A look at urban and peri-urban agriculture

By Mark Jacobs


The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) defines urban and peri-urban agriculture as “an industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel largely in response to the daily demands of consumers within a town, city or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intense production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban waste to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.”

That is a lengthy, somewhat academic definition. Urban and peri-urban agriculture also encompasses agro-forestry, bee-keeping, horticulture and aquaponics.

Population shifts to coastal Guyana have spawned housing developments that can be described as food deserts. These are places where fresh food is hard to acquire. The routines of most residents of these food deserts do not permit them to engage in traditional agricultural activities. Urban and peri-urban practices can help them to create a measure of food security for themselves.

Customarily, occupants of these food deserts spend considerable time, energy and resources visiting markets and supermarkets to secure their food supplies.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture does more than provide food and nutrition for urban dwellers. It facilitates sustainable land use and enables design and planning in these zones. Acceleration of urban and peri-urban agriculture in Guyana can cut the costs of transportation and impact on the final price of farm produce.

The point should be made at this juncture that global rising food prices now compels residents in urban and peri-urban areas to examine – and for some, re-examine – the pursuit of agriculture in their immediate surroundings.

Examples range from the rooftop gardens of New York City to patio gardens in Japan and China. Closer to home, a model worthy of examination is the organoponicos system.

As the name implies, production in organoponicos is completely completely organic. In Havana, Cuba, 87,000 acres of land is under cultivation in the organiponico system. The system is extended across Cuba and employs more than 350,000 Cubans. This virtue alone is worthy of emulation here in Guyana where idle young people spawn myriad social problems.

I have been observing and experimenting with various elements of urban agriculture for a number of years. I got my ‘baptism by fire’ in 2010 in Port au Prince. My initial plan was to build a shadehouse in a rural community devastated by the earthquake but I could not convince the community leader. He rejected my idea. I was stuck in Port au Prince with all my shadehouse material and with no place to go. I found a patch of soil under a breadfruit tree and started some vegetables there. Falling breadfruit caused me to rethink my location.

One evening I saw the kids at the house clambering up the the roof. I followed them and discovered that not only was the roof flat but that it was made of concrete. (This is a common style of construction in Haiti)

The flat roof gave me the idea of relocating my garden, though I met with stiff resistance, I won out eventually. The harvesting of our first crop, iceberg lettuce, five weeks later won the project more converts.

We planted in boxes made from old palettes. The boxes were filled with bagasse compost and covered with shade cloth.

Initial success with lettuce led to the cultivation of tomato, hot pepper, sweet pepper, corn, okro, cilantro, pak choi, collard greens, swiss chard, basil, beans, sun flower and many more crops.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture flies in the face of a great deal of mythology about farming. There have been various forms of so-called revolutions in global agriculture in the past 50 years, but today more people are hungry than at any previous point in human history. This has forced a radical shift in global food production systems at the local level. However, old habits die hard. Some entrenched forces are still pushing massive farms as the means of guaranteeing food security and sustainability.

2014 is international year of family farming.“There are 500 million smallholder family farms in the world providing food and livelihoods for billions of people. Investing in the resilience of smallholder farmers is also investing in the resilience of food systems, the resilience of communities, and the strength of nations,” IFAD president Kanayo F. Nwanze said in an address to a conference sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute recently in Addis Ababa.

The FAO has articulated a Medium Term Strategic Framework for Cooperation in Family Farming in Latin America and the Caribbean 2012-2015. The high regional food import bill coupled with the high cost of importing agricultural inputs are areas of high concern. While Guyana is a net food exporter urban and peri-urban agriculture is generally small scale and it is small scale agriculture that holds the key to world food security. Small scale farming contributes to sustainable land use. There are also spin-off economic advantages for the family, the community and the nation.

There are many options available to someone wishing to engage in urban or peri-urban agriculture. Depending on space you can do any of the following:

Traditional forked beds or raised bed

Pots, containers and tyres

Shade house / greenhouse

Gutters and PVC pipes

Aquaponic or hydroponic

In terms of where a garden can be located, the options include verandahs, balconies, yards, steps and landings, window sills, rooftops and roadsides and reserves.

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