Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Ethics Of Urban Agriculture: Farming Within The Human Settlement

4701 Connecticut Av. NW
Suite 304
W-DC 20008-5617
Fx 202 537 9333
Ph 301 565 3131

Thomas Jefferson:
"While the farmer holds title to the land it actually belongs to all the people, as civilization itself rests upon the soil."



The moral and ethical standards concerning food production, processing, distribution and consumption have drifted in the past century towards food becoming a commodity and the problem of hunger and food insecurity being perceived and addressed as one of income. Several 'movements' are well established to address this problem reaching from faith-based soup kitchens, to organic production, community gardening, farmers markets and CSA distribution systems.

This paper asserts that the time has come to invent and adopt a new set of ethics regarding the relationship of food production and the human settlement [urbanization and farming]. The paper is organized as a checklist for a discussion. It reaches no conclusions. It is presented in draft form for critique by the conference attendees.

Included are a review of two millenniums of the evolution of ethics and an equal vision of success stories of agriculture within our settlements. Definitions are provided of ethics and urban agriculture. A vocabulary is included and a first shot is taken at identifying ethical stands from the 21st individual to family, community, city, state, nation and international organizations. A few of the current conversations on the topic are identified and a short list of relevant books is provided.


An underlying assumption to the understanding of the need for such a discussion is that what a society deems good or right reflects its historical experience. Some practices lose their contemporary functional efficacy and are erroneously judged as "good" based on historical precedent that has become and anachronism.

In 2002 the world population turned to be over 50 percent urban, varying from country to country from one quarter to 90 percent urban. What was urbanely 'good' in the time of my parents may not be 'right' in the time of my children.

As the post-industrial civilization entered the 21st century we have recognized that our exploitation of Gaia, the earth's natural system of land, water and air, is not sustainable and that global warming and Climate Change will have as distinctive impact on cities and urban climate zones. And the impact of urban region's contribution to global warming will affect rural space, mostly negatively.

Urban or metropolitan intensive agriculture has had resurgence in the past 20 to 30 years and is in diverse societies being considered either good or not good according to historical rural and urban practices, some of which are no longer pertinent.

The ethics of rural agriculture is not always appropriate to all aspects to urban agriculture. The ethics of today's urban management is often in conflict with the maximization of the benefits of urban agriculture.

The ethics of urban agriculture will surely be a unique mix of moral verities and operational principles. The coming together of the civilization-old morals of the human settlement and those of food production can and must be tailored so as to conflict with neither; to accommodate the requirements of sustainable development for all vegetable and animal species; all continents, nations and human settlements and for every person ever born for all time to come.

The usufruct principle is as old as civilization. It holds that anyone has the right to make use of any property [soil, vegetation, water, wind, +] as long as it does not diminish the value of that property to the owner. Thus Swedes forage the wild elderberry bushes, Nova Scotians harvest seaweed and grow crops for a season on idle soil-less vacant sites, and Jordanians herd their goats on the vacant land of their Capital Amman. The usufruct principle can be applied today to rooftops, vacant strip malls, idle military bases, security fences and roadside verges.

Let us say that the driving purpose herein is to start a two-year discussion about the ethics of agriculture within the human settlement.


Urban agriculture spreads from the rooftops of skyscrapers to urban fringe berry patches and includes: fish, quail, fruit, turf, vegetables, medicine, hogs, mushrooms, vineyards and much more.

Urban agriculture occurs on
a) private land and buildings,
b) institutional land, water and buildings and
c) public land, water and buildings.

Urban agriculture practitioners extend from Archer Daniels Midland [ADM] to community garden or allotment farmers. Typically their production is seven to 15 times as productive per acre as rural farming. Typically the relationship of producer to market is more direct in urban situations.

Because urban agricultural producers do so in closer proximity to intensive human activities [residence, school, recreation, shopping, etc.] ethical practice may need to be more precise and have a greater accountability to the environment for living.


Albert Lyngzeidetson, PhD., Bar Charts Inc.

A branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature, purposes, justifications and founding principles of moral rules and the systems they compromise

Ethical Utilitarianism:

Whether any person[s] has done what is morally right or wrong depends solely on how good or bad the consequences of S's action are for everyone affected. Everyone's self-interest is relevant (and to an equal degree).

Dewey's theory of valuation:

We prize things and activities. Thus they have de facto value simply because we want them. It is a further question to determine whether the things, which have de facto, ought to be so prized and wanted. If so, then they are said to de jure value.

The application of the scientific method to moral judgments engages testing the hypothesis of whether the de facto value is also worthy of de jure value.


Since the industrial revolution and the ensuing two centuries of rapid urbanization there have been many cases of geniuses grappling with the issue of agriculture within the human [urban] settlement: e. g. E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful; Ebenezer Howard, Garden City; Frank Lloyd Wright, Broad Acre City; P. & P. Goodman, Communitas: Ways of Livelihood and Means of Life; Buckminster Fuller, E. O Wilson, Benton MacKay, Louis Mumford and many more.

Consider that since WW II food has become a commodity and a federal government charity. The civil sector is left to cope with the problem of one in eight Americans [35,000,000] being food insecure. Food is considered by most American to be a sub-set of income like unto sneakers and cars. In other countries ....

HISTORIC CASES OF SUCCESS [symbiotic farming and city life]

The conflicts of agricultural activities and urban activities have often been resolved historically and we do not need to reinvent solutions to all apparent and emerging issues:

Not so inspirational, but a source of learning are historical Cities under siege that survived through the enhancement of their established urban agriculture applications: Leiden Holland, 12th century; Venice, 14th Century; Stalingrad, 1940s; London, 1940s; Sarajevo, 1990s;


I. Sacrosanct areas and
II. Free-for-all areas or zones.

Within every village, town, city or metropolis there quite certainly needs to be extensive areas in which Mother Nature is allowed to go on her natural way. As our civilization's survival requires maintenance of the rain forest and the mountain range, so too does it require within all settlements places that are supportive of all forms of life that are natural to the place in the soil, the water bodies, on the land and in the air.

This principle or moral has been found in many places and religions including Central Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Western Europe and North America. Sometimes they are referred to as 'holy places'. The basic rule or precept has been to leave nothing behind and take nothing away, not a worm, not a branch, not a taste, only views, smells and sounds. Today these places are sometimes referred to a 'community forests'. Several environmental conservation organizations can provide us with criteria and text in this aspect.

Ancient precept and law, continuing until today from place to place , directs us to consider that no place other than the 'holy places' is ipso facto not available to the public 'commonweal' for cultivation or grazing. Thus every individual or civil group has the inherent right to raise crops or animals in any natural or artificial body of water if appropriate conditions are met.

A classic case would be rearing fishing in a potable water reservoir [being done in Jakarta Indonesia]. Another case in point would be our right to raise crops on the roof of the library or bank. It is right for me to grow beans on my neighbor's fence for my community's 'soup kitchen', given that she has 'first dibs'. My memory rings with the memory of goats maintaining the greensward of Calcutta's Maidan [central park] and lawnmower sheep in the ancient Forum in the center of Rome. Right from Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire to Amsterdam, Holland, is farming railroad rights-of-way. In the USA goats are maintaining utility rights of way and county parkland.


Ethics is at the core of philosophy although only a few philosophers are labeled 'ethicists'. The point under consideration is whether we can turn to philosophy to define for us the ethics of food production or agriculture within the human settlement or whether we must invent it for the 21st century. I suggest that it will be necessary to persuade ourselves and others that we now undertake an analysis of history in the matter.

Thomas Khun, in the mid-20th century, asserted that paradigms shift in the course of history, consider Aristotle, to Newton, to Freud, and Einstein and therefore morality and ethics must needs shift in accord with the newly discovered and accepted reality. A laser speed review will discover statement such as:

- The Sophists [5th century BC] "Man is the measure of all things. There are no objective rights or wrongs."
- Plato [4th century BC] "Morality is a practical everyday sort of skill -" [the Republic]
- Kierkegaard [18th century existentialism] No morality can exist except there be a choice made. If one does not chooses to live a moral life his or her life can not be moral/ethical.
- Bentham [18th century Utilitarianism] "Happiness of all (everyone) is the true measure of morality."
- W. James [19th century Pragmatism] Ethical or moral is measurable in results not truth, not right but outcome.

