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Cultivating the Urban Scene

Article by Fred Pearce and Orjan Furubjelke (UNEP)

n Cuba they call them organoponicos. There are market gardens growing organic produce on every patch of wasteland across the capital, Havana. The gardens were born of necessity, when the country's state-organized farming system collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union a decade ago and cheap imports of agrochemicals ceased. Now their constant supply of vegetables stops the city from starving, and is helping to pioneer new intensive methods of farming without chemicals.

According to the United Nations Development Programme's urban agriculture network, around 15 percent of the world's food is now grown in urban areas, a figure that appears to be rising all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, as wages slump, jobs disappear and state and commercial food distribution systems break down, more and more city-dwellers turn to growing their own food in the city.

In Harare, Zimbabwe, cultivated food plots have doubled in a decade. The proportion of people involved in urban agriculture in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, rose from 18 to 67 percent in a generation. In many cities, farming is the biggest industry. Most of the poultry, pork and
vegetables eaten in urban areas is grown in those same urban areas.

Most Europeans known about allotments. The image is of ageing city-dwellers growing their potatoes and onions on a strip of public land between the railway line and the gas works. But today demand for allotments in many cities is booming, with long waiting lists to acquire a plot. There are more than 300 000 allotment plots in Britain alone, tended by over a million people. Many of the new tenants are young.

James Petts of Sustain, a UK organization backing better food and farming, says people do not trust the commercial food industry any more. "The only way of getting round that is producing the food yourself." Sustain is pushing the idea of commercial city harvests, with crops grown on the city's composted organic waste. Many other cities round the developing world have similar plans. In parts of Germany and Switzerland, urban developers are required to replace the green space they cover over -- usually on the roof.

For the rich world, growing your own is in part a luxury and a welcome change from supermarket shopping. But for the poor in the developing world, it is often a necessity. Explore a typical city in Asia, Latin America, Africa or the former Soviet Union and the extent of urban food production is extraordinary.

In Calcutta an estimated 20 000 people farm the richly-composted old waste dumps and raise carp and tilapia in tanks filled with treated sewage water. In Kampala, Uganda, they grow bananas in their backyards and maize on roadside verges. Cactuses sprout on rooftops of Mexico City. In Lima, Peru, they raise guineapig meat in the squatter settlements and in Nairobi, Kenya, chickens fatten in coops bolted to apartment walls.

Sheep graze the verges of Armenia's capital Yerevan, and cattle are driven in from the countryside along the motorway verges. In Haiti they grow vegetables in old tyres, baskets and even kettles. People grow food in allotments and on high-rise rooftops, on river banks and roadside verges, in parks and market gardens and any piece of wasteland they can find.

Nor is it a marginal activity. In Bangkok, Thailand, fully 60 percent of the land is devoted to farming. In Bogota, Colombia, farming provides 50 jobs per hectare -- more than a supermarket. Cairo has 80 000 livestock within the city limits. Hong Kong, the densest large city in the world, produces two-thirds of its own poultry, a sixth of its pigs and half its vegetables.

One in three urban households worldwide grows some food. In Moscow it is two-thirds, three times the level of a generation ago. Scientists that the state cannot afford to pay turn up at their laboratories each day to grow cabbages and cucumbers in the grounds. Sarajevo did not starve during the long siege of the Bosnian city in the late 1990s because it fed itself.

Sometimes it can be dangerous, of course. Leafy vegetables soak up air pollution, especially lead from exhausts. Close contact with livestock such as pigs brings the risk of diseases. Children may play in the back garden where pesticides have been sprayed. And in Peru in 1992, sewage water used to irrigate urban crops helped spread cholera.

For a long time city authorities discouraged or even banned farming in the city. But, says Jac Smit, president of the UNDP network, that view is changing. Recent studies in the Philippines and elsewhere have linked better child nutrition to the local production of food in urban areas.

"Urban farming is often minimized as being merely "kitchen gardening" or marginalized as a leftover of rural habits. But urban farming goes far beyond gardening," says Smit. It creates green spaces, recycles waste, cuts down on traffic, provides employment, substitutes for imported high-value goods, prevents erosion and is good for the microclimate."

It is, Smit says, an efficient use of resources. Typically, intensive production of vegetables in urban areas uses less than a fifth as much irrigation water and one-sixth as much land as mechanized rural cultivation. An estimated 800 million people in cities and towns around the world spend some time each week tending to plants that will help feed their families or make money in the local market.

Ignored by researchers and frowned on by officials, urban farming is nonetheless, hectare for hectare, among the most productive in the world. People are farming small areas extremely intensively, making nonsense of conventional views about countries' inability to feed themselves. Urban farming, quite simply, offers a means of survival for hundreds of millions of the world's poorest, most vulnerable inhabitants.

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