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


Harvest in the City

Beans growing on a roundabout, mushrooms under a flyover, tomatoes on the roof . . .

John Reader and Sheila Dillon report on the rise of urban farming
The London Times, August 28, 2004

Farming in cities - urban agriculture - sounds like a contradiction in terms but growing food has become a lifeline many millions of people, bringing a measure of self-sufficiency to even the poorest of families. No visitor to, say, Nairobi can fail to notice the plots of carefully tended maize, cassava, beans, cabbages, tomatoes, spinach and other food crops that flourish on roadside verges, roundabouts and sundry patches of open ground.

A survey of 100 cities in 30 countries conducted during the l990s concluded that one in three of the world's urban households grows food, either for the table, to sell, or both, and the figures are rising. In Kenya and Tanzania three in every five families are engaged in urban agriculture; in Taiwan the figure is more than half. In Kathmandu, urban agriculture supplies all vegetable needs for a third of households surveyed. ln Lusaka, illegal squatters derive a third of their food needs from agricultural plots in the city. Crops are grown on 60 percent of Bangkok's land area.

And such productive urban agriculture is not limited to the developing world: in Moscow, two-thirds of families grow significant amounts of their own food; London produces roughly 16,000 tonnes of vegetables annually (and 10 per cent of its honey consumption - a bonus derived from the huge number of flowering plants in the city - urban hives generally are more productive than their rural counterparts).

Of course urban agriculture is not new. The world's most ancient written records from Sumer, mention the presence of gardens within the city walls of Ur, Uruk and Eridu nearly 5,000 years ago. China too has a long history of urban agriculture, and today virtually all the vegetable needs of China's 18 largest cities and half their meat and poultry is produced in urban areas.

In Shanghai only 20 percent of the land: under city administration is actually built on; the remainder is farmed, making a city of 14.2 million self-sufficient in vegetables and producing much of its rice, pork, poultry and pond fish.

In effect, China has tackled the problem of provisioning cities by integrating rural and urban activities under a single administration. In the West, the growth of capitalisrn that accompanied the Industrial Revolution drove them apart, leaving city food supplies dependent solely upon market forces and profit - to the point at which city-dwellers were encouraged to believe that growing food was none their business and should be left to the farmers.

Nevertheless, the provision of allotments, as they became known, was made mandatory in Britain in 1908 under the Small HoIdings and Allotments Act. Many city-dwellers took on allotments during the First World War and by I918 there were over 1.3 million allotments producing vegetables at the impressive rate of two million tonnes annually. Allotments have an even longer history in Germany, the earliest being established in the l9th century. BerIin alone had 40,000 allotment holders at the outbreak of the First World War.

When the Second World War broke out a campaign was launched in Britain under the slogan "Dig for Victory". The Minister of Agriculture, Robert Hudson, spoke to the nation via the radio: "Half a million more allotments properly worked will provide potatoes and vegetables that will feed another million adults and one and a half million children for eight months of the year, so let's get going and let 'Dig for Victory' be the matter for every ... man and woman capable of digging an allotment in their spare time."

Local authorities turned public parks and wasteland into allotments - and even comrnandeered private garden lawns. Dig for Victory exhibitions were organised, demonstration pIots were established and millions of information leaflets were distributed. The pros and cons of the allotment were discussed in talks on the radio, vicars were encouraged to stress the virtues of growing food in their sermons; and some authorities appealed to the competitive spirit of their communities with prizes for the best vegetables - and even for the best compost heap.

Unlike Britain in 1939, Cuba was not at war in December 1989, but 30 years of US trade embargoes nonetheless meant that when Presidents Bush Sr and Gorbachev announced the end of the Cold War, Cuba and especially Havana, the capital city, faced massive food provisioning problems. Until that fateful day the Cuban Government had been able to fulfil its avowed belief that having enough to eat was a basic human right by making guaranteed supplies of staple foods available to every citizen at subsidised prices.

Then, virtually overnight, Cuba lost access to direct food imports from the Soviet bloc, and the cheap fuel, tractors, fertilisers and pesticides upon which its intensive production systems had become heavily dependent. Food supplies dwindled and rationing was introduced.

With more than three-quarters of the country's 11 million population living in urban areas - 2.1 million in Havana alone - drastic action was called for. Previously there had been no need for even the poorest city dwellers to grow food, but now gardens began springing up everywhere. Growing food, whether for personal consumption person or for sale, was actively encouraged. Garden tools, seeds and advice were made available to everyone; street markets, previously banned, were welcomed. Fidel Castro declared that no piece of land - however small - should be left uncultivated (in due course the front lawn of the Ministry of Agriculture was given over to crops planted by ernployees).

