The cities will feed themselves

June 06, 1996|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

AS THE SECOND U.N. Conference on Human Settlement (Habitat II) gets under way in Istanbul, data projections tell us that by 2025 two thirds of humanity will live in cities. Where will the megatonnage of food come from to feed some 5 billion urban people?

The answer may well be: cities. As we move into the next century, more and more urban dwellers will consume food grown within a mile of their homes as agriculture becomes more and more an urban preoccupation.

Migrants and refugees settle in cities because they offer more hope than rural regions do. Professional environmentalists have been expressing the same pessimism about rural areas for two decades. The stark reality is that much of the world is overly dependent on the large-scale rural agriculture of just five countries -- the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. A grain crisis in these countries could quickly cut the importing countries off from much of their food supply.

Underpinning the migrants' faith in cities is a growing optimism in environmental-technology circles that the world's energy needs (expected to increase 1.6 times by 2015) can be met without polluting the atmosphere or degrading the globe. The optimists are looking to new reserves of non-polluting natural gas and the slow-but-steady comeback of nuclear power.

Cities harbor vast unused resources -- mounds of garbage, nutrient-rich wastes flowing unused into the oceans through sewers and the legendary ingenuity of city people. With these resources food can be grown and meat and fish harvested within city limits.

In a recently published report entitled ''Urban Agriculture,'' the U.N. Development Program documents how urban farming is spreading in every part of the world. In the U.S., for example, 40 percent of the dollar value of food output in 1990 came from metropolitan urban areas -- up from 30 percent in 1980. In 1990, 65 percent of Moscow's economically struggling families raised their own food, up from 20 percent in 1970. There are 80,000 community gardeners in Berlin with 16,000 on the waiting list.

But urban agriculture is an area where the non-Western world excels. China has had a tradition of urban farming for many centuries. In 1960 its government laid down a specific strategy for urban self-reliance in food. The small Indonesian island Java feeds 100 million people largely with locally grown food. The super-modern island republic of Singapore is entirely self-reliant in meat production, consuming some 140 pounds per person per year.

City farms in Africa

Until recently, Africa had few cities and little tradition of urban farming. Yet it may be largely thanks to city farms, run by women, that Africans have survived the extraordinary political upheavals of the last decades. As foreign investors become aware of Africa's mushrooming revival, urban farming will play an increasingly important role in the continent's development.

East Asians have long excelled at urban agriculture for several reasons. First, they are willing to plant every unused square foot of land. Second, they are willing to use any and all urban wastes for fertilizer. Third, farming is an ingrained family and community chore, much as it was when people lived in traditional villages.

The shared task of raising food has another effect -- it helps keep families and communities together, despite the pressures of modern urban life. Governments, recognizing the value of these bonds to their economic miracles, are highly supportive of urban farming.

The worldwide turn to urban agriculture will work only with the latest technology and large-scale organization. Too many governments outside East Asia have ignored the trend. Habitat II may begin to focus their attention on this hopeful road toward a sustainable urban future.

Franz Schurmann, a professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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