Urban Agriculture: A Hopeful Track Record

The reasons I look to urban and suburban food-growing as a major strategy for ending world hunger are twofold.  First, Earth’s human population is more than half urban now, and growing our own food where we live, whenever possible, makes all kinds of sense.  Second, there are good records of two quite different instances in which it was done, and they are very promising indeed.

The earlier instance is the Victory Gardens of World War II.  During 1942-45, the US was diverting much of its farm production to feeding the army, enough to cause rationing and food shortages.  The government therefore made a point of encouraging citizens to plant food gardens wherever they could, and citizens all over the country responded.  They dug up front and back lawns;  they planted herbs in window boxes;  they grew food in pots on apartment building roofs;  they used gardens that were established in public parks.  Some 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in these years, probably representing around a third of all US households at that time, and according to the USDA they produced 9 or 10 million tons of food.  This represented about 40% (!) of the vegetables and fruit grown in the US during those years — all of it in addition to what was grown on farms.

Similar statistics come from a very different situation:  Cuba’s “special time.”  The background for this was Cuba’s cold war position as a client state of the Soviet Union:  Cuba grew mostly sugar cane and tobacco as commodity crops and traded them for cheap oil and agricultural chemicals from the USSR , as well as for food — since with most of its arable land devoted to commodities, Cuba needed to import about 80% of what its people ate.  Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the oil and agricultural inputs abruptly stopped coming.  Yet the US trade embargo against Cuba prevented either commodity sales to, or food imports from, anywhere else.

Whatever one thinks of the Castro regime, it is at least notable that rationing prevented anyone from starving.  On the other hand, pretty much everyone got hungry.  Yet measures were quickly taken to correct the situation.  Why they occurred and by whose initiative is hotly disputed, depending on whether you approve of socialism/ communism or condemn it — but there is no disagreement at all about what actually happened.  First, Cuban agriculture went mostly organic, including breeding beneficial bugs to eat pests and breeding oxen to pull plows without gasoline (and to supply copious manure for organic fertilization).  Second, commodity crop farms were broken up into smaller plots, which were given to small groups of farmers who were strenuously encouraged to grow food, and even given the option of making money by selling anything they grew beyond a certain amount.  And third, every Cuban family was encouraged and enabled to grow any food they could, both in urban parks and on any bit of yard they had;  where there was sunny pavement, as well as on sunny rooftops, people were enabled and encouraged to grow food in big bags filled with soil and compost and composted manure.  It took three years to fully ramp up all these efforts, but by 1994 some 600,000 tons of food were harvested from urban sites, representing over a third of Cuba’s produce for that year, and by that year Cuba grew enough calories of food per person to surpass what the UN calculates as necessary for health.  It was the intensive urban food production that made the difference.

These are two good examples of a country growing as much as 30 to 40% more fruits and vegetables by adding full implementation of urban/ suburban food production.  This is huge, and could hugely decrease the amount of hunger in the world.  High-tech tactics like the “Farm Boxes” and shipping container hydroponics that I discussed in my last post should certainly be part of urban food production.  But so should efforts by pretty nearly anyone to use their own lawns and roofs and community garden opportunities.  For if this is to really become a significant part of the solution to world hunger, pretty nearly everyone who can and is so inclined will need to take part.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

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