By Jamie Deshaies, B.A. Specialization Urban Planning, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.
It’s no secret that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the source of our food. As our planet’s population grows exponentially, most of us have abandoned our old agrarian ways and have resorted to purchasing unhealthy and processed food from grocery stores. It’s a process that has risen as a reaction to the lack of time we possess in our daily lives to prepare meals and the continuing globalization of the food market. While many hear of terms such as “food miles”, “eating organic” or “eating local”, few actually understand how food arrives to our supermarkets or local grocery stores, and how fortunate we may be to have access to food alone. The Urban Food Revolution, written by Peter Ladner, is an excellent, accessible, and in-depth look into the actors that are responsible for the serious issues that plague world food distribution, and suggests that a return to growing our own food may be the answer to the litany of problems which exist within this system. Although it was released and published in 2011, the book remains relevant in raising concerns and awareness for food quality, and how our food choices are directly related to climate change, urban renewal, sustainability, community engagement and the challenges our planet will face in the future with regards to food production and consumption.
A Problematic System
Within the first chapters of the book, Ladner identifies that the biggest sources of our food problems are the suppliers of large grocery chains around the world. These supermarkets are wasteful, monopolistic and generally more concerned about low prices and profit than quality of food and economic fairness.
Moreover, they are destructive to the environment and human health. The major consequences that come from supermarkets include the risk of monocultures in food production (the Listeria outbreak in Ontario, Canada, 2008), the dumping of pesticides and nitrous oxide into the earth due to plantation processes, soil scarcity, water shortages, over dependence on oil and fossil fuels, and the financial turmoil faced by farmers being squeezed for profit by major chains.
All of these factors contribute to an inherently broken and problematic system of world food distribution, a system which has also failed to provide us with healthy and fresh food.
Ladner cites two reasons for this crisis: a lack of available farmland, and the general misappropriation of land which should be used for food production. While farms are obviously necessary for the economy and for consumption, preservation of farmland for food production has become increasingly tenuous due to continued residential and commercial development at the expense of fertile land. Ladner estimates the U.S. lost a staggering 3.2 million acres of farmland to urban development each year from 2002-2007. Farmers all over North America are being pushed into bankruptcy, are struggling to keep up financially due to the rising costs of land and now find themselves competing for available land with golf courses, racing circuits, equestrian sites and garbage disposals.
It’s an unsustainable situation that has been aggravated by government oversights, and Ladner insists that it’s preventable as long as governments pursue policies which will provide incentives for farmers to stay put, prevent urban development from overtaking farmland and discourage hobbyist farmers from receiving priority for agricultural development.
Embracing Local Food Production
According to Ladner, production and distribution of food has gotten so far out of our hands that it may be time to consider producing some of our own food. Our over dependence on importing meat, fruits and vegetables from abroad has had detrimental effects on the environment in the form of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are referred to as “food miles”, a term which signifies the accumulated distance that imported food will travel before it reaches its destination.
The book does not dabble in the unrealistic assumption that we can harvest our own food. Rather, the author is actually aware of the acute difficulties behind urban farming and the consumption of strictly local or organic foods. The environmental benefits are mixed, and trying to grow international food locally is costly and can also involve higher water and CO2 usage. Eating only local foods is also expensive and growing our own food can be highly impractical because of changes in season or lack of space to grow food. Trying to eat foods within a 100-mile radius (also known as the 100-mile diet) is an all-or-nothing approach for which Ladner proposes trying to eat more local fruits while simultaneously lowering our consumption of meat. Although many are sceptical about the connection between meat consumption and CO2 emissions, Ladner insists that cutting down on meat consumption would reduce water usage and dependency on fossil fuels in a way that eating only local couldn’t.
One of the most important aspects of urban farming involves re-examining our land use and our history of separating land use (i.e. separating residential from commercial and industrial zoning). Urban farming would involve utilizing the extra space from 20th century urban planning which effectively sprawled out many cities in North America by forcing us to make use of vacant lot space on our own land. For example, at the time of the book’s release, the city of Toronto had available rooftop space to produce some of its own vegetables. The UK’s “victory gardens” is a historic example of urban farming where a farming patch generated approximately 10 % of the UK’s food during WWII, while Village Homes in Davis, California provides community gardens and edible landscapes which feed 24 % of its residents food needs.
Detroit, Michigan is probably the best example of a city headed towards urban farming. Detroit was an automobile production hub before it suffered from race riots and the decline of the auto industry; two events which effectively led to a mass exodus of residents to the suburbs and years of housing abandonment, urban decay and vacant land. The massive amount of abandonment has provided the potential for trained farmers to use bio-intensive techniques and hoop houses for the purposes of urban farming, Ladner estimates “570 of Detroit’s vacant 5, 000 acres of city land could produce 70 % of the city’s vegetables and 40 % of its fruit”. Example of Urban Farm, Kingsborough Community College
Becoming self-sufficient by farming our own food is a challenge in itself. However, the good news is that urban farming is community-oriented and is an education process which can bring citizens together. Urban farming is a resilient process and has opened the door for community organizations such as NeighborSpace in Chicago which seeks to buy land before it gets purchased by developers. The land is then used for a multitude of purposes including food production, community recreation, education sessions and land conservation. Encouraging less waste and making better use of available land has become an integral part of urban farming, with urban farming patches seeking to create an inclusive environment for all those interested in growing their own food.
All around the world, there populations employing resilient programs to ensure production and distribution of fresh and healthy food. Santropol Roulant is a meal-delivery program in Montreal, Canada where young students volunteer to deliver meals to seniors by bike. The program is intended to reduce socioeconomic barriers between generations and help students get exercise, volunteer, and improve their french all at the same time. The goal of minimizing food deserts does not only have to be an environmental movement, but can be a social one as well.
Overall, the Urban Food Revolution is an essential read for anyone interested in urban farming. The book’s technical explanations of the science behind urban farming will appeal to those who are serious about turning their balconies into vegetable patches, while the more casual readers will enjoy the sections which describe the issues with the world food economy. It is also an accurate commentary on how governments and markets directly influence pricing and distribution of food, and also provides small sections with pieces of practical advice for those interested in farming on their own lawns. The opening chapters not only serve as a wake up call to the issues behind world food production, but also to remind us that food can be accessible, healthy, affordable and bring communities together in the process.
The Urban Food Revolution shows us that our food choices truly reflect how we feel about our planet, and while we may not be able to fix the many issues with the world food economy mentioned in the book, we can be creative and look for local solutions in the front lawns, backyards, playgrounds, rooftops, parks and vacant spaces in our cities.