What role does urban agriculture play in sustaining our cities?

as organic moved from fringe to mainstream the goals of the movement succumbed to the industrial model

Travelling long haul from Australia, to pretty much anywhere outside of South Asia, is a chore. Flying from Sydney eastward is a fourteen hour journey over nothing but ocean before you land at LAX. Heading northwest over the continental inland deserts, takes four hours just to cross the north western coast of Australia- and then it is another eighteen to twenty hours to Amsterdam plus a stop-over. As a result, Aussie travellers tend to read a lot on planes and in airports.

Recently, on a trip to Europe, I read Michael Pollan’s seminal work, the Omnivores Dilemma. Published in 2006, this book begins with a simple proposition – What should we have for dinner? It goes on a deeply interconnected journey through the American industrial agricultural machine to explore the social, political and environmental impacts on the way we source, process and distribute our most basic need – food. Books like this emerge every year, however Pollans work stands apart because he brings an ethical dimension to the story; connecting both the story of inhumane treatment of animals, corporate bullying and other modern evils back to the act of eating- reminding us of our most intimate relationship with beasts.

According to Pollan corn is the staple of more than just the fast food system. Flickr Muzza1954

Pollan does this by documenting his own journey through the various rituals required to prepare a meal from scratch, and we are not talking about a Saturday morning visit to the local farmers market. Sardined in the uncomfortably small seats I was both inspired and irritated by this book. Inspired because it opened up new ways to think about cities and food through the lens of a moral dilemma. Irritated because my family has a long history of leadership and innovation in the Australian sheep and beef industry and I felt they had been misrepresented after all don’t American and Australian producers help feed the world? Inspired is a good place to start.

Extending Pollan’s concept of linkage, it seems to me that when we talk about cities and food we are talking about two distinctively different concepts. The first emerges out of the local food movement – as Pollan rightly points out, the organic agriculture industry picked up on the increased environmental literacy of urbanites. Soon after Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962, western citizens became increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of relentless resource use by the modern state.

However as organic moved from fringe to mainstream the goals of the movement succumbed to the industrial model (see chapter nine; big organic in above mentioned book). So as the urban community digested this new dilemma, the lure of the local seemed more logical. We wanted to reduce our ecological footprint – we wanted to talk to the farmer who reared and slaughtered the pot roast in our wicker basket. We wanted to know how the said farmer was also caring for the landscape that the pot roast, formerly known as a sheep, grazed on during their short but idyllic life. Then by the turn of the century, we became even more conscious of the carbon emissions created by the millions of tonnes of food flowing into our cities every day and we wanted to know if we could- at least on some level grow our food inside the city boundaries.

Pie chart from 2010. Food makes up nearly half of all total ecological footprint of Australian cities. c/o Jarrod Walker

Urban agriculture is the latest iteration in our society’s attempts to deal with the dilemma of feeding our cities.Yet like energy, the cheapest and most environmentally friendly food we can source is the food we waste. I’m not for a minute suggesting you send your little ones out the hang out at the dumpster behind the supermarket, but rather think about the total cost of our food habits. What does it ‘cost’ to buy that bulk pack of flour at the mega mart only to have the weevils dine on half the bag that you never got around to turning into home baked bread? This might sound glib- but from an ecological footprint calculation the single biggest contribution to Canberra’s hectare equivalent of resources used to run this city is food. Canberra’s ecological footprint was 8.5 global hectares (gha) per person or 2.65 million gha – roughly 11 times the actual land the Australian Capital Territory occupies.

Ecological Footprints visualised by this Daily Infographic: “If Everyone Lived Like An American, How Many Earths Would We Need?” Via PopSci.com

Canberra is the highest per capita footprint of any Australian city and is also very high by world standards – equating to a shade under three earths equivalent for all of humanity to live the way we do. From a household footprint perspective, public transport barely registers on the above graph, while housing itself is minimal, and clothing substantial (echoing the need for a shift to ethical fashion). Food, with a whopping 49%) and, not surprisingly, goods and services (35% including clothing) make up most of the global impact Canberrans exert on the planet.

Urban agriculture offer many more benefits than propping up the urban food system. c/o Projectlineservices

This is rarely considered when urban designers strive to find ways to make cities more sustainable. Unfortunately urban agriculture is and will be for the foreseeable future a boutique feel good reaction to what is a much larger global problem, and that leads me to my irritation. Pollen rightly points out in his book, and more recently on social media, that the US farm bill has much to answer for by creating fiscal policies encouraging massive overproduction of some resources at the expense of the ecological health of mid-west American landscapes and the social health of those supporting communities. In Australia we also have policy wonks driving the sector, however my country cousins have, for most of their lives, responded to markets and government policies by developing innovative practices to produce high quality products for the global market.

My generation of our family, who now carry on the tradition of their parents are painfully aware of the environmental impact of their industry and are at the forefront of adaptive management practices. No matter how much urban agriculture in cities can generate food for the masses. For all the great social as well as environmental benefits community gardens provide, they won’t replace industrial agriculture as the primary method of global food production any time soon- and that is a dilemma we all face. ­­­­­­­­­

Urban designers should continue to advocate for changes to the way we use landscapes in cities for food production – but this needs to be in the context of the biggest gains possible in reducing our ecological footprint and that is a much bigger story.