Today… what we can see is segregation. While organic and fair follows comparably high ecological and social standards, the way of the agricultural mainstream leads far away from widely accepted social values, with factory farming, food waste and degrading working conditions – the latter predominantly but not exclusively in the global south. By shifting these production sites to the fringes of a wider attention, an efficient repression of inconvenient consumer requests is possible. Unethical practices, which are not obvious to a city dweller’s eye are apparently not important and allow a cheap price.
On the producers᾿ side, the centralization and industrialization of the world agricultural market and an ever growing expectation of rising profits and yield returns by big agricultural corporations leads to improvements in efficiency which are following industrial production logics. By following this logic without regard to social values a cow or a hen is then treated like any other input needed for industrial production.
As consumers shouldn’t we ask ourselves at last why we tolerate all this? A considerable part of the power of the agribusiness is based on the lack of awareness of the consumer. If we do not know, we cannot act and even if we knew, sometimes there are social and physical barriers that hinder us: maybe the place of necessary action is far away or we do not feel responsible for the destiny of the people there. But meanwhile we have established a lifestyle, which relies almost 100 per cent on the limitless availability of food buying everything at any time, independent of season or region. For the sake of unlimited food supply we lost the direct connection to the producers of our food and also gave away the responsibility to care about the conditions of production. Globalized markets offer the necessary degree of opacity. Urban agriculture helps to reestablish direct producer-consumer relations and to reconnect with the place and the people to regain the capacity to act.
Can we learn from small scale mechanisms how to create socially and ecologically viable agricultural systems on a larger scale?
In the past decades there was a migration out of the western cities into the would-be rural idyll to realize the own utopia. Together with new, more sustainable lifestyles, new ways of living in community were tested. Now that migration has stopped and people are starting to develop new ways of living together inside their cities. New, urban movements arise. They are being established inside the corridors of political and economic power and the centres of media coverage as part of mainstream society. One component of this development is the urban agriculture and urban gardening movement.
(Peri-)urban agriculture – the production of foodstuffs inside or close to urban centres –is not new at all: the cultivation of food in highly complex agroforestry systems as part of a settlement structure was already known to the ancient Mayan culture which covered huge areas of present-day Mexico and Central America during their heyday (250–900 A.D.). Their ceremonial centres were surrounded by home gardens which can be imagined as a combination of housing structures, all sorts of forest trees for food and other purposes and smaller fields for growing staple foods. These systems were probably able to provide more than 10.000 people each with all they needed in their daily life.
The city of Tenochtitlan, one of the capitals of the Aztec empire was even populated by100–300,000 people in the 16th century (Chapin 1988). This ancient city, which is nowadays submerged by the modern constructions of the capital of Mexico, was provided with food by a system of floating islands, the so-called chinampas. By using the surrounding swamp ecosystem they were able to produce flowers, vegetables, fish and molluscs to cover all food demands of the entire city.
The ancient Americans were not the only ones to use urban agriculture as a strategy to achieve food security. Urban agriculture was particularly popular in times of crisis, the most recent example being the .victory gardens. of the Second World War. And especially where social security systems do not exist and subsistence has to reduce the risk of hunger, alternative farming concepts flourish in urban centres (Altieri et al. 1998; Baipheti and Jacobs 2009; Moustier 2007).
Conclusive statements regarding the yield potentials of urban agriculture are difficult to make. Studies frequently pick out only some aspects of urban farming systems in certain regions. A comparison of the data is therefore complicated, but suggests a pertinent potential within the range of perishable and high value products like vegetables and herbs. To date, however, it may be doubted that urban agriculture is able to significantly close the supply gap for the urban population. Under current conditions, such doubts are fully justified.
However, this is due less to flaws in the concept and more to the circumstances of today᾿ s cities. The question is not whether urban agriculture can make a city more self-sufficient. The only credible answer would be: certainly not! Rather, the question should be: In what circumstances and by what means and changes, would the future citizens of a city be able to become independent of food deliveries?. This point provides a challenge especially for local authorities and urban planners. A fundamental problem is the speculation-driven rise in the price of land in urban areas…
Undoubtedly it is time to rethink the relationship between rural and urban areas and the potential of cities to free themselves from the self-imposed and in future, disastrous dependence on huge amounts of important food supplies.
From Zoe Heuschkel’s essay ‘Urban agriculture – breaking the chains ‘ in Future of Food: State of the Art, Challenges and Options for Action
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