Museologia Social e urbanismo XXXIII

Urban agriculture for sustainable cities

Chapter theme: Urban agriculture for sustainable cities

Discussion prompts:

  1. What is the regional perspective on production and consumption of food for cities?
  2. Discuss case examples where local food production has been promoted in cities, and the challenges faced in the process

How does one end hunger, and feed all residents of an urban area sustainably? As we move forward towards an urban planet, this is a question critical for our survival. The relationship between food and cities is a long and complex one.

The earliest human settlements of the Fertile Crescent- Indus valley, China and Mesoamerica developed in or close to the first cultivated sites. The ability to cultivate and develop a reliable supply of food enabled early cultures to diversify and focus on non-agricultural activities leading to the development of towns and urban centres. The ability of hydraulic empires to increase food productivity and extract surplus, led to the creation of the first regional economies and a circuit of world cities linked through trade, conflict and culture. In this lecture we will explore the relationship between food and cities. How does cities produce and consume food?

What are the factors that constrain production and consumption of food in and around urban areas? How can food and nutrition security be enabled in cities? Can urban agriculture help a sustainable supply of food to our cities?

In the early 19th century roughly 3% of the global population lived in towns, in the 1950s a third, in 2006 more than a half and by the middle of the 21st century two-thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. Cities already and energy resources.

As the footprints of cities grow with increasing population and consumption this will only increase. Consumption changing with increased urbanisation and rising incomes. In much of Europe before the Second World War, meat was rarely consumed in ordinary urban households. This changed dramatically as incomes rose starting in the 1950s. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation the FAO – consumption of animal products like meat and milk is on the rise globally.

By 2030 about two-thirds of global meat and dairy supplies will be consumed by developing countries like India, where diets have historically been predominantly vegetarian. This will have a dramatic impact on the sustainability of agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions and of course, an impact on food security.

A sustainable future for our cities depends on us being able to address questions of food supply, distribution and nutrition security as outlined in SDG2 on Ending Hunger. We must start thinking of cities not just as drivers of economic growth, but also as spaces that are tied to and dependent on natural processes; as organic entities that are bound by their appetites to the natural world. Else, the expansion of the use of water and fertiliser-intensive food crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane rather than traditional crops like millets have not only caused an unprecedented agrarian and environmental crisis in many parts of the world but also an expanding ‘diabetes epidemic’.

Ending poverty and hunger in urban areas and making sure that no child or vulnerable resident is left behind is a significant challenge. The urban poor typically, produce limited food unlike their rural counterparts. Livelihood, insecurity and inflation, food scarcity and price fluctuation apart from poor regulation of food distribution means that the poor and vulnerable go hungry in cities across the world as food often makes up the bulk of their consumption basket.

According to data from UNICEF, the WHO and the World Bank, 1 million children under the age of 5 die of malnutrition related causes in India alone, 34% of children in Indian cities are underweight, in South Asia, over 63 million children experience stunting. Pre-industrial cities had close links to the rural hinterlands and the location, size and stability of the cities dependent on their access to food, farming in and around cities continued well into the 20th century. As our cities grow in size, complexity and with the use of advanced technology, the simple agrarian relationship between food producing areas and market-towns has changed.

Technological innovations like the railways, transcontinental shipping, refrigeration and food processing made it possible to store and transport food over long distances and long times without it perishing. As innovations from as far back as the 1930s like the Milk Train revolutionised London’s dairy supply, cities across the world appeared in the mid-twentieth century to be able to grow without any constraint of food supply, it appeared to be possible for us to build settlements in even apparently inhospitable places like the desert; in the case of Dubai or Antarctica.

By the mid 20th century, cities were focusing not on solving the problem of how to feed themselves but on how much it would cost to feed them. Farming had become about producing food as cheaply and reliably as possible. Food production had become increasingly industrialised in high-income countries with widespread mechanisation and the use of fossil fuels, fossil water, fertilisers and energy. But soon the growing urban demand for food caused unprecedented environmental destruction, almost  0.7 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest were lost to farmland annually and about 20 million hectares of arable year.

Although we are producing more food than ever before, as global food production increased by about a 140% in the second half of the 20th century, almost 850 million people go hungry every day and about a third of what we grow is wasted.

We forget, that we remain as dependent on nature and natural processes now as we were before, as our cities expand the pressure on natural resources especially land and water increases. According to the Ministry of Agriculture in India about 16,000 square kilometres of agricultural land has been lost Increasingly farming and agriculture is no longer the main activity on the peri-urban fringe as urban expansion pushes out – what is seen as less economically productive activity.