Drafting the ethics of agriculture in the town, city and metropolis can reasonably follow well-established and accepted models for other fields as well as be the result of merging related fields. The ethics of doctors, lawyers, architects and educators are well known and recognized. This paper will not go into such comparisons or lessons learned.


Current thinking on the topic is quite possibly as rich as at any time in the past [consider Joseph in Egypt]. The following may well include our discussion leaders.


I. The Food Rights Triangle: [Wayne Roberts, Toronto food Policy Council]

A. Right to Food

B. Food Security C. Food Sovereignty

II. Rights to the Means of Production:
[Peter Mann, WHY]
A. Water [included in UN Charter bill of rights in 1947
B. Land
C. Seeds
D. Tools
E. Knowledge

III. The Professions:
[Several Universities and Journals]
City planners
Public health, medicine
Environmental engineers
Sanitary engineers
Botanic and animal scientists
Farmers, Chefs
Agricultural economists

IV Ecological Accountability:
[Several Environmental organizations and coalitions]
Right to water
Right to farm
Right to energy
Right to an environment that promotes a healthy life
Animal rights
Natural resources restoration


Individual: [adult and sound of body and mind]

1. Right to produce and process food & medicine within their community,
2. Right to ready access to natural resources within the community/metropolis
3. Right to a healthy, unpolluted community environment [land, water, air]
4. Right to an education that includes nutrition, processing and production of food and medicine,
5. Right to healthy food and medicine, within their culture, at affordable prices through barter, local currency
or the national currency,
6. Accountable not to interfere with any other person or group in these pursuits,
7. Accountable to cooperate with other members of the community in achieving these rights,


1. Right of access to land, water and the waste stream,
2. Right of access to markets,
3. Right of access to information concerning markets, climate, & technology,
4. Right of access to credit necessary to accomplish the Individual's 1st, 2nd, & 4th
5. Accountable to provide healthy food and medicine to children, disabled and the elderly family members,
6. Accountable to contribute to clean air, water and land in the community,


1. Accountable to support all the food and environmental rights of individuals and families living in the community,
2. Accountable to provide easily accessible, safe space for the production and processing of food and medicinal products,
3. Accountable to assure adequate nutrition, production and processing of food and environmental education to children and adults,
4. Accountable for easy access to credit for the community's families and single adults,
5. Accountable for the quality [safe food] of the products produced and processed,
6. Accountable for access to market, water and the city waste stream.

Town, City Municipality:

1. Definitive policy, legislation, ordinances, programs and projects to establish and maintain community-based agriculture and environmentally healthy communities that do not contribute negatively to Climate Change.
2. To establish and maintain a micro-credit system which is available to families and singles throughout the city
3. To provide security to the production and processing sites and facilities in cooperation with community security groups,
4. To provide affordable term specific access to public, institutional and private land, water and the waste stream for the above purposes,
5. To establish and staff school cirrocumulus and facilities [school gardens]
6. To provide and extension service to food producers [with county or district]
7. To provide and staff a web site and listserv with appropriate data
8. Carry out bi-annual surveys of all relevant indicators
9. To establish and support spring and fall festivals.

County, District or State,

1. Extension and information services
2. Veterinary Services
3. Safe food [public health]
4. Appropriate seeds, feed, tools etc.
5. Establish and maintain public markets
6. Policy, plan, regulation and oversight of access to land, water and waste stream.
7. Access to regional facilities, airports, parks, roadsides, universities
8. Support of research that puts food and health ahead of profit. 9. Establishing, maintaining and supervising processing. 10. Establishing and maintaining multi-variety and level green space which sequester carbon, fix nitrogen and reduce ozone levels.


