The future of urban agriculture is looking up, according to some who hope a whiz-bang solution will get us past the difficult task of cities feeding themselves.
Vertical farming, or high-rise buildings filled with high-tech rooms full of crops and chickens and even cows, may be just the thing for our food future.
Or they could be the latest in a line of weakly-conceived predictions that include longevity pills and the personal jet pack.
Mark Bomford, program director at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the UBC Farm, isn't impressed with pie-in-the-sky growing schemes.
"All the interest in these vertical farms is indicative of the lack of understanding of the ecological processes that support our food system today. The idea that you don't need soil and all these messy ecological things just demonstrates how far we've moved away conceptually from an understanding of where the nutrients that feed our food comes from and how they get recycled through an ecosystem."
Then there are recent moves by the rich to buy or lease huge sections of poor areas of the world to serve as food baskets.
The Economist magazine noted this "powerful but contentious" trend was different from previous versions partly in scale: the tracts now being bought by countries such as China and South Korea are vast.
However, the deals may be precarious for both sides. Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana was chased out of office by angry mobs earlier this year after he signed a contract to turn over 1.3 million hectares, or half the country's arable land, to Daewoo, a South Korean company. Even the Financial Times criticized the deal as "positively neo-colonial." The company reportedly said the investment was made to "boost Seoul's food security."
Instead of gizmos and dubious attempts to enlarge the pie in a crowded planet, let's look at what we can do, here, at home, to ensure a healthy future.
In the first five articles in this series, we've seen that urban agriculture succeeds when the government supports it, people engage in it, consumers buy into it, and everyone agrees that an ecological approach to food and the way it is grown, cooked, consumed and recycled is the best to go.
So what can we do?
Ten recommendations to help us become a model for urban agriculture around the world:
1. Buy wisely
Put your mouth where your money is by supporting local growers and distributors over multinational corporations. There's a reason advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to get into our heads: consumers are the most powerful group on the planet. Every time you buy something local you're investing in our region.
2. Promote an Urban Farm Protection Act
The ALR was, and still is, a public policy wonder, but it's a creation from the early 1970s of an earlier generation. Given what we know now about the necessity of urban agriculture, we should be no less innovative in passing bold legislation of our own. We need the urban equivalent of the ALR, a provincial mandate to protect city spaces for urban food in existing and new community gardens and other farming projects.
3. Support an Urban Food Growers Co-op
It's hard to build a solid foundation for urban agriculture on shifting ground. As many a frustrated citizen can confirm, Vancouver's support structure for urban agriculture is a shambles. Policies vary for different city lands, or may not exist at all. When community garden coordinators were invited by the city to provide input for new guidelines in December 2007, they were told the policies would be forthcoming. They're still being told that. An Urban Food Growers Co-op would unite city officials, citizen growers and other supporters in common cause, each contributing to the management of a support structure that would become a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in growing food. In Vancouver, City Hall is moving in the right direction toward unity with its Urban Agriculture Steering Committee made up of senior city staff. The next step is for the committee to realize that real changes will happen only if it broadens its scope to truly include the community it’s intended to serve.
4. Hire community farm helpers
Creating a shared farming project can take a huge amount of work, particularly when it's a real community project. Government support here can be crucial. Cities should hire community farming experts to help channel the incredible enthusiasm and energy the public is willing to invest. If we deem it important enough to have city employees helping with parking and public art and recreation and graffiti removal and so on, we might agree it's also important to have them support people who want to grow food.
5. Help the corporations help themselves, and us
Developers worked out a sweet deal for themselves when they discovered a property tax loophole. They let folks garden on their vacant lots until construction or a sale makes business sense, and in the meantime receive whopping tax breaks for providing community amenities. Allen Garr had city officials hopping mad with his fine expose of the practice in The Courier, but rather than blame the messenger, why not work out a deal that would be a win-win all around? Let the corporations keep half their tax break (totaling about $1.3 million so far this year, according to Garr) if they'll give the other half to support urban agriculture (How? See #4).
6. Encourage a land trust for city farms
Some of the best of our wealthy private donors have cottoned on to the idea of using their good fortune for future generations by preserving quality land. A similar motivation might inspire some to pass on their property to urban food growers in perpetuity, ensuring there will always be new generations growing up on or near food-growing sites in cities.
7. Build the urban barn
Urban agriculture is a groovy idea that could use an iconic image. An Urban Barn, built amid a teaching orchard on an empty city lot such as the old apple orchard west of the Nanaimo Skytrain Station near Vanness, could serve as a teaching centre and non-profit-group office for workshops, community meetings, movies, canning courses, barn dances, and a whole lot more. Give the public a chance to get their hands directly into urban agriculture and they'll take the message home.
8. Support parks, recreation and food
We're used to the notion of supporting playgrounds for children in public parks, whether we have kids in their scrambling years or not. These structures take up space and cost money to install and maintain, but most agree it's worth devoting precious slices of public land for little kids to swing and slide. We could well make the same conclusion regarding public food growing, with a corner of every park devoted to the practice, and even get the kids involved here as well.
9. Remember the commons
Edible landscapes should become the norm, not something we have to squeeze out of an occasionally supportive city bureaucracy. Detractors say public fruit trees shouldn't be planted because: 1) People might take the fruit, or 2) if they don't it might ripen and fall and bother somebody. To which the answers are: 1) Exactly, and 2) With public engagement the fruit might well be picked before it goes soft, but even if not, we have 130,000 street trees, many of which are also a bother to someone sometime with all those pesky leaves and things, but most people agree that having an urban forest is worth the effort.
10. Appeal to higher powers
Urban agriculture is too important to our future to leave to cities alone. Provincial and federal agencies should be engaged as well, and may have greater access to resources in providing support on a wider scale. Requests for community garden support comes from cities and towns all over B.C., something a province-wide provider might start to address. With the public already highly motivated, a little leverage can go a long way towards the building of food-friendly cities everywhere.