choices I make all the time, but I will point out that food is culture. When we eat, we ingest the physical world, accepting into our bodies the customs and values and politics of the system that got that food into our mouths.

For most of our history we have done this not as solitary beings but as members of a community. Only recently, with the spread of factory farms and the global food system, have we turned away from real food, local farm sources and meals as shared events. Nowadays we don’t even think it strange to gulp down our calories standing over a kitchen sink or sitting behind the wheel of a car. And each time we do this, we lose a little of the culture that got us this far.

The French understand this point better than most, or are at least better able to articulate it. It was the French author and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who famously wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” But before we get too gaga over the French philosophy of food, you should know he also less famously wrote, “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

Every culture treats eating as a unifying social ingredient, something important for more than calorie intake. The standard greeting in China is, “Have you eaten yet?” Just try to get out of a visit to an Iranian home without eating at least a few roasted seeds or baked sweets with your tea. You would struggle to name any popular festival or holiday anywhere in the world without its particular edible treats. Food is how we connect with our community, our planet and the best part of ourselves, the sharing bit.

At the same time, food has always been political. In the West we’re just beginning to understand this, and connect the dots, recognizing existing links and creating others, using food policy to improve the rest of urban life. What excites activists these days is seeing how rapidly the idea spreads once people get it. We’re at the stage now where the bandwagon is accepting passengers, andnew entrants are climbing aboard in droves. Food policy as a concept contains multitudes, but it begins with where and how food is grown, which for city folks leads us back to urban agriculture.

Vancouver food systems educator Spring Gillard calls urban agriculture the “gateway” to understanding how food works (or doesn’t) for a particular society. She leads workshops and lectures and writes on the topic for clients who include a growing number of urban planners and policymakers eager to understand how a society is defined by its food choices.

“It’s the aspect of being more food self-reliant that people know the most,” Gillard says. “And lately it’s an absolute craze. I know several groups here running food gardening workshops that sell out constantly. The community gardens have two-year waiting lists. I think there’s a lot of awareness around growing your own food, and a lot of people are going in that direction. If you can talk to people about growing your own food, talk about growing local, then you can start to expand to talk about local food and the other issues in the spectrum of food security.”

Why you should be worried

That bandwagon metaphor was meant to be encouraging. Problem is, to stretch the metaphor even further, our bandwagon is stuck in a long traffic jam of SUVs. Urban agriculture crops represents a small portion of the global food market — 15 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Although we may take some comfort in learning that there are 800 million urban farmers, and that the numbers are growing, it’s still a daunting task to integrate city food into a global network that can serve for all.

If asked to name the biggest problem the world faces today, what would you say?

The energy crisis, perhaps. Our cities are built on a framework that may be about to collapse. The beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era is looming, or has already started, depending on which Peak Oil graph you believe. Quibble over the years left if you like, but you can’t avoid the fact that in about a century we’ve burned up half the world’s fossil fuels, which took billions of years to develop. And that was the easy half. The rest — costlier, dirtier and more dangerous to secure — could disappear much faster. Because the fundamental systems on which civilization has come to rely — manufacturing, transportation, agriculture — depend on a steady supply of affordable fossil fuels, you can see the potential for chaos.

Or you might say climate change. We’re pumping enough pollutants into the atmosphere to alter global weather patterns. In other words, we’re fouling our own nest. Droughts, melting ice caps and bigger weather disasters are all predicted and appearing in the daily news. Yet still we have no coherent global strategy to reverse the trend.

Both problems are ample cause for concern, but the more immediate response for at least one billion of your fellow passengers on the Earth would have been “hunger.” In 2008 when prices of staple foods rose beyond the ability of the poorest to pay, riots broke out in more than twenty countries. Soldiers in the Philippines were called out to guard rice paddies and in Egypt the army was put to work baking bread.

Curiously, this happened during a time of record grain harvests and massive stockpiles. Later the role of Wall Street speculators was revealed in driving up the price of staples for profit. Certainly Big Food corporations reaped. Even as the United Nations declared “The Year of the Global Food Crisis,” the Wall Street Journal reported food giant Cargill’s profits rising 86 percent while pesticide and seed seller Monsanto doubled its earnings. If this all reads like a vague memory at best, it could be because 2008 later became better known as the year of the financial crisis. Huge banks and corporations seemed about to collapse under the weight of their own greed. You know already which crisis the world “leaders” swiftly agreed to solve.

What’s food got to do with it? Agriculture is playing a huge role in using up what’s left of our fossil fuels, and in trashing the planet. Carnivores, chew on this: according to the FAO, meat is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than for all transportation combined, including cars and planes. So your choice of meal on the flight may be more significant than the fact of flying. Chemical fertilizers? Made from ammonia derived from natural gas. Chemical pesticides? Petroleum-based.

You might think the environmental warning bells are ringing loudly enough to merit action, but the history of agriculture is not encouraging on this count. Famine, forced migration, wars, diseases and the collapse of civilizations can all be traced back to poor farming practices. Whenever a society loses its topsoil, its end is not far behind. But if you’re wondering why those dunderheads in animal skins or togas weren’t smart enough to take care of their own source of sustenance, don’t be too quick to point historical fingers. As humans, it seems, we have yet to evolve to see the big picture. Maybe it’s because we’re hardwired to be tribal,good at protecting our own, for now, but not equipped to think collectively about how the wider society or our grandchildren are going to fare.

