Urban Agriculture, Progress and Prospect: 1975-2005
by Jac Smit (TUAN)
It is reasonable to estimate that urban areas in 1995 produced between 15 and 20 percent of the world's food. We know, for instance, that in the United States between 35 and 40 percent of its agricultural products, in money value of marketed crops, are grown in its statistical metropolitan areas, and that locally-produced vegetables, fruit and poultry, from more than 15 million small-scale producers, do not go through these markets. We also know that urban agriculture is more common in many countries than it is in the United States. Chile, China, Kenya, and Poland are examples.
We can anticipate that with a continuing trend toward increased urban food production, in ten years time 25 to 30 percent of the world's food will be produced in its rapidly growing urban areas. By the time the world is half urban, cities may well be 50 percent reliant on urban produced food.
At least four factors will contribute to this transformation of the agriculture industry:
- Cities are expanding at lower densities than ever before and more land is available for farming for each additional person residing in the world's towns and cities;
- Urban agriculture is becoming relatively more efficient and competitive with rural agriculture in certain crop lines including vegetables, aquatic crops, poultry and pork;
- Urban agriculture is becoming more popular in the South for its food security, jobs and environmental benefits, and in the North because it produces a better product;
- Increasing civil unrest (future Bosnias and Somalias) and urban poverty will continue to build the demand for interim urban agriculture programmes.
During the next decade, urban agriculture will be accepted and implemented as a major intervention in food security and social security programs. This trend is foreshadowed by programs in Peru (REDE), Mozambique, Cuba, Italy, China, Japan and the United States.
During the next decade, environmental agencies and programs will increasingly include urban agriculture. This will occur because urban agriculture is an affordable environmental program. It pays for itself. An urban greening program, using trees and grass, saves costs on air conditioning and earns income if fuelwood and wood products are produced. However, these programs are costly in terms of landscape maintenance. Urban agriculture programs return the same benefits and, in addition, provide food, generate more jobs, support businesses, and maintain the landscape.
The next decade will witness a continuation and wider spread of the dramatic improvement of urban agriculture technology. In the past decade, the most remarkable advances have been in aquaculture and hydroponics. As the agricultural scientists focus on plant and animal crops appropriate to urban situations, increases in yields will occur. We may expect that the recent revolution in shrimp culture will spread to other aquatic crops, and that the revolution in hydroponics will spread to other small-scale production methods.
The research of the 1980s and early 1990s in the more efficient use of urban waste as a natural resource will, in the second half of this decade, begin to have more common application. Massive sewerage and landfill projects will be recognized as archaic, and modern home and community-based waste management systems will become more common. The latter will in turn provide the ecological base for increased urban food production even in the now polluted urban core communities. Forerunners of this renaissance can be found in Bogota, Beijing, Calcutta, Edmonton (Agriplex) and Dakar.
The organizational structure of urban agriculture is changing and will in the next few years change more rapidly and more widely. The most dramatic change is the "Virtual Corporation." This organizational option enables small producers and processors to market their products efficiently with the benefit of prompt reliable technical and market information, and access to credit. Virtual corporations are allowing the small grower to enter the market.
A case in point is the Jerusalem Hydroponic Vegetable Cooperative. This organization has a nine-member board of directors (six producers and three marketing experts). All producers are self-employed and sell their product on a firm weekly schedule, which they have designed, to a known sales outlet. Another example is the Urban Food Foundation in Manila, where 500 small producers own a meat processing and marketing facility which sells directly to retail outlets. With the virtual corporation there is no need for large farms or for layers of middlemen in the urban agriculture industry.
Community and city civic organizations (NGOs) will increasingly support urban agriculture in the next decade. Until the 1990s, their support was largely limited to household and community gardens. In the 1990s, they are recognizing the larger benefits available by supporting a greater variety of urban agriculture modalities.
Women, in many but not all parts of the world, are adopting urban agriculture as "cosa nostra." Women's organizations are producing, processing and marketing urban agriculture-based produce. As women inexorably achieve greater legal and financial rights, urban agriculture will grow apace.
The most important trend in urban agriculture is an acceleration of public-private partnerships. At the grass roots, farmers' associations and CBOs are establishing relationships with NGOs, universities and the business community. NGOs in turn are establishing relationships with local civic organizations, research facilities, and local and national governments. The global trend is to less intrusive national governments and more partnerships with civic organizations. Urban agriculture benefits from this trend, as national extension programs, with few exceptions, have not reached the urban farmer.
National and local urban agriculture organizations are coming together in regional partnerships -- Latin America, Asia, Africa -- and relating to bilateral and global development and agricultural organizations. Urban agriculture is a complex activity that thrives when diverse partnerships are functioning.
Food markets in many of the world's poorest and richest countries, and those in between, are carrying an increasing share of products grown/raised in urban areas. This trend may continue for the next ten years and beyond. In the global food market, so-called "back-of-the-port" production (air or sea) is growing. Flowers are the leading items, with vegetables following close behind.
Informal food markets are becoming more formal, and formal and informal markets are becoming one. Cuba is a case in point, where the informal markets of the 1950s have been reinstituted and formalized. Nicaragua also has formalized its informal markets. In Nairobi, the Asian Foundation has established a formal hawkers market. Street food is being regularized in many cities and countries, some with the assistance of FAO and WHO (Healthy Markets Program). All of these small changes make urban agriculture more than ever competitive with rural agriculture in some product lines.
The benefits of positive programs are recorded on many slates. Perhaps the most dramatic is the transformation of urban waste into food. Many local governments and development agencies have supported urban waste management to promote fish, livestock and vegetable production. These programs are actively being supported by UNCDF (UN Capital Development Fund), GTZ, NRI, DGIS, IDRC and other development cooperation agencies.
The science of modern city planning and management was born in Europe 150 years ago. Following the lead of China, Japan, and Brazil, it is just beginning to recognize agriculture as an urban economic activity and land use. The recognition is due to recent environmental and ecological awareness, the global issue of unemployment and the growth of urban hunger in the South. Whereas throughout most of the 1980s agriculture was perceived as marginal and ephemeral in the city, during the next decade it will be recognized and included in policy and program for its food, jobs and environmental benefits. The challenge is to get effective policy and program tools into the hands of the planners and managers on time.