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Nutrition and urban agriculture

Introduction: Urban agriculture and self-reliance
Urban agriculture and the metabolism of cities
Improving urban agriculture in Africa: a social perspective
Examples of urban agriculture in Asia
Small-scale agricultural production in urban areas in Poland
Community food production in cities of the developing nations Isabel Wade
Urban agriculture: the potential and limitations of an urban self-reliance strategy Pablo Gutman


Introduction: Urban agriculture and self-reliance

Ignacy Sachs and Dana Silk
Food-Energy Nexus Programme Area, The United Nations University

At about the same time that urban agriculture was emerging as a focal topic within the United Nations University's programme area on the Food-Energy Nexus (FEN), the special issue of the Food and Nutrition Bulletin on household-level food production (vol. 7, no. 3, September 1985) appeared. Several months later, we were pleased to accept an invitation to put together this follow-up issue on urban agriculture that presents a sampling of work that FEN has commissioned in this field.

Based on the recognition that food and energy are two major human needs and that an analysis of their interaction could lead to a better understanding of how more innovative approaches could be used to increase both the production of and access to these resources, FEN research developed in two directions. The first was the analysis of integrated food-energy systems based on closed-loop ecological systems adapted to specific environmental and cultural conditions. The second was the study of how greater urban self-reliance could lead to more equitable, efficient, and ecologically sustainable use of such resources.

Both of these approaches were based on the belief that a dependable supply of cooked food should be regarded as a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, for millions of persons, particularly in developing nations, regular access to nutritional meals is either impossible or requires an exhaustive-and exhausting -effort. This is no longer simply a rural problem but one that is becoming increasingly widespread among the urban poor.

Both the rural and the urban poor are unable to obtain the food they need (or the fuel to cook it) be cause they lack the money to buy it or the time and the resources to produce it. They have no choice but to live from hand to mouth, often resorting to predatory patterns of resource use that further weaken their already marginal situation. They are simply hapless participants in a process that transforms them into both the agents and the first victims of environmental degradation.

How can this conflict be overcome? How can food and energy production be made complementary? There is considerable potential in the use of agricultural residues and other wastes to ensure the production of an optimal mix of food, fuel, fodder, industrial feedstock, and fibre. The promotion of integrated food-energy systems, which are closely related to the ancient practicality of small farmers, should not be interpreted as a call to a return to traditional techniques but rather as an attempt to improve food production and processing practices. Using ecosystems as a paradigm for man-made systems is perfectly compatible with modern science and technology. In fact, combining this approach with the latest advances in biotechnology opens up enormous possibilities.

Obviously, problems of access to food and energy for the urban masses cannot be solved in the same way, and it would be impossible to seek total self-sufficiency in cities that must continue to depend to a considerable extent on an inflow of external food and energy. In this context, one has to understand the potential for increasing the degree of urban self-reliance in food and energy and to determine what can be done to make such access more equitable.

The patterns of resource flow between the country side and cities are quite diverse, and the debate on the extent to which cities are parasitic or generative relative to the countryside is far from being closed. Furthermore, a whole range of new rural/urban configurations, as well as emerging patterns of rural industrialization and redeployment of secondary and tertiary activities, are made possible by the latest generation of technological innovations.

In this context, FEN has concentrated on more immediate issues by exploring the potential for urban innovations through:

-new forms of organization of economic activity capable of improving the degree of use of the potential for work available in the society (going beyond the formal/informal dichotomy);
-ways of tapping the latent, underused, or wasted physical resources in urban ecosystems;
-the identification of technologies appropriate to given ecological, cultural, and socio-economic contexts;
-institutional designs leading to a greater community involvement;
-public policy instruments and policy packages supportive of social innovations in the urban context.

This approach led to the identification of some key issues dealing with the production of and access to food and energy by the urban poor. Urban agriculture emerged as one of these both because it can have an immediate impact among the urban poor and because it has been given hardly any attention by government or research agencies. Relatively little documentation exists on the actual extent of urban agriculture (due in part to the difficulty of quantifying its impact), and until recently there has been no concerted effort to publish research findings in this field.1 Furthermore, its potential as an alternative to increased commercial production, more food subsidies, and improved distribution and storage systems is not well understood.

Without resorting to highly artificial and expensive food-production systems, the absolute output of urban agriculture is obviously limited. There is great opportunity, however, to use urban resources to enable some inhabitants to provide themselves with substantial portions of their recommended daily allowance of calories and protein, including most of the vitamins and minerals needed to maintain health. Urban agriculture can thus make a significant contribution to the poorest of the poor, for whom small amounts of food, particularly during the "hungry season" between harvests of staple crops, can make a crucial difference.

In one of the few major publications in this field, Brownrigg [1] made the point that home gardens are not just vegetable gardens: they often contain plants that provide starch, fruits, herbs, flowers, and medicines as well as fuel wood. In many cases, small livestock are also raised, with their wastes helping to fertilize the garden, whose wastes, in turn, help to feed the livestock.

The production of more food in urban areas also reduces the need for environmentally and economically expensive transportation of perishable goods, as well as eliminating most of the energy-intensive and often wasteful processing, packaging, and storage requirements of commercial foodstuffs. Urban agriculture can also provide demonstration projects for new crop varieties as well as for new cooking tools and techniques, which are proving to be important in the post-harvest stage of the food cycle.

The preparation of compost helps to recycle the organic wastes of many households at both the micro and macro levels. In Calcutta, for example, "garbage gardens" thrive on that city's mostly degradable waste, which is painstakingly sorted by thousands of garbage pickers. Separation of wastes at the household level facilitates the recycling of other materials, which not only reduces pollution but generates employment and conserves energy. Thus, one should not underestimate the role that urban agriculture can play in community development and revitalization.

Although many people in Western countries have lost their links with the land over the last several generations, such is not the case for most of those who are now migrating into cities of the developing nations. While some of these migrants may not like the idea of continuing to work the land, the fact remains that they do have the survival skills necessary to produce their own food if they have access to the resources. The attitudinal barrier is complicated in many African countries by the traditional role of women in subsistence farming, which reinforces the reluctance of men to engage in non-commericial food production.

This issue of the Food and Nutrition Bulletin includes contributions on urban agriculture by several FEN consultants or collaborators. Isabel Wade, author of the recent manual "City Food: Crop Selection in Third World Cities,"2 prepared an overview article comparing food production in different cities of emerging countries. A more detailed description of activities in Asian cities is provided by Yue-man Yeung, and a social perspective on urban agriculture in Africa is given by Friedhelm Streiffeler. Two FEN projects on urban agriculture are also covered: Pablo Gutman analyses the results of such research in Argentina, and Jerzy Kleer outlines work currently under way in Poland.

All of this research supports our contention that the concept of greater urban self-reliance should not be dismissed as a utopian idea that has no place in reality. Despite the lack of mainstream research, a directory of over 200 organizations active in this area compiled for FEN3 shows that much more is actually happening at the community level than is reflected in official reports. These initiatives deserve to be observed, analysed, and supported.

Unlike capital- and energy-intensive projects, community-based initiatives do not depend on big budgets, although this is no excuse for governments to decline their responsibilities. It must be made quite clear that urban self-reliance does not mean less work for the state but a different kind of work. What is needed is policies that support such initiatives rather than institutional barriers that block them This is a crucial issue that must lead to new types of dialogue between communities and local authorities.

For this to happen, we strongly endorse the assertion made by Niņez [2] that household food production must be treated as a serious development objective. At the same time the custom of directing practically all agricultural development assistance to rural areas must be challenged. To adapt the author's nautical analogy, we prefer to see urban agriculture more as oars in a small sailboat: while not the major source of propulsion, they are indispensable for getting out of tight spots and, with a little effort, can be relied on to ensure some progress when the wind fails.


1. See the newly launched bulletin "Gardens for Development, designed for professionals in small-scale food production. Contact: Vera Niņez, Editor, 870 E. Mitchell Drive, Tucson, AZ 85719, USA.

2. Copies of this 54page manual are available from Urban Resource Systems, Inc., 783 Buena Vista West San Francisco, CA 94117, USA, for US$7.50 per copy in industrialized countries and US$5.00 per copy in developing countries.

3. "Urban Self-reliance Directory," International Foundation for Development Alternatives/UNU, 1987, available from FEN, Bureau 311, 54 bd Raspail, 75270 Paris CEDEX 06, France.


1. L. Brownrigg, Home Gardening in International Development: What the Literature Shows (League for International Food Education, Washington, D.C., USA, 1985).

