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Friday, January 25, 2008
Environment

Urban Agriculture

An alternative way of livelihood and environmental protection

Agriculture is traditionally associated with the purposeful production of food and fibre commodities in rural areas. Agriculture in the 21st century, however, is actually much broader than this -- it also includes such diverse items as environmental horticulture, planning the use of green space, control of insect and rodent pests, wildlife management, and even food production by city dwellers. Urban agriculture is a broad term to describe agricultural activities and livelihoods in an urban setting. It means more than maintaining farms or gardens in an urban environment. It also includes livestock raising, water management and organic waste management. After all, it includes small- and large-scale activities in horticulture, livestock, fodder and milk production, aquaculture, and forestry -- where several activities may be carried out within one enterprise.

Agriculture practiced in urban areas distinguishes itself from rural agricultural activities in several ways. Agricultural production, processing, and distribution activities within and around cities and towns, whose main motivation is personal consumption and/or income generation, and which compete for scarce urban resources of land, water, energy, and labour that are in demand for other urban activities. Many are of the opinion that urban agriculture is a hindrance to urbanisation. However, agriculture in cities exists in many developed and developing countries and has been so for long periods of time. Ancient civilisations and cultures often incorporated urban agriculture into their social and political centres as a way of life. Today, up to 30 percent of agricultural production in the United States originates from within metropolitan areas, and up to 15 percent on a global scale.

The absolute and relative growth in urban poverty and malnutrition raises two important issues. First, there is a clear link with food insecurity among urban populations. Studies have shown a link between the growth in underweight children in urban families and the inability of their families to purchase food. Second, there is evidence that instability in the urban labour market and its vulnerability to economic shocks directly impact on poverty. Urban agriculture has the potential to make an important positive contribution to both urban food security as well as urban employment.

Recently collected qualitative and quantitative data shows that increasing numbers of the urban poor are engaged in urban and peri-urban agriculture as a poverty alleviation strategy. Already as many as 800 million people are employed in urban and peri-urban farming and related enterprises, and this number is likely to expand in the future. There is evidence that households engaged in urban agriculture have better nutritional levels, especially those households where women are conducting this activity. At the same time, however, the use of urban wastewater for irrigated farming presents health risks. City gardens mitigate storm water runoff, rejuvenate toxic soils, block the transmission of urban noise, clear the air by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide, and control temperatures via shade and transpiration

As far as research needs are concerned, the growing importance of intensive self-provisioning by poor urban families who lack access to adequate nutrition needs more study. The increasing opportunity for small-scale commercial urban agriculture also needs more research as the demand for perishable high-value agricultural products such as dairy, meat and leafy vegetables rises with growing numbers of city consumers. Additionally, the potential contribution that urban agriculture (for example, by nutrient recycling of organic wastes) can make to improve the urban environment needs to be explored in more detail.

The conditions of city life are such that many urban people are never aware of the complex relationships between man and the environment. Days spent in glass towers, crawling traffic and crowded supermarkets do not facilitate an understanding of the extent to which city dwellers depend on a hidden, external agricultural system. Although few truly grasp the importance of the urban-rural connection to their daily diet, even fewer realise that viable alternatives to the conventional model of urban food supply exist. Urban agriculture is beginning to be viewed as an alternative with enormous potential, and not merely as a contradiction in terms. Today's cities suffer from a broad range of problems which are symptomatic of underlying failures in our progressive society. It can address some of these difficulties, and can work towards building socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable cities for Bangladesh.

The simple act of gardening can enhance the physical and spiritual health of individuals of all ages, abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and social classes. More important, it involves people actively engaging with their environment rather than examining it from a detached and domineering perspective. In other words, gardening can work to break down the artificially created barrier between humans and nature. According to deep ecologists, people who do not perceive this division begin to care as much about their environment as they do about their individual selves. People living their lives with this kind of awareness will begin to create a chain reaction of change which could alter our current path from one of ecological destruction to ecological sustainability. While this is an extreme view, it must be noted that nurturing plants and watching them flourish creates a strong connection to the earth; and it requires only a small intellectual leap to realise that to protect your own patch of the Earth you must protect it in its entirety.

Critics of urban agriculture claim that it is idealistic and impractical, citing problems of land acquisition, tenure, and allocation. But it is notable that, there are over 6,500 acres of cultivable land in Vancouver, which is more than enough to feed its growing population. Moreover, provincially, the amount of active farmland is equal to the acreage of urban backyards; thus by simply using an available resource, British Columbia could double its agricultural output. Urban agriculture is an alternative to what has been labeled conventional agriculture. However, it should not be considered solely an alternative means of producing food; it also is a viable adaptive function and response to urbanisation. Urban agriculture is not so much an alternative to existing agricultural systems as it is an established branching of modern sustainable agricultural systems.

Ideally, urban agriculture incorporates various elements of modern sustainable agriculture to establish productive, reusable, self-contained waste and nutrient cycles. Resource conservation and management, integrated pest management (IPM), and organic food production, for example, can contribute toward developing safe, non-polluting environments. Critics of urban agriculture claim that it is an unclean harbinger for disease, pest, noise, and pollution. However, with proper planning and management, urban agriculture can be a very effective and safe means of producing food.

Virtually, even realising this fact, urban agriculture has been overlooked, underestimated, and under-reported. In order to enhance the positive impacts of urban agriculture, there is a need to address important research needs as well as bridge the gap between urban agriculture research and practice with urban planning and policy issues. To sum up, the potentials that urban agriculture offers in contributing to increasing food security, alleviating urban poverty, generating employment, environmental sustainability and creating more livable spaces for city dwellers need to be explored in more detail.

The limited space available beside or on the home may necessitate small scale farming too. Professor Syed Rafiqul Alam Rumi and the author of Department of Geography and Environmental Studies of Rajshahi University, combinedly started small scale research on urban agriculture. Government supports and financial solvency may stipulate more to concentrate on this issue in large scale.

Md Masud Parves Rana is a PhD Fellow, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and Assistant Professor, Rajshahi University, Bangladesh. Email: mmprana@yahoo.com

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