Furthermore, because imported fertilisers and pesticides were no longer available, Cuba's urban agriculture was wholly organic - there was no alternative. Making a virtue of necessity, Cuba's "alternative model" has become the most impressive conversion to science-based, low-input urban agriculture in history - and certainly one of the most inventive. Newly graduated "barefoot" agronomists went to work on developing organic fertilisers and pesticides. Soon more than 200 bio-tech centres were producing and distributing non-toxic bio-fertilisers and pesticides based on native micro-organisms.

By 2000, over 40 per cent of Havana's urban area was devoted to growing vegetables and fruit. A 1996 city bylaw allows only organic methods, and certainly nothing that grows in Ricardo Sanchez's garden needs anything else. He feeds the vegetable plots with compost made from kitchen waste and protects the crops with a homemade natural pesticide. Tomatoes, guavas, avocados, mangoes and herbs jostle for space under the palm trees standing between his house and the neighbours'.

This is intensive urban agriculture, demanding but highly productive, and only one of about 62,000 patio gardens - private plots of less than 800 square metres (8,611 square feet) - in Havana, all enjoying official support and abiding by the edicts of eco-organic production. Not all are as large as Ricardo Sanchez's - small backyards, verandas, balconies and rooftops have all been put to use and officially recognised. In Cuba as a whole, more than a million patio gardens have been registered.

The patio garden functions at an individual or household level. Next in line are the market gardens organised by neighbourhood co-operatives, which are larger and often employ a full-time staff as well as calling on the voluntary efforts of co-operative members. With Havana alone growing 60 per cent of its vegetable needs within the city boundary, the Cubans are justly proud of their urban agricultural revolution, a beacon for the future.

In Britain, the most urbanised country in Europe, 200,000 households keep hens. A few weeks ago, when four young Royal College of Art graduates launched their Eglu-an urban henhouse complete with two laying hens designed to "make hen-keeping cool"-they had over 200 orders straight away. Poultry-keeping courses in Troston, Suffolk, run by Francine Raymond, are regularly sold out. And hens are the least of it such is the demand for allotments that in some areas there are waiting lists of up to eight years.

Something is happening. As the global food market insinuates its way into every corner of our lives and we get fatter and fatter and diabetes and cancer rates grow, many of us want to reconnect to food in the real and raw. Not only do we want to eat what is grown or reared locally, many of us want to do it ourselves - in pots on a terrace, on a flat roof or a sunny windowsill. Books such as James and Adam Caplin's Urban Eden: Grow Real Delicious Fruit, Vegetables and Herbs in a Really Small Space (Kyle Cathie) find an enthusiastic readership.

Two years ago Sir Don Curry published his report for the Government on the future of farming and food in the UK - all its many recommendations lead to one conclusion: the need to reconnect the food chain to its customers. One very effective way to do that is to produce more food in our towns and cities.

Raj Datta runs a mushroom farm, Agridutt, right under a flyover on London's North Circular road, one of the busiest roads in Britain. He produces about eight tonnes of button mushrooms a week, using a system of very low chemical input. His air-conditioned, temperature-controlled and insulated'' poIy-tunnels provide a perfect growing environment.

The land he occupies was once derelict - now it provides jobs for more than 30 people from Newham, one of Britain's poorest boroughs.

The button mushrooms have a ready market in the corner shops, ethnic restaurants and cafes of North London. But he's too small for supermarkets and anyway they rely mostly on cheap imports from Eastern Europe. He's tried to supply schools and hospitals in his area without success; they all find it easier, he says, to pick up a telephone to order ready-prepared food from the big processing companies. When: you taste one of Raj's mushrooms, crisp and fresh, you know what a shame it is.

The three-acre Salop Drive Market Garden in Sandwell, near Oldbury in the Black Country, had its beginnings five years ago with the vision of the local director of public health, Dr John Middleton. Working in one of the country's most economically depressed boroughs, he saw the health effects of diets lacking fresh fruit and vegetables. He thought one solution was to produce more food in the immediate locality. Now, what was once a muddy, almost totally derelict site is a thriving and professionally run horticultural enterprise - complete with six commercial-sized poly-tunnels - supplying local people with weekly boxes of fruit and veg. This week in your 4 box you'd get broad and French beans, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, a cucumber, spring onions and courgettes - bulked out with potatoes and onions bought in from a local supplier. Two workers in the food project have built up the business with the involvement of local residents, and now hundreds of volunteers - young, old, disabled, formerly housebound - work in the garden, attend cooking classes and, in some cases, grow their own food on the mini-allotments on site.

There are many examples all over the country of people getting together to grow food in more than a thousand city farms and community gardens. In the Restore project in Oxford, people with mental-health problems grow food on a public allotment, supplying the local community with vegetable boxes. In the West Country, Somerset Food Links has been working with primary schools encouraging school gardens, making links to children's diets and bringing sausagemakers and cheesemakers into schools. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation puts the productivity of urban agriculture at 15 times that of rural food production.

The Government is keen on new agriculture models and desperate for a public health strategy that will save the NHS from bankruptcy The answer might lie in the urban jungle.

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Revised Saturday, January 8, 2005

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture