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View the documentUrban agriculture offers new elements in Argentine diets

Urban agriculture offers new elements in Argentine diets

According to statistics, the Argentinians are a well-fed people. But averages, of course, are based on highs and lows. In the almost 4 000 km2 of the urban conglomeration of Greater Buenos Aires, some 2 million of the zone's 10 million inhabitants received food assistance from the Programa Alimentario Nacional (National Food Programme), which the constitutional government was obliged to set up. Clearly it is not enough that there exists a food surplus, that the infrastructure is good, that the urban markets are well supplied. The poor still lack the resources to feed themselves adequately. But even an income theoretically sufficient for adequate food is no guarantee that the poor will get enough to eat, since they often have to spend their income on other needs.

Argentina, like other Third World countries, is going through an economic crisis and a profound transformation with serious repercussions on the urban way of life, which is to say, on the lives of the majority of the population. Public indebtedness weakens the State and impedes social action; unemployment has become a structural problem and technological change is making it even worse; real salaries and opportunities decline just when social security and all the indirect salaries instituted previously by the Welfare State are threatened. Argentina, once destined by great men to be "breadbasket of the world", in this decade is seeing the return of the soup kitchens that fed the poor during the 1930s depression.

A study on urban agriculture in Greater Buenos Aires finds that Latin America, unlike Europe and the English-speaking countries, has scant experience with urban gardens. Recently urban agriculture has received new attention, since it requires less expenditure of energy in transport and preservation, offers at least partial employment to the unemployed, and permits greater use of natural and urban spaces, but urban gardens for self-sufficiency are still not widespread. According to the project, a garden can provide between 10 and 30 per cent of a nutritionally satisfactory diet and in the two lower-income groups (the indigent and the poor), it could contribute 5 to 20 per cent of a family's total income. The construction of an urban garden does not require great resources: just 50 square metres intensely cultivated, and worked only a day and a half a week, can supply fruit and vegetables to a family of five. Cash outlay is minimal as household refuse can be recycled and used.

Greater Buenos Aires contains much vacant land, of which most is private property but some is public (such as the land along railroad tracks), which could be used to grow fruit and vegetables. But in general the gardens are "back yard", since the typical single-family house usually occupies only a third of its plot (usually 25 or 30 metres deep by 10 in front).

Before the garden is put in, the soil must be fertilized. This means the gardener must travel to where good earth and manure can be obtained, possibly with a small truck. Then compost must be made with organic residues; the earth and bed must be prepared, and the garden must be enclosed with a fence of one sort or another. Advice on seed selection, sowing calendar, selection and combination of species for pest control, the setting up of a nursery for seedlings will be needed as will water for irrigation, of course, and an initial investment of time and labour. And finally, a pitchfork, a shovel, a hoe, and a spade in other words, gardening tools - will be needed.

Each bed, correctly prepared, can contain four to five rows of 5 metres each; four to eight beds, or between 80 and 200 linear metres, can be cultivated at a time. According to the Instituto Nacional de TecnologAgraria, 30 linear metres can produce a harvest of 37.5 kg of Swiss chard, 50 kg of aubergines, 25 kg of lettuce, 75 kg of beetroot, 50 kg of onions, tomatoes, or carrots, and 75 kg of cabbage - more than enough to feed a family of five.

Of course, every harvest will produce much more than the family can consume. Thus agreements with neighbours will have to be made, or techniques of food preservation will have to be learned, with the help of advisors, who will also make suggestions regarding which crops to plant together and when to plant in order to stagger harvest times of each crop.

Gardens for home consumption have great advantages over programmes of direct assistance or subsidies for the most popular foods. In production for family consumption, the project is in the hands of the direct beneficiary, who will, in the medium term, achieve his independence in nutrition. Moreover, a programme of gardens of this type will increase production of food and the use of local resources, mobilizing families, and this, of course, does not happen when families are passive recipients of subsidies.

But the gardens are not an immediate solution to poverty nor do they provide free food. Moreover, they can fail when they are not cared for properly or when natural disasters strike, such as the periodic floods that strike the low-lying areas of the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where the poor families live. And reconstruction of a destroyed garden takes four months, during which the family must resume work without producing food. And while any family will accept official food assistance, not every family has time or is willing to start and tend a garden.

Kitchen gardens do not hold the solution to the problem of feeding the poor of the cities. Diffusion of the idea has, under present conditions, been slow and laborious. Many Latin Americans who start a garden abandon it, either because they migrate or because it fails, often for reasons related to the willingness of the grower.

There exists, too, the cultural problem: it is not the poorest (who have abandoned all hope of improving their lot on their own) or the workers (or unemployed workers) who accept the idea of a garden. The young prefer to seek work, even temporary, outside the home before agreeing to work the land. The middle classes do not know how to cultivate, and they disparage work on the land (with the exception of the growing of flowers). The typical Argentine diet (meat, milk products, wheat products) gives scant attention to vegetables and requires cash expenditure to procure them, instead of cultivating fruits and vegetables for family consumption. Often, too, the land belonging to a house is set aside for the home of the eldest son when he marries. But it is possible, in any case, to promote - in the press and with radio and television programmes and with coordinated action on the part of local authorities - a kitchen garden project that relies on uncultivated land and seeds from the Government and the use of much private vacant land, perhaps with reductions of taxes as incentives to the growing of community gardens.

It is equally conceivable to organize, either privately or through the municipal collection of organic residues, a special programme directed at school lunchrooms, factory canteens, and restaurants in order to make high-quality compost to supply to growers at low cost. Assistance, direct and indirect, and the selection of seeds require special attention by the local government or specialized institutions in collaboration with the groups committed to the diffusion of urban horticulture, especially at first, since afterwards neighbours can organize themselves to teach others what they have learned.

Managua, Sao Paulo, Lajes (RGrande do Norte, Brazil), Panama City, and other Latin American cities have undertaken urban agriculture schemes, and the municipalities have donated public land for horticulture. The experience of Buenos Aires is not unique, but proves that it is possible to introduce in Latin America a type of agriculture popular in other parts of the world. Most important, it demonstrates that it is socially expedient to assist the poor to become producers, and at the same time defend the urban environment as well as its income and quality of life.

Guillermo Almeyra