Food insecurity

Neal Peirce is a mainstream guy.  Yet even he is nervous over the future of food supply here and around the world. He correctly notes that much of the ability to increase the number of people we are able to feed is based on cheap oil.  And as we all know, we’ve reached the end of that era.

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Counsel to Cities: Feed Thyself

Neal Peirce

For Release Sunday, January 30, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

America’s first full-scale urban agriculture program is sprouting in San Francisco, a prime initiative of former Mayor Gavin Newsom (recently elected California’s lieutenant governor).

Newsom began by ordering city departments to audit any scraps of unused land that might be turned into gardens, from empty lots to window sills to rooftops.

In Brooklyn, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, located atop an old warehouse, is growing vegetables to sell at local markets and to local restaurants — inviting volunteers to help cultivate the plots on weekends and learn techniques for creating gardens on their window sills or roofs.

City farms are sprouting from Detroit to Los Angeles, Milwaukee to Miami, many of them in the nation’s grittiest, grimiest neighborhoods.

Yet urban agriculture, Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle, “is far more than growing vegetables on empty lots. It’s about revitalizing and transforming public spaces, connecting city residents with their neighborhoods in a new way and promoting healthier eating and living for everybody.”

Elsewhere in the world, the story’s also one of survival.

One example: the massive Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where hunger is a daily reality and food purchases can account for up to 80 percent of the money a family spends. Yet Kibera has more than 1,000 farmers — mostly women — growing spinach, kale and other vegetables. Where do they find space? On old sacks full of dirt and poked with holes outside their doorsteps.

And the story is not unique. Across sub-Saharan Africa, urban farmers who have access to space but not dirt are using platform gardens, their soil coaxed from compost, trash, organic or chemical fertilizers.

In the face its country’s 2001 economic meltdown, survival led many of the million-plus citizens of Rosario, Argentina, to start cultivating plots of lands across the city to assure food for themselves and their families. Hundreds of the plots are still in cultivation.

The global array of examples is cited in the Washington-based WorldWatch Institute’s just-released “2011 State of the World” report, focused on “Innovations that Nourish the Planet.”

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate. The security of major global trade in corn, wheat, rice and commodities, based on inexpensive oil for shipment and the globe’s high food production enabled by the Green Revolution, is clearly coming unglued.

We’re facing the second serious spike in world food prices in just three years, raising the specter of more food riots in poor countries. The causes abound: global water scarcity increasing, soil fertility dropping, fertilizer prices escalating with oil prices, our growing love affair with biofuels crowding out other crops, more demand for meat causing added grain demand, and world population rising by some 75 million a year.

And then there’s climate. The heat wave that swept western Russia last summer, notes Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin, first seemed a local crisis. But as temperatures soared to past 100 degrees for weeks, Muscovites found themselves choking with smoke from heat-triggered forest fires ravaging suburban neighborhoods. Russia’s grain harvest shrank from roughly 100 million tons to 60 million tons, helping to drive world wheat prices up by more than a third.

Add in other recent weather catastrophes, including the devastating floods impacting Pakistan and Australia, and the prospects of global food stability diminish even more.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, goes so far as to define “a food bubble economy — created by overpumping aquifers and overplowing and overgrazing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.” Like the U.S.-born housing bubble before it, Brown predicts bursting of the food bubble will ricochet worldwide with dire consequences including “survival itself” at stake for peoples living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder.

It’s an issue that wise cities and metropolitan regions — across the continents — should think about sooner rather than later. Many cities were founded not just as centers of commerce but because of fertile fields, often in lush river valleys. But peripheral growth, the profusion of suburbs, has preempted much of that land — an encroachment growing fast now around developing world metros.

A sound course would say: Conserve as much of the peripheral farmlands as a region can, fostering their careful cultivation. Encourage farmers’ markets. Buy as much food “in country” as one can. And then emulate the best world models of cities fostering food cultivation across their territory, from empty fields and lots to window boxes to rooftops, along with ingenious watering schemes such as reuse of “gray” water for plant nourishment.

And work on varieties of ways to reduce today’s immense waste of food — in homes, restaurants, and (especially in the developing world) storage spots easily compromised by heat, cold and insect attacks.

It’s a complex formula. But cities, with their pools of talented people, should be up to it — providing they plan intelligently ahead.

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