World Food Days 2014

By Wayne Roberts, Visiting Scholar

This year, several United Nations identified agroecology as a strategy of food production that is central to dealing with hunger, human rights and environmental crises. This October, New College added to this discussion by hosting a mini-conference to celebrate World Food Day and ask if agroecology is pushing out agriculture as “the next new thing” in food and equity.

Not to be outdone, I decided to title my October 17 talk in the mini-conference’s final panel session “Cities, The Next New Thing in Agroecology?”.

Visiting Scholar Wayne Roberts

New College Visiting Scholar Wayne Roberts, pictured here, argues that cities should incentivize the adoption of agroecological methods in their surrounding areas, where intensive food production is the norm.

This title might sound odd, especially in today’s world where half the population lives in cities and the assumption–or perhaps stereotype–is that food is grown in rural areas, so food isn’t very relevant to cities.

This assumption is part of what’s called the “productionist bias” in food policy and analysis, which focuses attention on production and crop yields rather than consumption and the overall social and cultural benefits that come from food.

To get a sense of the enormity of this bias, compare Google search results: in Google Scholar, there are 48,000 entries for agroecology, but only 6950 entries for agroecology and cities.

Most results are related to urban agriculture projects that follow agroecological principles, such as growing a mixed range of crops that mimic the diversity of nature rather than the orderly patterns that are typical of most farms and gardens. Finding a study on large-scale agroecology as it relates to entire cities, however, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

So I’m going to stick my neck out and describe this article as the first attempt to write about agroecology and cities.

I believe that cities would benefit from, and should incentivize, the adoption of agroecological methods in areas around cities where intensive food production is standard, as in the Niagara and Holland Marsh areas of the Greenbelt surrounding Toronto.

In an urban environment, the most important defining feature of agroecology is “multi-functionalism”–the deliberate fostering of many kinds of crops and many kinds of benefits in any given area. This strategy is entirely at odds with the standard monoculture associated with conventional agriculture–a farm devoted exclusively to dairy, chickens, pigs, wheat, corn or soy, for example.

Food production designed along agroecological principles would typically mix livestock and field crops, using the manure from livestock to fertilize the soil that supports grains, and feed the livestock primarily from perennial grass meadows.

The ideal is a farm that provides several revenue streams–one for grains, one for wool, one for sheep’s milk and cheese, one for meat and one for sheepskin coats.

Such on-farm diversity and resilience would benefit cities in many ways.

First, it ensures a city has nearby sources of a wide variety of foods in the event that food transportation from afar is blocked by storms, energy interruptions or transportation shutdowns.

Second, it provides a host of specialty products that delight people in urban farmers’ markets or tourists in the growing (pardon the pun) field of agritourism, a mainstay of the tourism industry in France and Italy, and perhaps coming soon to North America.

Third, such diverse and extensive farms offer green space and what are called “eco-services.”  Eco-services refer to the work that natural settings perform to clean or cool air and water, store carbon and filter pollutants and soothe the stressed souls of city dwellers.

A typical agroecological farm would provide a rich array of eco-services: carbon would be stored underground to offset global warming emissions, city drinking water supplies would be filtered by the deep and thick roots of meadow grasses, and rivers and lakes would be able to support fisheries because of the clean and clear waters filtered by pastures and orchards.

Indeed, the economic value of crops and livestock grown on agroecological farms may actually match what we’ve come to expect from mainstream farming techniques. In 2008, economists with the Suzuki Foundation estimated the value of ecosystem services provided by the Greenbelt at $2.6 billion dollars a year.

Within the city, the teachings of agroecology also apply to a new generation of green infrastructure.

The Latin root of the word “agriculture” refers to the cultivation of fields and is not appropriate for cities, where most fields are monopolized by sports teams. Food in cities has to be grown in nooks and crannies–on flat roofs, building walls, small backyard gardens, boulevards, balconies and windowsills.

This is where agriculture stalls and agroecology struts its stuff.

The bonus of farming in nooks and crannies is eco-services–rain is stored on roofs instead of flooding sewer systems, balconies and walls with plants freshen and cool the summer air with their evaporation, gardens use up compost that must otherwise be hauled away at great expense, and so on.

Because of its multi-functionality and ability to provide a wide range of services and benefits beyond food, agroecology is well-suited to cities.

The major precedent for using city funds to support farm stewardship of such eco-services comes from New York City, which has famously spent $1.5 billion on watershed protection programs provided by farmers and foresters in a successful bid to avoid many billions more in expenditures to clean water through the city’s own water-filtration plants.

It is only logical that cities incubate this new approach by supporting agroecology inside and outside city borders. A new and enriched “good neighbourhood” relationship between cities and the surrounding countryside is in the offing, and is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.

This is the final posting on New College’s World Food Day Events by Dr. Wayne Roberts. Roberts is a visiting scholar at New College, and recent author of two books on food and agroecology: The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building. (Read the first and second articles in this series.)