2. V.K. Niņez, "The Household Garden as a Lifeboat," Ceres, no.112, 19 (4): 31-36 (1986).

Urban agriculture and the metabolism of cities

Tjeerd Deelstra
Ecology and Planning Research Office, Delft University of Technology, Delft, Netherlands

There are currently about 350 million persons in the developing nations who do not get enough to eat. They also suffer from poor access to water, building materials, and fuels. The percentage of the population that is sick and undernourished, mainly children, is increasing in urban areas much faster than in rural areas. In 15 years, more than 50 per cent of residents in these countries will live in cities. The projections include Mexico City at 28 million, Calcutta at 22 million, and Manila at 17 million. How will all these individuals be able to obtain the necessary food, water, housing, and fuel in the year 2000, when such needs cannot even be met today?

In cities in the northern hemisphere, consumption patterns reflect the kinds of industrial production, commercial activity, and services that have been developed. Consider, for example, how large cities receive their provisions. They must rely on an agricultural sector, established at some distance from urban areas, that is dedicated to producing food. In fact, such agricultural land produces more than the cities themselves require, and thus contributes to increasing the national revenue through exports. This is done to some extent with raw materials and energy sources imported from developing countries.

In the case of the Netherlands, data show that 40 per cent of all agricultural and food products are exported. In addition to the 2.4 million hectares of land cultivated in their own country, the Dutch have commercial arrangements to control about 13 million hectares in underdeveloped nations. The cassava and palm oil that are produced in these areas go to feed livestock and provide raw materials for the food industries of the well-provisioned North rather than for local use. The chemical fertilizer industry also requires raw materials and considerable energy, both of which could be used to better effect providing goods and services to the citizens of these emerging societies. As with the production of food products, industrialized cities depend on extensive but single-purpose sources to supply energy, water, and construction materials. Such systems not only are wasteful and polluting but tend to deplete resource supplies and thus make cities even more vulnerable to supply failures.

For two basic reasons, the Northern model must change. First, the current production, distribution, and consumption systems of most cities can no longer function efficiently. For example, some organic wastes that used to make a contribution to agriculture in the form of compost are no longer available. Today there are too many heavy metals and other non-biodegradable materials present in industrially processed consumer goods. In San Francisco alone, the amounts of aluminium, copper, and paper thrown out each year equal the output of an average bauxite mine, a small copper mine, and a decent-sized forest. The "metabolism" of cities could be made much more independent through the use of alternative energy sources from within by recycling wastes and by closing the loops between the users of raw materials and producers of residues. These same systems seriously damage the environment in the northern hemisphere. For example, modern agriculture results in depositions of heavy metals and nitrates that can irreversibly pollute soils as well as the aquifers upon which many cities rely for their domestic water sources. Other modern production and transportation processes also contribute to air water and soil pollution.

Second, this exploitation has had an impact not only on the environment in developing notions but on their social fabric. It is largely the rich who have benefited from the industrial and agricultural activities directed toward Western countries, and this has further widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

Urban development in the developing nations, therefore, must increasingy be aimed toward self-sufficiency. Efforts must be made not to repeat the mistakes made by the highly developed cities, such as the generation of the many types of environmental pollution that result from many industrial processes. There is considerable potential for such development, since urban infrastructure, such as water and sewage systems, roadways, and electricity distribution, is in many cases either poorly developed or totally absent. It is thus still possible to invest in the kinds of development that help to make cities less vulnerable to resource shortages or transportation disruptions.

Such approaches, which make more efficient use of energy and produce less waste, also reduce the levels of pollution that must be borne by both the environment and the people. Take, for example, garbage removal. To manage it at the mega-city level, one cannot simply rely on officials, whose responsibility is always limited, or on powerful special-interest groups, who always look after their own needs first.

Public participation in planning and development activities is a requisite for well-managed cities. The problems affecting the environment and urban society are so important that all available expertise and an extensive social reservoir of ideas and action must be used to resolve them.

Another advantage of public participation is that it helps to satisfy the need expressed by people to be involved with their community. It is when citizens actively participate in the management of their city that they understand what is required to make it run, the result being that both their behaviour and that of responsible officials is adjusted to their city's needs. People normally take a great deal of satisfaction from contributing personally to the general well-being of their community. Human resources are thus at least as important as natural resources, raw materials, and technology in the management and organization of a city.

Urban agriculture is one of many techniques that can be employed to reduce the vulnerability, waste, and other problems facing cities. It includes diverse activities that use nature for the benefit of people, such as sylviculture (to produce wood for fuel, lumber, or other uses), gardening, livestock raising, fruit growing, and aquaculture, and can even improve the supply of drinking water.