How bad is it? Already 90 percent of US cropland is losing its topsoil, and the worst of the losses are being reported in some of the richest farming areas. Iowa is losing topsoil 30 times faster than it is forming new soil. We may have already reached “peak soil.”

An intergalactic observer evaluating the Earth would see at a glance that the industrial farm system is not working. It may successfully enrich the shareholders of a few transnational corporations, but its legacy is a billion hungry people and another billion confronting disease and early death from bad diets. And even if the factory farm system did work, and fed everybody with healthy food, it would still be a cause for concern given its dependence on a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. So although Big Food has given some of us the wonders of melons in January and the cheapest food in history, it is also killing us, slowly or quickly, and killing the only planet we have. Future generations might even view its reckless spending spree through our shared environmental resources as criminal.

If this all sounds bad, hang on; it gets worse. The solution from Big Food is to get bigger. Large corporations are gobbling up smaller corporations in a rush to control global market share, while still remaining curiously unknown. The New York Times editorialized on January 24, 2010, about “another behemoth lumbering towards consumers” in describing Big Food, but didn’t mention four of the biggest by name. Cargill has been called “one of the world’s most important companies,” because it’s all over your dinner table, but how many consumers have even heard of it? Or of its three competitors who make up the ABCD of Big Food: Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus?

In the 1960s the so-called “Green Revolution” described a plan to grow more food, particularly in poor countries, by planting new varieties of commodity crops on bigger farms with machines and chemicals. Like steroids in an Austrian weightlifter, the chemical strategy can work, for a while, if you measure success in limited terms such as muscle size. The long-term picture, however, may not be so pretty, either for the health of our ‘roid-raging hunk or for agriculture.

The Green Revolution did indeed grow more food, while driving millions of small farmers off their farms. Many people who had been providing for their families using renewable practices that had succeeded for generations were turned into consumers unable to afford imported food.

As bad as the overall effects of this strategy were, they’re trying it again, even borrowing from the tainted name. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) may be counting on genetic engineering to create superplants to solve our food problems. You can imagine how giddy Big Food shareholders must be at the prospect of owning their own life-forms (which the US Supreme Court declared legal in 1980) and turning the world’s farmers — who had saved their own seeds for millennia — into customers who have to buy new seeds from the company store every spring.

Why you shouldn’t be worried

Whichever crisis you decided was the most critical — energy, climate chaos, hunger — urban agriculture offers a way to work toward the solution, starting now. Food is everything; our lives depend on it; it touches every aspect of the way we live. If we can solve the food issue, we can get to energy and health and the environment and poverty and more.

And that’s where we come in. We know how to grow food. We’ve known it for thousands of years. It’s within us. We may have gotten off track in the last century when we unwisely let industrial corporations take on the job, but now we’re taking it back.

The good news is cities can save agriculture.

Yes, I know, this is usually put the other way around. Rural farms have fed urban areas for ten thousand years. But now it’s time to repay the favor. And cities are capable of doing it. The power of the urban consumer is multiplied by millions. A single good idea can sweep the country, and beyond.

If we manage to do this right by creating a fair and healthy food system that puts food choices back into local communities, regaining control over our bodies and the environment through “food democracy,” it will begin with a new approach that includes urban agriculture. The way we shop and eat — and, of course, grow — has a powerful effect all the way down the food chain. Producers and consumers are already getting together on this through self- generated strategies such as farmers’ markets that bypass the corporate system. If city folks can understand and embrace a network of farmers growing food that’s good for people and for the planet, the tide will turn.

And when it does, city dwellers will start paying back a legacy of support to surrounding rural farms which will, after all, still be needed. Cities can grow a lot more food but not all of it. Nor will they need to if they’re in a mutually supportive relationship with their adjacent countryside.

Rural communities in many parts of the world today are in dire circumstances, abandoned by young people as the corporate model sucks the life out of the family farm. Urban agriculture may help by inspiring innovations in rural farming, including environmentally friendly organic growing techniques. Cities might even supply the workers: traditional farmers are an aging group, so it’s encouraging to see urban nonprofits, academic institutions and individuals training a new wave of young growers, some of whom will be happy to flee the concrete jungle to spread their wings.

Bean there, grown that

If it seems unlikely for urban areas to go from being gluttons to major providers of their own needs, consider that it has happened before. Farming was practised in some of the first known cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers four thousand years ago, and has been ever since, in varying degrees that sometimes reach impressive proportions. During World War II, city dwellers throughout North America dug up their lawns to plant victory gardens that supplied half or more of the vegetables eaten. “Our food is fighting!” read the poster for one American propaganda attempt to get more citizen-farmers behind the effort, and it worked: in 1943, twenty million food gardens were planted in the United States.

Urban agriculture is a part of our development as a species. It has always been and always will be with us. It’s just that in times of crisis — like now, for instance — it ends up being even more with us.

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