Cover Image
close this book Cities feeding people
close this folder Foreword: Urban agriculture is already feeding cities
View the document What is urban agriculture?
View the document Significance of urban food production
View the document Who are urban farmers?
View the document Issues
View the document Conclusion

Foreword: Urban agriculture is already feeding cities

Irene Tinker

Urban agriculture (UA) is wrongly considered an oxymoron. Despite its critical role in producing food for city dwellers around the world, urban food production has largely been ignored by scholars and agricultural planners; government officials and policymakers at best dismiss the activity as peripheral and at worst burn crops and evict farmers, claiming that urban farms are not only unsightly but also promote pollution and illness. Contradicting this image, recent studies document the commercial value of food produced in the urban area while underscoring the importance of urban farming as a survival strategy among the urban poor, especially women heads of households.

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), with its enviable perspicacity, became the first major international agency to recognize the importance of urban food production. In 1983, the urban section of IDRC under Yue-man Yeung funded a study of six urban centres in Kenya to be carried out by the Mazingira Institute of Nairobi. Additional studies and scholars have been supported over the last decade until the weight of reports and awareness of problems with urban food security has at last brought the issue to the forefront of IDRC's agenda. In the spring of 1993, IDRC organized two events designed to propel this policy concern to a wider audience: a policy and planning conference at the Ottawa headquarters and panels at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for African Studies (CAAS), held in Toronto.

The decision to organize panels at the CAAS conference with its theme of "Urban and Community Development" was logical. Africa south of the Sahara is the only part of the world where per-capita food production has fallen during the past decade. Inadequate rural food supplies are exacerbated by pressures of structural adjustment that reduce urban employment; the fall in prices of export crops both encourages urban migration and reduces the government's ability to purchase food stocks due to inadequate foreign exchange earnings. World food emergency supplies are currently under stress as demand grows as a result of widespread famine and war. Changing consumption patterns in the cities provide opportunities for commercial growing of foods not typically grown in rural areas, particularly vegetables. Together, these trends help explain the expansion of urban food production throughout the region.

The CAAS panels brought together scholars studying UA in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, and Uganda to discuss their research. The studies done by Axumite Egziabher in Addis Ababa, Camillus Sawio in Dar es Salaam, and Daniel Maxwell in Kampala are based on their doctoral dissertations. Each focuses on a particular aspect of UA. Egziabher completed an intensive study of a cooperative that is growing vegetables commercially. Sawio collected data on socioeconomic characteristics of urban farmers in both squatter and legal residential areas. Maxwell is particularly concerned with the interplay of land rights, size and location of the farms, type of food produced, and characteristics of the farmers. The research in both Kenya and Mali, which emphasized the interrelationships of urban food production and cooking fuel, were funded by IDRC through the Mazingira Institute in Nairobi and the ENDA Energie (Environnement et developpement du Tiers-Monde) in Dakar and carried out by a team.

For a contrasting practical view, an official of the Organization of Collective Cooperatives in Zimbabwe was invited to discuss real-time issues of UA in his country. To provide an international perspective, papers on Bolivia and China were also presented. The four papers on East Africa are presented in this publication; policy aspects of the studies on Mali, Bolivia, and East Asia are included in the proceedings of the Ottawa meeting (Mougeot and Masse 1993).

Taken together, this research challenges the assumptions of economic-development theorists, marxist and modernists, who see UA as the inappropriate retention of peasant culture in cities and confidently predict its disappearance. A similar debate over informal-sector enterprises raged during the 1970s and eventually resulted in a new set of policies to support and improve small and medium enterprises in this sector. Excluded from this debate were most family or individual entrepreneurial activity, whether craft or agricultural production or street vending. This exclusion resulted from the focus on employment in the informal sector that was the major concern of the first major funder of these studies, the International Labour Organization (ILO). Current research has recognized individual and family entrepreneurial activity as an important part of the informal sector; the development community has initiated separate support programs for these microenterprises. It is time that UA becomes recognized as an important part of the urban informal sector because it provides income, or income-substituting food, to a significant number of urban residents.

The papers also challenge development planners who perceive a dichotomy between rural and urban, between agriculture and cities, and so assign food production solely to rural areas. In reality, animals as well as vegetable gardens have long been characteristic of urban life. For example, a recently published study on microlivestock by the United States National Research Council identifies species suitable for raising in the house or in a confined space. Urban squatters are given free seeds to grow protein-rich legume vines on their huts. Even in industrialized countries, gardens are flourishing. In New York City, gardens grow where urban wastelands existed a few years ago: the South Bronx herb gardens supply gourmet restaurants in Manhattan. The owner of Kona Kai Farms in a commercial area of Berkeley, California, claims an income of 0.25 million USD on less than 0.4 ha of land; his salad greens, herbs, and edible flowers are marketed as far away as Hong Kong. Apartment residents in St Petersburg are countering the collapse of food systems in Russia by growing vegetables in rooftop gardens. [For more information on these examples, see the special issue of Hunger Notes on "Urban food production: neglected resource for food and jobs" edited by Irene Tinker (available for 5 USD from the World Hunger Education Service, PO Box 29056, Washington, DC 20017, USA). I Theory needs to catch up to practice; the concept of continuum needs to replace the idea of dichotomy, with a focus on the types of food and animals that are adaptable to the urban or pert-urban landscape.