Urban agriculture offers many advantages to cities from both ecological and technical perspectives, especially if the green spaces that result are an integral part of the urban fabric. Apart from improving the functioning of the city, it has social advantages in that it enables vulnerable groups in the urban community to improve their conditions. For example, a well-developed city, whose fertile soils have been conserved, is a healthier city. First of all, buffer zones and green belts help to ensure that the city's hydrological system is not unduly disrupted. Well-maintained water tables are important for green spaces and also to support building foundations. Maintaining the equilibrium of aquifers ensures potable water and helps to avoid problems of sewers fracturing. Many new cities have areas prone to widespread flooding. Green spaces-particularly well-worked garden plots, which are much more porous than heavily trampled parks-enable hydrological systems to maintain their surface waters through higher rain infiltration rates, rather than having too much surface run-off causing flash floods followed by dried-up river beds.

Green spaces also have a favourable effect on air circulation, temperature, and humidity levels in the city. In tropical regions, alternating areas of cultivated land help to refresh the atmosphere. Increased vegetation cover also protects soils and reduces erosion. Finally, green spaces can play a role in dispersing noise and reducing levels of dust in the air. Air quality is also improved by the production of oxygen through photosynthesis. This is what is meant by the hygienic function of green spaces.

Urban agriculture can also contribute to the efficient functioning of waste-water treatment systems. A sewage purification system based on stimulating the growth of algae and associated with an aquaculture facility can enable waste water to be re-used for industrial purposes or even for drinking.

If efforts are made to separate household wastes at the source to avoid contamination by toxic substances, some of these can be composted for use as fertilizer for fields and gardens. In this way, the demand for landfill sites to bury such wastes or incinerators to burn them is reduced. It also may be possible to produce biogas from agricultural wastes.

Urban agriculture can reduce the costly and problematic transportation of food from rural areas because it produces food locally. This means savings on roadways, trucks, fuels, trains, boats, and warehouses, as well as storage and refrigeration installations. The trans-shipment and transportation of food products such as cereals and vegetables is often subject to considerable losses due to spoilage and pests. This problem can be reduced by more decentralized food production.

Another positive element is that urban agriculture can optimize human resources, and this is not just a question of physical labour. Persons who move into town from farms often have special knowledge about land use and growing things that can be taken advantage of for the wise management of cities' green spaces. In addition, rapid urbanization frequently makes it difficult for immigrants to adjust to life in large cities. Urban agriculture enables them to use their traditional attachment to the land to help them in the transition.

A major advantage of urban agriculture is its potential to improve the socio-economic situation of the poor. Large numbers of rural residents in developing countries migrate toward cities with the hope of finding a more promising future. Many of them are illiterate, and, as they can rely only on limited family and other contacts for support, they often wind up in shanty towns or move from place to place. The opportunity to raise some of their own food can be a strong stimulus to stabilizing residence and morale as well as to improving nutrition.

The confidence or self-esteem that such persons lack in themselves can be reinforced when they realize that it is possible to improve their situation. A feeling of having some base upon which to work gives them increased security, enabling them to integrate themselves more fully with the life of the city. As urban agriculture is generally organized in a co-operative manner, it contributes to increasing individuals' social networks, which is a prerequisite for success in cities.

For these and other reasons, urban agriculture activities are commonly found in many cities throughout the world. Elsewhere in this issue, the impressive urban agriculture of Shanghai and Guangzhou, China, and other cities in Asia is described. Programmes are now under way in Addis Ababa; Ahmadabad, India; Panama City; Lae, Papua New Guinea; Kisangani, Zaire; Bamako, Mali; San Jose, Costa Rica; Manila; Hong Kong; Managua, Nicaragua; Lusaka, Zambia; Belize; Maputo, Mozambique; Bangkok; Mexico City; Dhaka; Nairobi; Dar es Salaam; Singapore; Beijing; Lima; Santiago; and Seoul, not to mention many cities in Europe and North America.

There are many differences between the programmes, notably with respect to their social organization. In some cases, such community development is a community-based initiative that receives the support of local authorities or charitable organizations. In others, it is undertaken with the help of experts or, according to the local political system, the central authorities. Co-operation among all of the participants is always important.

The impact of such projects varies considerably. Sometimes they remain limited to the technical aspects of agricultural, sylvicultural, or aquacultural programmes. They can also entail such things as legal aspects of land use and complementary programmes on employment, financial support, professional orientation, and education.


This article was translated from French by Dana Silk.


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