Feeding the city or nourishing the city?

More than half of the world’s population is living in cities. It are especially the larger cities that are increasing in size and many of these ever expanding cities are located in regions that are most suitable for food production. The tension between a growing urban population and a decline in agricultural land is increasingly acknowledged. Also the former Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Cees Veerman, states that the growing urban demand for food requires a fundamental shift in food production systems: fresh food should be produced closer to cities. He holds a strong plea for setting up a large Metropolitan Agriculture pilot project (see also this video interview). At first sight, the idea of producing food close to where people live sounds appealing as it will reduce food miles significantly.

But at second sight, his plea for metropolitan agriculture is to a large extent nothing but a plea for an ongoing industrialization of food production as this metropolitan agriculture video shows. Veerman also states that small-scale initiatives like urban agriculture cannot fulfil the growing urban food demand. Although this may be true, I do believe that innovative forms of urban agriculture such as SPIN farming, small-scale hydroponics and rooftop gardening can provide a significant part of the food needed for the urban population.

Most important, however, is that urban agriculture is about nourishing the city, while Veerman’s metropolitan agriculture is limited to feeding the city or actually, to phrase Michael Pollan, to produce foodstuffs (i.e. the highly processed, modified, fructosed, hormoned, and antibioticized products that we eat) for the urban population. With nourishing the city, I refer to the fact that food is more than a vehicle for nutrients, vitamins, calories, proteins, etc…; it is also a means to contribute to the development of  sustainable and healthy cities: 

Urban agriculture has the potential to make a significant contribution to the solution of many current urban problems that fall within the rubric of healthy communities and sustainable development. These include:

  • environmental degradation and ecological restoration
  • resource consumption
  • health and nutrition issues
  • food security and access for lower income citizens
  • ecological education
  • local economic development and diversification
  • community building

All these can be influenced in a profound way by the activity of food production in urban spaces.  Add to that the increased freshness of locally produced food, lower transportation costs, dietary diversification, and responsiveness to local needs and the advantages of producing at least some of our food in cities becomes obvious. This is what makes the prospect of a city full of food gardens and overflowing with the bounty from urban greenhouses so exciting” (http://www.omegagarden.com/index.php?content_id=1509).

One aspect that is missing in the quote above is that urban agriculture is, unlike the form of agriculture now proposed under the label of metropolitan agriculture, a form of food production that centres around notions of food democracy and food sovereignty (see also Petra’s recent blog).

Although Cees Veerman may be right by concluding that urban agriculture is not capable of feeding the urban population, I do think that urban agriculture has the potential of producing a significant part of the food needed by urban dwellers, and, more important, urban agriculture does much more than just producing food (see e.g. urban farmer Will Allen). So if we take the different contemporary problems of many metropoles into account, I would argue that we are much better of with metropolitan food systems that do not simply feed the city but that actually nourish the city.