Today, 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and among them 250 million people do not have enough to eat. Tomorrow, 80% of us will be urban dwellers; by 2015, over 25 cities are expected to have a population in excess of 10 million inhabitants. Feeding the urban communities is already starting to be a challenge for a variety of reasons: as these communities spread, they tend to be further and further away from food production centres. The cost of supplying them with food is very high, economically, environmentally and socially. Economically, because storage, conservation and transportation come at a price – and the supply chain, with all its intermediaries, eventually deprives producers of a decent share of the profits. Environmentally, because using pesticides and preservatives is not really nature-friendly, and shipping foods to cities means using horrifying amounts of fossil fuel: the average product travels 2,400 km before reaching the spot where it will be bought. Socially, because there are more and more food deserts inside cities, which means that there are more and more areas where physical and financial access to healthy foods is not guaranteed, and where people, lacking awareness, turn to fast-food chains. This situation is unlikely to improve with the upcoming boom of urban populations. Feeding the cities in a way that is socially, economically and environmentally acceptable, in other words ensuring the food safety of these populations, will soon become one of the great challenges of the future.
Urban farming to the rescue?
Initiatives are already spreading, all over the world, to tackle the issue. Never before have we heard so much about “guerrilla gardening”, “rooftop kitchen gardens” or “locavorism”. The most visible part of all is urban agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines it as an
industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel, largely in response to the daily demand of consumers within a town, city, or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intensive production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban wastes to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.
This industry has already proven beneficial on many accounts: it increases the amount of healthy and organic food available to urban dwellers; it provides jobs and incomes and thus empowers women, the unemployed and the elderly to make a better living; it reduces the environmental impact of food production, storage and shipping; it strengthens social bonds, etc. And it is spreading, opening new job markets and creating new distribution channels, such as farmers’ markets within cities. As a matter of fact, although we hear more about it today, urban agriculture was not born yesterday. Its history stretches back a fair way, and it often developed in response to crises: local kitchen gardens spread in 19th-century Germany to fight food insecurity and poverty, during the Great Depression in the United States, during the first and second World Wars in North America and the United Kingdom… and today as we face an economic crisis that is increasingly seen as systemic. After all, perhaps urban agriculture is actually doing more than reacting to the crisis, by contributing to the definition of the world of tomorrow. It comes within the scope of growing interest for sustainability, for local production, for collaborative consumption and perfectly embodies the new aspirations that are animating the developed world. Could it be that urban agriculture is the answer to the challenges we talked about earlier?
Defining a global and systemic approach
Of course, things are never that simple. The International Urban Food Network is an “inter-city collaboration network specialized in urban food governance” that uses its field expertise to “challenge the relationship between alimentation and urbanization, which are fundamental issues of our society.” IUFN’s founder and president, Markéta Braine-Supkova, believes that
sustainable food is a fundamental human right and need, and that guaranteeing it means adopting a new strategic vision of land-use planning, to develop the sustainable cities of the future.
In other words, she thinks that urban farming is not enough: “these initiatives contribute to the creation of a new system, but not in a way that can ensure food safety.” The projects are “peripheral” and essentially play a role of “awareness raising and awakening of urban populations” because they lack a “global and systematic approach”. With the IUFN, she thus supports the idea that the reflection on sustainable food systems must be led on a larger scale and include areas around cities:
sustainable alimentation can become a valid territorial development axis.
Within this frame, local governments have a major role to play. When asked to name the main obstacles to the definition of the “urban food” of the future, she stresses the fact that there is still little awareness of the social, environmental and economic impacts of conventional farming. The sense of the urgency with which these issues need to be addressed has not taken root sufficiently yet, and local governments still need to strengthen their political courage on the topic.
Yet, Markéta Braine-Supkova remains optimistic:
Alimentation has quite a magic potential, because it can connect many activities, on the same territory, that seem very far away from each other at first sight.
Which means that it could be a great opportunity to efficiently and coherently redefine land-use planning to better face the challenges of the future. We have a long way to go before we can guarantee the food safety of all the urban dwellers of today and tomorrow. There are key reflections to be led on the role of local authorities, on the impact of intermediaries and distribution channels and on the occupation of territories. But at both ends of the chain, the urgent need for food that is healthier and socially, environmentally and economically durable is becoming more obvious every day. On the producers’ side, awareness has already risen: many of them now realise that it is in their best interest to focus more on local and sustainable production, and multiply the initiatives in that direction. On the consumers’ side, there is growing demand for foods that are beneficial to health, the environment and the financial situation of the producers. We are at the start of a whole new way of feeding our cities – if only all the actors in the sectors are prepared to work hand in hand.