Urban farming can help feed city millions

Posted: 5 February 2007

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

Despite its rapid growth and modernization the income from farmers living in and around Beijing has doubled in recent years, according to the 2007 State of the World report, and it is not alone, as urban argiculture shows its potential to help feed city citizens around the world.

Experts on the subject point out that urban agriculture comes in many forms. "It refers not merely to the growing of food crops and fruit trees but also encompasses the raising of animals, poultry, fish, bees, rabbits, guinea pigs, or other livestock considered edible locally," explains Dr. Irene Tinker, an American professor in the department of city and regional planning at the University of California.

In the 1990s, the Beijing government decided that urban agriculture was an important way to meet the city's food needs. Today, farming in, around, and near Beijing not only provides residents with safer, healthier food, it also keeps farmers in business.

"Between 1995 and 2003, the income for farmers living just outside of Beijing doubled," wrote Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg in their collaborative report published in the 'State of the World 2007 by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

In Vancouver, Canada, 44 per cent of the people grow vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, or herbs in their 'yards', on their balconies, or in one of the 17 community gardens located on city property. "There, farming the city is part of a much larger movement that includes restaurants buying from local farms, and buying clubs in which neighbors subscribe to weeklydeliveries of produce," noted Halweil and Nierenberg.

Bangkok's markets

In Thailand, 60 per cent of the land is under cultivation in greater Bangkok. In Russia, 72 per cent of all urban families are engaged in raising food, mostly part-time. In the United States, the number of farmers' markets selling locally-grown produce increased by 40 per cent from 1994 to 1996.

In Guangzhou, China, up to nine crops are grown yearly on any single field. In Hong Kong, six crops of cabbage a year are not uncommon. Urban farming supplies Israel with 95 per cent of its food needs. The city of Cairo is host to some 80,000 livestock.

In the Philippines, a presidential decree obliged owners, or entitled others with owners' permission, to cultivate unused private lands and some public lands adjoining streets or highways in Metro Manila. In Davao City, the agriculturist's office is promoting the 'Gulayan sa Barangay' that pushes for the growth and propagation of organically-grown vegetables.

The UN Development Programme estimates that 800 million people are involved in urban farming around the world, with the majority in Asian cities. Of these, 200 million produce food primarily for the market, but the great majority raise food for their own families.

Nothing new

In a survey conducted for the United Nations, cities worldwide already produce about one-third of the food consumed by their residents on average. This percentage is "likely to grow in coming decades, given that the need for urban agriculture could be greater now than ever before," Halweil and Nierenberg wrote.

Urban agriculture is nothing new. The hanging gardens in Babylon, for instance, were an example of urban agriculture, while residents of the first cities of ancient Iran, Syria, and Iraq produced vegetables in home gardens.

Four thousand years ago in the pre-Olmec Valley of Mexico, small towns on stone-faced terraces, farmed vegetables and raised dogs and turkeys. The Aztec state was partly dependent on food production within and fringing the metropolis of Teotihuacán and the capital city of Tenochtitlan.

"In ancient times, the cost of transport was much greater," explains Jac Smit, head of the New York-based Urban Agriculture Network, "so the impetus for growing food in cities was greater."

The dearth of available food products during orld War II in Europe saw a resurgence of small-scale food production in European cities which had given themselves over to industrialization. And the recent worldwide swell in urban agriculture may reflect the increase in the urban poor population which is predicted to grow along with the general growth in urban density.

Hungry people

"Over 60 million people - roughly the population of France - are now added to the planet's burgeoning cities and suburbs each year, mostly in low-income urban settlements in developing countries," noted the State of the World 2007.

The number of hungry people living in cities is growing at alarming rate, according to a recent report released by the UN Food and Agriculture. While malnutrition in rural areas is still a bigger problem in terms of actual numbers of people - of the 852 million people worldwide who are undernourished, FAO says some 75 per cent live in rural areas - urban residents, particularly children, also suffer from food shortages as well as micronutrient deficiencies.

"Urban agriculture can be one of the most important factors in improving childhood nutrition, by increasing both access to food and nutrition," Halweil and Nierenberg say.

Another advantage: farms in the city can often supply markets on a more regular basis than distant rural farms can, particularly when refrigeration is scarce or during a rainy season when roads are bad.

Beyond providing jobs and good nutrition, urban farming can have a whole range of other health benefits. Research has connected gardening to reducing risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and occupational injuries. For urban folks especially, working with plants and being in the outdoors can both prevent illness and help with healing.

Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council sees urban agriculture as the "new frontier in public health," benefiting health twice: first, by supplying urbanites with more foods and, second, by affording them the exercise involved in raising food.

Another benefit of urban agriculture: erosion and landslide prevention. Take the case of San Salvador, El Salvador. One of the few remaining forested areas around the rapidly growing city is a 120-hectare parcel called 'El Espino.' Known as the "lungs" of the city, it provides fresh air and groundwater replenishment for the city's water supply.

'El Espino' is managed by a co-operative of coffee growers who tend their bushes in the forest's understory. 'El Espino' has more than 50 species of trees and shrubs, which shelter 70 species of birds, including some not found elsewhere.

Farmers outlawed

For cities confronted with growing waste disposal, the strongest environmental argument for local farming is the opportunity to reuse urban organic waste that would otherwise end up in distant, swollen landfills.

Despite all that farming can do for the city landscape and the urban soul, politicians, businesses, and planners continue to regard food as a "rural issue" that does not demand the same attention as housing, crime, or transport.

In many cities around the world, farming is even outlawed. "Policymakers would be wise to realise the nutritional, social, ecological, and economic benefits of reversing this stubborn mindset and putting programmes in place to encourage cities to feed themselves," Halweil and Nierenberg suggest.

"Farming in the city is not a straightforward business," admits Luc J.A. Mougeot, senior programme specialist of the International Development Research Center in Ottawa, Canada. "Urban agriculture requires much finer technological and organizational precision than rural agriculture because it must be more intensive, more tolerant of environmental stress, more responsive to market behaviour, and more carefully monitored to protect public health."

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