1. Policy, legislation, programs
2. Education
3. Credit
4. Poverty alleviation
5. Food security
6. Ecological balance
7. Trade barriers [anti-food dumping]
8. Infrastructure [water, storage, +]
9. Access to land and water for all
10. Information
11. Ecological restoration credits

EU, NAFTA, WTO, United Nations,

1. Police member states [to protect them from each other foodwise]
2. Assure that research benefits all member states equally
3. Information [climate, food insecurity, nutrition, crises, +]
4. Police agriculture, fisheries, and forestry, to conserve the biosphere

Religions, Professions, Individuals in position of authority, ++

1. Leadership with knowledge and moral character
2. Education and publication
3. Monitoring and reporting


- 'Perke Aboth': Judaism's principles of ethics [6 chaps.]
- Buddhism, Right Livelihood
a. Use talents
b. Be one with community
c. Produce goods and/or services
- Christianity:
a. Ecclesiastes,
b. Beatitudes and
c. New Testament Parables
- 'The Republic' 400 BC, Plato
- 'Human Rights', 1947; U.N. Charter
- 'Toronto Food Policy Council Charter', 1996
- 'Experience of Place', 1990 Tony Hiss, [5 & 9]
- 'The New Exploration', 1922, Benton MacKay
- 'Operational Manual for Spaceship Earth', 1960; Buckminster Fuller
- 'The Allotment', 1988, D. Crouch & C. Ward,
- 'Street Food: Urban Food & Employment' 1997 Irene Tinker,
- 'Near a Thousand Tables', 2002; F. F-Armesto,
- 'Food First', 1980, F. M. Lappe & J. Collins,
- 'Urban Agriculture': F., J. & S.C. 1996; J. Smit, A Ratta & J. Nasr
'The Revenge of Gaia', J. Lovelock, 2006, Basic
'When City and Country Collide', T. Daniels, 1999, Island
'The Weather Makers', T. Flannery, 2005 Atlantic
'Amazon: Forest to Farms', S. Wallace, 2007 National Geographic,
- 'Growing Better Cities' L. J. A Mougeot, 2006 IDRC
- 'State of The World', 2007 WorldWatch Institute, Norton
- 'The Phenomenon of Man', 1955 T. Chardin ??
- Goodman, Howard, Mumford, Schumacher, Wright, [see text]


Current thinking on the topic is quite possibly as rich as at any time in the past [consider Joseph in Egypt]. The following may well include our discussion leaders.
The Commons
Food Sovereignty
Right to Food
Right to Farm
Edible Landscape
Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, CPULs
Evolution of Man and Food [did plants and animals shape us?]
Ecologically Sustainable Community/Urbanization

I. The Food Rights Triangle: [Wayne Roberts, Toronto food Policy Council]

A. Right to Food

B. Food Security C. Food Sovereignty

II Rights to the Means of Production:
[Peter Mann, WHY] Water UN Charter bill of rights in 1947

A. Water
B. Land
C. Seeds
D. Tools
E. Knowledge

III The Moral Urban Agriculture Triangle; Jac Smit, TUAN

Urban Agriculture historically as an element of the human settlement
The possibility of urban agriculture as an element of the Network City .

Sustainable Environment for Living

The Commons Right to Food [Usufruct Principle] [In surplus & deficit]

Thomas Jefferson:
"While the farmer holds title to the land, it actually belongs to all the people, as civilization itself rests upon the soil."

Thomas Bentham, 18th Century Utilitarianism
"Happiness of all (everyone) is the true measure of morality."

William James [19th century Pragmatism]
"Ethical or moral is measurable in results
not truth, not right but outcome."

[Symbiotic farming and city life]

Iranian oasis towns of from the 2nd to the 20th century
Mayan forest towns from the 2nd to 7th century
Sana'a Yemen for 500 years until WW II
Machu Pichu, Peru from the 12 to the 15th century
New Amsterdam, America in the 17th century
Harmony, PA and Salem, NC in the 18th century
Dodoma, Tanzania since 1970
Belo Horizonte BR and Havana CB since 1990

Historic Cities under siege that survived through the enhancement of their established urban agriculture practices.

Leiden, Holland, 12th century;
Venice, 14th century;
Leningrad, 1940s;
London, 1940s; and
Sarajevo, 1990s.

Search Our Site[new]

pointer Return to Contents' Page pointer

January 17, 2007

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture