“We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction… In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden” Thoreau, Walden p.258
It might not be immediately obvious but there is food being grown all around you. Exploring the food on our doorsteps and beyond opens our eyes to the potential of accessing food, but does it hold the key for food security?
More than half of the global population live in cities, and this is expected to reach 70% by 2050. Urbanisation is redefining food consumption, and evidence is emerging that our urban lifestyles are changing the evolution of organisms. Growing fruit and vegetables, or raising animals, in cities is known as urban agriculture. 800 million people worldwide are estimated to be involved, but this figure is contested.
Space is an issue for urban agriculture but this has led to ingenious methods of producing food, especially vertical farming. There are vegetables being grown in a bomb shelter under Clapham, exotic mushrooms in a tunnel in Australia, a skip garden in Kings Cross, and leafy greens in shipping containers, some of which can survive Arctic conditions. Not to mention the many hidden gardens on surrounding rooftops.
Food is increasingly being grown in climate-controlled environments, using innovative technologies for improved efficiency. This occurs on a large scale with vertical farms in urban warehouses, aquaponics in abandoned buildings, and plant factories. But you can try it in your office or kitchen, and even airports are catching on.
(The world’s first subterranean farm – Accessible from http://growing-underground.com/gu-farm-launch/)
But do not forget the more traditional urban agriculture. There are interesting ways to integrate food production into everyday spaces, such as window boxes, front lawns, in school gardens, at bus stops, and other community areas.
Some people are even creating secret survival gardens, or camouflaged food forests, in the event of a global catastrophe.
Beyond the city walls
Food is being produced in unusual locations beyond the city. How about trying basil grown in underwater pods? There are plans for collapsible farms in empty cargo ships, and large scale floating farms, also known as ‘bluehouses’.
(Planting seeds in underwater pods. Accessible from http://www.nemosgarden.com/media-gallery/photo-gallery/)
Into the wild
Demand for allotments is high so people seek other sources of local, seasonal food, such as wild food. I was surprised to find out that there is an abundance of wild food to be foraged from within cities, such as dandelions from the park, nettles along canals, or fruit trees in churchyards.
Last Autumn I saw apples everywhere; a cider brewer collecting apples from my parent’s garden, a box of apples left in the staff room, and on my commute along the River Mersey. The Abundance Network collects surplus fruit and vegetables and distributes them to local communities, and OLIO has an app connecting neighbours so surplus food can be shared.
(Foraging apples by the motorway. Original photo from letschangefood)
Do secret gardens hold the key to food security?
It seems we have the potential to grow food almost anywhere, but the reality of improving food security is complex. Data may not be reliable, and the benefits of urban agriculture are not uniform across the Global North and South, and with the different systems used. Food security also requires moving beyond food production to address deeper issues such as poverty, racism, gender inequity, and economic disparities.
Urban agriculture has many benefits; livelihood contributions, community cohesion, empowerment, and ecosystem services. Accessibility of local fruit and vegetables can improve the health of populations through diet diversity. The food is fresher, usually organic, and high in nutrition, because it does not travel far from farm to fork. This connects the consumer to the production of food, improving transparency of the food supply chain. Community food growing initiatives have also shown improvements in the health of vulnerable groups, and reducing obesity.
However, urban agriculture is not suitable for staple crops such as wheat; indoor farms use a lot of energy; the cost of land can be prohibitive; and pollution causes health risks. Technological advances may improve food security in cities but currently, commercialising it is in the hands of a few inventive companies who are grappling with expensive outlays. This does not address the direct needs of the urban poor. Any scaling up of urban agriculture, or foraging, needs to be approached sensitively, as mistakes have been made with the current industrialised, neoliberal food system.
Urban agriculture cannot solve all the problems of food insecurity but I believe there are ways to significantly enhance the role it plays. Urban agriculture should be planned into new city developments and integrated into urban policies (recently recognised in the Habitat III New Urban Agenda). Any design should include local context as different areas of the same city may need different approaches. There should be increased investment in the developing world, building on successes such as Hydroponics Kenya.
We can take some power back from the big food companies by asking where our food comes from. We can support community growing initiatives, grow our own food, engage children, and share with our neighbours or people less fortunate, so nothing goes to waste. There is something special about sharing food; it creates a community as we all need to eat, and any help or enjoyment improves our experience of food.
It is important to make food production accessible to everyone, and overall appreciate it, because farming is hard work both physically and mentally. Secret gardens are innovative, exciting and can play a role in food security. So, next time you are out and about, be curious, and look around you to see if you can spot any hidden food.