Urban Farms Provide More Than Food

Naturally, urban farming isn’t new. The British government has required cities to provide allotment plots for over 100 years, and many American city dwellers tended “victory gardens” during World War Two. But in recent years, cities from Dhaka to Doha to Detroit have discovered that urban farming is more valuable than ever.

Over the last 20 years, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Havana, Cuba and Shanghai, China have all started urban agriculture programs to address the problem of food insecurity. By growing their food locally, these cities have dodged the food problems common to other urban areas, while simultaneously promoting better nutrition and fostering a strong sense of community.

The massive tide of urbanization currently overtaking the developing world will only make the examples of Belo Horizonte, Havana, and Shanghai more valuable. Twenty percent of the world’s undernourished people live in cities[1], and those that do manage to get enough food do so at record costs. Food insecurity in cities has contributed to social unrest, including the initial protests of the Arab Spring[2]. The long supply chains that provide cities with food are easily severed by natural disasters that, thanks to climate change, are becoming more frequent[3]. Learning from these pioneers of urban farming could help other cities become more resilient, healthier and happier.

Belo Horizonte, Brazil –

In 1993, the newly-elected Worker’s Party tackled the problems of hunger and inequity by setting up government-funded agricultural education centers in the city’s slums. Since then, the urban farms of Belo Horizonte have become one of the most successful state-instigated urban agricultural projects in the world.

Moving beyond just addressing hunger, Belo Horizonte’s government specifically designed their system of urban agriculture to use food and farming to address a range of social issues. These urban farms provide work and income to the unemployed, occupational therapy to the elderly, and serve as education centers for the young.

Today, around 40% of Belo Horizonte’s citizens are involved with the city’s urban agriculture[4]. The urban farms have reduced child mortality in the city by 60%, and reduced malnourished children by 75%[5]. The farms also knit the community together by supplying local school cafeterias and special state-run restaurants that provide nutritious meals at low prices. Additionally, since the majority of the farmers are female[6], the farms help with gender equality by allowing women to make more money for their families. 

Havana, Cuba –

After the Cuban Revolution, the new Communist government shifted the island’s agricultural sector to a system reliant on imports of oil and machinery from the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed (and the US trade embargo remained), that system fell apart. Havana, which is home to 20% of the entire Cuban population, was particularly hard hit by the crisis. The city responded by beginning to grow its own food in urban gardens known as organoponicos.

Like in Belo Horizonte, the nutritional, economic, and social impact of urban agriculture transformed the city. Five years after the Cuban government began funding urban farms, Havana had 26,000 vegetables gardens that covered 8% of the city and turned out 540,000 tons of fresh vegetables a year[7]. Havana’s urban farms employ 384,000 people, roughly 17% of the city’s working population, and almost 90% of all vegetables consumed in Havana come from the organoponicos.

The organoponicos also serve an important social and economic role as one of the few examples of capitalism in Cuba’s otherwise state-run economy. Havana’s urban farmers are allowed to keep up to 50% of the profits from their gardens[8], which can add up to an income significantly above the standard, state-dictated wage for similar work[9].

Shanghai, China –

With a population around 13 million, Shanghai has a lot of mouths to feed. Thankfully, Shanghai and its immediate environs have 2.7 million farmers producing food for their local metropolis[10]. Sure, many of those farmers work just outside the city, but 60%- of the vegetables and nearly all the dairy consumed by city residents originate within the city limits[11].

As in Belo Horizonte and Havana, Shanghai’s urban farms have promoted nutritious diets, created new jobs, and provided social services to marginalized populations like the elderly[12]. However, the greatest benefit these farms provide to Shanghai isn’t what the produce, but what they take away: traffic.

Keeping Shanghai’s restaurants and markets stocked with produce requires hundreds of thousands of trucks[13]. As the city grows, it will require more and more trucking, with each new vehicle contributing to pollution, clogging already congested roads and adding cost to the final price of foodstuffs. By reducing the distance between the farm and the table, Shanghai’s urban agriculture mitigates that growing traffic problem.

Head Photo: macchi, Flickr



[1] http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2014/solutions/urban-agriculture

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-change-and-rising-food-prices-heightened-arab-spring

[3] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/FCIT/PDF/FoodAgriCities_Oct2011.pdf

[4] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/FCIT/PDF/FoodAgriCities_Oct2011.pdf

[5] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/FCIT/Meetings/Africites/presentations/WorldFutureCouncil_experience-Belo-Horizonte.pdf

[6] http://worldcongress2012.iclei.org/fileadmin/templates/WC2012/Documents/Presentations/RS-FerreiraLara.pdf

[7] http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3021e/i3021e.pdf pg. 37

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/apr/04/organics.food

[9] www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3021e/i3021e.pdf pg. 60

[10] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/FCIT/PDF/UPA_-WBpaper-Final_October_2008.pdf pg. 58

[11] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/FCIT/PDF/UPA_-WBpaper-Final_October_2008.pdf pg. 58

[12] http://www.ruaf.org/sites/default/files/UAM%2025-Urban%20Agriculture%20development%2060-62.pdf

[13] http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6982e/x6982e05.htm

[14] http://www.urbano-zelenilo.org/wp-content/uploads/MATERIJALI%20ZA%20WEB/INOSTRANI/A_Systematic_Overview_of_Urban_Agriculture_in_Developing_Countries%20-.pdf