By 2020, 75% of all urban dwellers will be in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and nearly 50% of the poor in these regions will be concentrated in towns and cities. Rapid and unplanned urbanization, climate change and changing demographics have resulted in increasing urban unemployment and poverty, high food inflation and food insecurity, and as its corollary, high nutritional insecurity. While protests over food inflation are vociferous in countries like India, governments express their inability to control prices that are governed by market forces. However, they are making efforts to increase production, focusing on new areas and innovations. The government in India, for instance, is considering promotion of urban agriculture on a national scale to curb rising vegetable prices in its cities.
This feature discusses urban agriculture, focusing on the From Seed to Table (FSTT) program by the International Network of Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF), as a solution to these multiple and interlinked problems. In South Asia, the program is jointly implemented by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Dhan Foundation in India and Sri Lanka.
Urban Agriculture as a Solution to Multiple Problems
Globally, urban agriculture is gaining recognition from governments as well as international organizations like the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). According to estimates made by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1996, 800 million people are engaged in urban agriculture and associated sectors worldwide. About 200 million of these people are market producers, who in turn employ 150 million people full-time.
Urban agriculture – farming that is undertaken within or around cities – is integrated into the urban ecosystem, and uses urban resources such as urban labor and urban waste (i.e, compost). In other words, urban agriculture is not a transplant of rural farming, nor is it only the domain of rural migrants to cities.
Urban agriculture cuts across all income groups, although a majority of people involved in urban agriculture are the urban poor. Not all of them are recent immigrants from rural areas – instead, many are people residing in the locality, which enables them to access land, water and other resources. Often these people may pursue other jobs simultaneously, and it is not uncommon to find government employees or schoolteachers engaged in urban farming. Typically, most urban farmers are women who find it easier to combine farming, food processing or marketing farm produce with their household tasks and responsibilities. The men, who often travel into towns for other jobs, find it difficult to combine agricultural tasks with their other activities.
Agriculture in urban areas can be done on or off plot – close to urban farmers’ homes or away from it. Urban farmers often lease land or use public land such as those along roads, streams and railway lines. They could also avail of semi-public land such as grounds of schools and hospitals. Urban farmers sell their produce in local markets and are largely associated with micro or small farms with low technology levels. Urban agriculture improves food security and also increases livelihood opportunities for the urban poor, as well as some impact on urban waste management.
From Seed to Table –The RUAF project
The FSTT project facilitates the development of sustainable urban farming systems and works in 21 partner cities around the world. It is a time-bound program and is set to end in India in June 2011. The program attempts to address key constraints to urban agriculture such as a low degree of support services, poor organization among urban farmers, and low productivity and profitability, despite high market demand and increasing market prices.
FSTT program recognized that urban farming has specific needs and challenges that require specific technologies and organization. Typically, urban planners, government officials and city authorities neglect urban farmers. Due to poor access to information and other support services, urban farmers make low-intensity use of land and are often even forced to abandon farming land. Lack of recognition by the government makes urban farmers vulnerable to eviction threats, poor access to water and bargaining power when selling their produce. These challenges need a multi-stakeholder approach with the authorities; merely building capacity with farmers alone would not be adequate.
FSTT’s components include identifying products with high market potential, identifying areas in the product market chain that can be improved and organizing a project that can enhance the innovation and entrepreneurial capacity of producers and their organization. The organization has successfully implemented these components in Magadi, a peri-urban area adjoining the city of Bangalore in Karnataka, India, as well as in Sri Lanka.
An important component of the program was advocacy. The project team worked very closely with the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture, and with the municipal councils at the town level. They have also garnered interest from other stakeholders, such as the Department of Environment. In states like Maharashtra and Kerala, which are mostly urban and peri-urban, promotion of urban agriculture is already included in state policies. In other states, advocacy is needed to make it part of policy as more and more areas within the states transform from rural to peri-urban areas.
Sustaining the Momentum of FSTT
As the projects draw to a close, the sustainability components kick into high gear. The program involved the Dhan Foundation, an NGO that is already working in the area and will support the RUAF approach to building capacities for urban farmers. The FSTT-created producer society is a fledgling one and would benefit from the association with the NGO as a facilitator. Access to information is another huge constraint for urban farmers and the Dhan Foundation would help farmers in this area as well.
The second component of sustainability is the inroads the project team has made with government support. RUAF’s advocacy efforts have made positive inroads towards highlighting the importance of Urban Agriculture in India. RUAF/IWMI has had the opportunity to present its concepts to the highest authorities – the planning commission in India. More recently, the government’s recognition of urban horticulture is also gaining momentum with the launch of a vegetable initiative for urban clusters. This exposure to a national program will also help urban farmers better define their work.
Worldwide, 200 million people are directly associated with urban agriculture as market producers. India currently lacks good estimates in this area, though the RUAF team is planning an assessment at the national scale. FSTT Regional Coordinator, Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe, says, “I am hoping that the national scheme is introduced and that our project method can be utilized to have an impact on food prices. We are also concerned about nutrition insecurity in addition to food insecurity – so we hope this is also addressed by the project. “
More and more dweller-cum-farmers are giving up agricultural land in urban areas for other uses with higher market value. FSTT hopes to make urban farming lucrative to stakeholders with the long-term aim of maintaining adequate land under agriculture. Dr. Amerasinghe says, “These are market forces. But I have hope that if we help farmers earn more money, think long term and innovate to introduce to them different kinds of farming such as covered/protected farming that suit the changed circumstances, they may not feel the need to sell their land.” Covered farming is an innovation the FSTT is encouraging in urban areas where pollution cannot be controlled. Another is vertical farming, where space is limited.
Food security issues and inflation need immediate attention and multi-pronged solutions. Urban agriculture initiatives such as the FSTT are one way that food prices can be controlled and nutrition insecurity can be addressed. The FSTT project also worked to understand the coping strategies and responses to climate change of vulnerable groups engaging in urban agriculture. Another impact area that Dr. Amerasinghe seeks to achieve through FSTT and its advocacy is the recognition of female urban farmers as a niche by the government. This will empower them and create support infrastructure to suit their special circumstances. She adds, “I would like to see more international organizations support programs with NGOs to provide urban farmers with seed money, etc. They can support creation of associations and women’s collectives as well.”
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.