Growing urban farms provide useful greens and earnings for poor, but reforms could boost supplies

The heaving commuter train groans outside a central Bombay station. A jumble of huts, their roofs held down by scraps of cast-off tyres, lean close to the track. Bending forward a man hoes a thin strip of land only slightly wider than his straddled legs. The plot runs parallel to the rails and every square inch is full of thrusting leafy-green vegetables.

Whether it be Bombay, now called Mumbai, or Dar es Salaam, raising vegetables, fruits, poultry and small livestock in spaces including backyards, community gardens and unused public land is a growing activity. And it's an important food source as we quickly approach the time when 50 percent of the world's population will live in cities.

Urban farms produce green profits

Asia has a long history of urban farming, producing for both the household and market. Surveys show that this farming now provides up to 30 percent of the vegetables in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, while Singapore residents can look forward to a permanent supply of pork and poultry. African cities are said to produce 20 to 80 percent of their household foods in this way.

And this can put much-needed money into poor people's pockets. Precise figures are elusive, but it is estimated that over 100 million people worldwide get direct incomes from urban plots. The bulk of producers are those moderately poor, and in Africa and Latin America they tend to be women without formal-sector jobs.

Along with other domestic obligations, women typically have the job of keeping the family larder well stocked. By tending household or neighbourhood gardens they can either reduce the demands placed on their husbands' wages or supplement those wages with cash.

These are useful rewards, though a survey of 11 Latin American countries found that urban agriculture does not outweigh the benefits of a full-time waged job. A Buenos Aries study showed that between one and one-and-a-half working days a week are required to maintain an urban garden for an average family, saving between 10 to 30 percent of the total food bill. For people on low incomes this represents an in-kind augmentation of 5 to 20 percent.

And the varied produce ranging from beans to pork contribute essential vitamins and nutrients to the family diet. The assortment of crops tend to be of relatively high value, have short growing cycles, generate their own seeds and require little in the way of tools or additional inputs. And for any generated surplus a teeming market awaits on the very doorstep.

Despite this, it is still difficult for the poorest to become producers. Few city farmers belong to the ranks of the freshly arrived migrants seeking refuge from village poverty. A study in Zambia shows that it was only after ten years that migrants to the capital, Lusaka, turned their hands to urban farming. It takes such time for people to establish themselves and to pick up full- or part-time jobs. Only then do they have the standing and money to gain access to land -- a highly prized acquisition.

Land plots are more likely to be rented than owned. They can be reclaimed at any time at short notice. In many cities of the developing world, access to public land is restricted by severe political and regulatory obstacles, including legal actions and confiscation of produce, as authorities strive to create modern centres free of traditional practices linked to the countryside.

In many cities the major problem is not land availability, but access to secure, good land. Many farmed plots run alongside roads and railways and are open to pollution and theft, but good land can be found. A survey of major developing world cities found that 200 to 300 square metres of unused community land could be made available by city authorities.

But many planners and officials see urban farming as wasteful and even unhealthy. Clearly, farming can strain already extended resources. But rather than segregate land uses, officials need to work closely with farmers and integrate agriculture with other activities.

Of course, urban farming will never be a universal solution to all the severe problems of food security in cities. Nor will it redistribute incomes. And as cities expand greater resource conflicts will emerge. However, with policy changes, including the granting of land-use rights and diverting solid wastes and waste water for fertilizer and irrigation, city farming has the potential to increase existing food supplies and contribute further to the feeding of poor people around the world.

Available soon on the FAO Economics site:
The State of Food and Agriculture 1996, FAO (October)
see selected issues section on urban farming


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