Local Food for Sustainable Communities: Many People Are Waking Up to the Wisdom of Growing Food within and around Cities and Towns, a Movement That Is Leading to the Creation of More Sustainable Communities

By Sullivan, Rachel | Ecos, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Local Food for Sustainable Communities: Many People Are Waking Up to the Wisdom of Growing Food within and around Cities and Towns, a Movement That Is Leading to the Creation of More Sustainable Communities


Sullivan, Rachel, Ecos


Bringing food production much closer to home makes sense. As our population becomes more urbanised, the environmental and financial impacts of transporting produce to our suburbs have risen. Meanwhile, traditional agricultural belts are facing the challenges of water shortages, climate extremes and declining land productivity, while once-productive land on the urban fringe is being increasingly developed for housing and other infrastructure. This all coincides with concerns about the health and environmental impacts of large-scale commercial agriculture.

Until the Second World War, when advances were made in synthesising fertiliser, most people grew at least some of their own food. They kept a few hens, had fruit trees and large veggie patches. Scraps were fed to the chickens, or composted and mixed with animal manure then returned to the soil. Backyard food production was labour-intensive but highly productive, and supplemented by produce from market gardens and smallholdings on the urban fringe.

After the war, advances in machinery and synthetic fertilisers pushed production away from towns and cities into more marginal farmland. For the next 40 years, broadacre productivity in developed countries skyrocketed thanks to artificial pesticides and fertilisers and monoculture specialisation. Recently, however, growth slowed due to a combination of changing climate, existing crop varieties reaching their maximum yield potentials and progressive soil depletion. Waste products--water, manure and vegetable waste--that were once composted and returned to the soil as an integral part of a closed production system, became a by-product liability.

Agriculture is also now responsible for 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally. (1) Carbon dioxide is produced from making fertilisers and from running farm machinery, processing plants and delivery trucks. Methane is produced mostly by gut fermentation processes in cattle, and chemical processes taking place in farmed soils release nitrous oxide. Carbon is also indirectly released into the atmosphere from soil as a result of chemical applications, land clearing and conversion of savannah or pasture land to arable land, and from overgrazing and subsequent soil erosion.

Against this backdrop of concern about food's environmental and health impacts, and more recently its future availability, people in urban areas have been rediscovering the pleasures of 'slow food', growing and picking their own produce, and purchasing freshly harvested fruit and vegetables from suburban farmers' markets.

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Making city space work

But can food forests, green roofs, backyard veggie patches and community gardens realistically feed the tens of millions predicted to live in the cities of the near future?

Yes, says Kirsten Larsen, an expert in sustainable food systems and EcoInnovation Policy Research Manager at Melbourne University's Victorian EcoInnovation Lab (VEIL).

'First we need to change our understanding of cities and start to see them as productive, not consumptive spaces.

'While we're not going to see fields of wheat or large-scale animal production in the heart of the city, there is a great opportunity for the production of fresh, perishable foodstuffs--especially fruit and vegetables--to expand, thanks to the concentration of water and nutrient resources in urban areas.

'At the moment 47 per cent of waste going to landfill is organic; 21 per cent is food waste. Much of that could be composted or turned into mulch and returned to the soil to reduce reliance on fertilisers that are derived from fossil fuels.

'Similarly, harvesting stormwater and wastewater from cities and making it available for crops after appropriate treatment will help dose agricultural production loops.'

Larsen believes that 'food-sensitive urban design' can contribute to resilient, sustainable communities by diversifying food sources, making use of local resources, reducing transport and refrigeration needs, and spreading risk across different distribution channels. …

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Local Food for Sustainable Communities: Many People Are Waking Up to the Wisdom of Growing Food within and around Cities and Towns, a Movement That Is Leading to the Creation of More Sustainable Communities
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