There also seems to be little coordination between government agencies that plan for urban development and those in charge of agriculture and food production. City masterplans rarely make room for agriculture. In India, one of the criteria that the census uses to notify a settlement is urban is that the majority of the labour force must be engaged in non-agricultural occupations.

How do we plan to sustain our cities and those that live in them?

Policymakers, planners and food activists across the world have begun to explore the possibility of urban and peri-urban agriculture as a potential solution to feeding the city. In most countries, urban agriculture is dominated by small producers who farm for a variety of reasons – to supplement a meagre food supply, as a source of income, for food security, to name a few.

However, several urban regions across the world have embraced urban agriculture and are beginning to make space for farming as part of their master plans, for example, the allotments in London and Berlin, the community gardens in New York City and Atlanta and the rooftop gardens of Chicago apart from traditional agriculture that is practiced around Bangalore and Shenzhen.

There are multiple explanations of what really counts as urban agriculture – the broad consensus is that it is a practice of producing food, i.e. animal and plant food in and around cities such that it is integrated into the urban ecosystem, uses urban residents as labour using organic urban wastes as compost, urban waste water for irrigation and competing with other urban land uses. It could also include a range of agro-based activities from the production of food to processing and packaging.

Urban agriculture is emerging as a solution not only to the challenge of feeding our cities, but also to revitalise the economies of urban regions, as in the case of Detroit or Cleveland in the United States. However, as with any sustainable development intervention, there are both benefits and challenges that come with urban agriculture. It has the potential to provide a solution not only to a growing food crisis, to increased food security and better nutrition, but also help address questions of employment, waste disposal and the greening of the city.

The biggest challenge in the case of urban agriculture is that of finance – a recent study conducted in 17 cities across the world found that while there’s increasing political support for urban agriculture, financial support remains limited. Access to credit, and subsidies for urban farmers is an issue as is the use of land as a productive resource competing with other urban land uses. International donors and financial institutions do rarely consider urban agriculture as a substantive issue and have few programs or schemes to directly address the sector. National and regional governments also rarely have policies that focus specifically on urban agriculture but subsume it within rural agricultural programs. The availability of land and water are also critical bottlenecks.

As cities expand and grow denser the amount of land available for farming is drastically reduced. As the cost of urban land rises, agriculture is unable to compete with other land uses that have greater financial returns.

Similarly, access to and availability of a regular supply of water is a critical urban challenge and urban agriculture competes with a range of other uses including water for industrial development. This can become worse, of course with Climate Change. That said, there have been instances of successful urban agricultural practices at scale, especially in Latin America. Cuba is one such case – with the collapse of the Soviet Union and US embargoes on trade, Cuban agriculture was severely impacted.

Cuba lost access not only to food imports but also to animal feed, fertilisers and fuel that were critical to its agricultural sector. The Cuban government undertook a complete overhaul of the country’s agricultural policy, prioritised organic agriculture and began to support urban gardening initiatives through state-sponsored urban farming programs. By the end of  2000, food availability in Cuba reached daily levels of 2600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein. By 2002, 35,000 hectares of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food a year. In Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens – all organic. In 2003, more than 200,000 Cubans worked in the expanding urban agricultural sector. Urban agriculture with and around Havana accounts for 60 to 90% of the produce consumed in the city. Urban agriculture has increased food production, employment, environmental recovery and protection and community-building. Perhaps the most impressive strides are in the area of food security. In the early 1990s Cubans calorific intake had fallen to approximately 1,800 calories a day. As a result of these efforts around urban agriculture, the calorific intake for the Cuban population averaged 3350 calories a day in 2005. Havana emerged as THE model of how to enable urban agriculture in a dense urban setting with a population of about 2 million.

It provides a systemic example of how to integrate farming practices into an urban landscape from backyard gardens to large urban green belts to produce food revitalising the country’s local and affordable woodshed. These urban growing efforts were supported by the Cuban government through a range of programs providing access to training and support, subsidised agricultural supply, compost production sites, artisanal pesticide labs and urban veterinary clinics.

According to 2014 estimates, over 35,000 hectares are being used for urban agriculture in Havana demonstrating that urban agriculture is not only viable, but can enable significant food and nutrition security outcomes in line with the SDGs.

What have we learned in this lecture? The contemporary form and rapid pace of urbanisation is dependent on a steady and reliable supply of food. Our cities were able to grow and diversify only after the problem of food supply was addressed.

Our current methods of producing food using largely industrial production methods is unsustainable; not only is it costing the planet untoned environmental damage through deforestation and an indiscriminate use of resources, it is also not addressing key issues of food supply, security and nutrition. Urban agriculture offers one possible solution to help address the question of food supply and nutrition security for our cities. However, as the case of Cuba shows, it needs commitment both from the state as well as urban residents to make it successful.