Urban agriculture: weighing the pros and cons

A Flickr slideshow of the Agassiz Slow Food Tour 2010

I’ve listened to the arguments, I’ve watched Food Inc. a couple of times, and my thumb couldn’t get much greener than it currently is. However, I’m not convinced by arguments put forward by the eat local movement that we must invest more land, time and financial resources into urban agriculture. This is not to suggest that I think we should eradicate community garden programs, but that we fully consider the costs of "being green" and weigh them against other city priorities.

The Vancouver Park Board has an exhaustive set of guidelines surrounding community gardens that undoubtedly were hammered out after much consideration. These guidelines require that the gardens be built at the request of a local community, and that the gardens have a base of local support from nearby residents, and that the cost of operating the garden is maintained by that community.

That last point is an important one, because if we attach too high a price to the garden boxes then the public subsidy toward making outweighs the net benefit. In Vancouver we’ve experienced the phenomenon of $350 tomato plants by altering the zoning of private commercial land, albeit temporarily, into public park land.

While it might make some people feel good to see flowers and beets rising up in an empty lot, and non-profit groups who receive further grants to employ coordinators, these projects are built upon the backs of taxpayers who might have other priorities.

Last weekend I continued an annual tradition by attending the Slow Food Tour in Agassiz, BC with my family. I highly recommend this 25 kilometre ride, and its sister event in Chilliwack, which happen every August. Agassiz, about ninety minutes drive from Vancouver, is postcard pretty and one of BC’s oldest agricultural communities. It’s the home of Farmhouse Natural Cheeses and the Britco manufacturing company.

The Slow Food Tour attracts us for a variety of reasons. It’s fabulous family time, it’s good to get the exercise and lungfuls of fresh air, and we get to buy fresh local products like chocolate, hazelnuts, flavoured honey, pea sprouts and of course cheese. This year we spent just over $100 for meals and goods – multiply that by hundreds of riders and it’s a decent one-day cash injection to Agassiz’s economy.

The irony though is that we must pack up the car with our bikes and drive over three hours in order to "eat local". Devoting that kind of energy toward the pursuit of local food is not sustainable. But are there other arguments to validate the urban agriculture movement? Perhaps, but even local food advocates concede that the economic and practical argument for more urban agriculture is "questionable".

In his report for the UBC Centre for Sustainable Food, Program Coordinator Mark Bomford states:

This clearly creates a considerable distinction between motivations for urban agriculture (UA) in a city such as Vancouver and cities in the “Global South.” While pursuing UA for recreational, health, social, and other benefits seems a reasonable proposition in Vancouver, pursuing UA activities with purely economic motivations – considering relative values of food and labour – seems questionable.

That brings us back to Vancouver’s well-considered policy document on community gardens. The plots are in place for their health and social benefits, and not so much the production of food.

arable-land-vancouver There is a graph in Bomford’s report (click image on right) that illustrates that even if we devoted every square inch of arable land within the City of Vancouver toward food production, it wouldn’t come near to the amount of food required by our population. That red dot shows us how much available public land exists for agriculture. That big blue box is how much land is needed to produce the food we need. The yellow box is the total area of the City.

The report states:

While urban gardens can, in the long term, provide an excellent way to productively capture the flow of nutrients into a city, considering the quantity and origin of the initial and ongoing inputs of energy and materials required to construct healthy soils in an urban setting adds some considerable considerations to their net ecological impact.

In other words, the benefits of urban agriculture are more ethereal. By gardening our own food, we educate ourselves on the value of healthy soils, and the importance of unprocessed food.

Gardening is one of my passions, and over the years I’ve increased the quantity of food grown in my backyard. This weekend I’ll harvest our dozen or so cobs of corn. The crop has dwindled but for 2 weeks our meals featured lovely steamed beans. Last night we ate a delicious beet risotto from our bounty of beets, and we’re still munching through our bag of potatoes dug from the garden. Tomatoes are slowly beginning to ripen after our cool spring, and our strawberry and raspberry bushes are producing a second round of fresh-picked fruit. Add to these our blueberry bushes, eggplant, lettuce, basil & other herbs, rhubarb, as well as cabbage and cauliflower heads which were a disappointment this year.

I support the Farmer’s Market movement, and I wish everyone with a knack for gardening could have their own place to grow something. But what price do we want to put on that, and what are we prepared to sacrifice in terms of social and public amenities as a result?

The City of Vancouver seems to have set aside concerns about cost in exchange for the optics of being a "green" city. Their food policy initiatives are a priority for this government with a high price tag, but do they advance the livability or economic viability of the city as a whole? Perhaps that’s where the debate should begin. When we devote staff and council resources to producing backyard hen policy and only 17 households take the City up on the offer, is it fair to ask if the costs outweigh the benefits?

What do local urban agriculture initiatives do other than better acquaint us with the food we eat, and how can we achieve those goals at a lower cost? For example, should understanding food and where it comes from be a bigger part of our education cirriculum than it currently is? Should obstacles which prevent schools from practicing the growing of food (which mostly takes place during summer breaks) be reconsidered?

Furthermore, does any of our current policy make us more "secure" in the face of any potential threat to our food supply? It’s hard to imagine how turning a city parking lot into a veggie garden, or giving your neighbour the ability to house four hens will prevent such a calamity if it happens.

Many of us have been drawn into the hype around food security. It would be wise, however, for us to understand the real costs of so-called $350 tomato plants. There is a way for us to get closer to the food we eat, but heavy subsidies for urban agriculture in the long run will do more harm than good.

– post by Mike

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  • david hadaway

    Like you I am an enthusiastic backyard gardener, this weekend delicious home grown plum crumble is on the menu. All done, of course, with my own labour at my own expense.
    However every day on the way to work I have to pass the Astoria Hotel “farm”, which you covered several months ago. A monument of misdirected effort.
    Sure, if you look past the over-height chain link fence it looks slightly better than the unadorned car park. You won’t get in, however, because it’s normally locked up.
    The minimum half million of public money going to the Sahota family over three years, a subsidy so wrong in so many ways, symbolizes the way that hard earned tax dollars are dispensed like confetti under the cloaks of “greenness” and “community. Your exposing of the other mis-spends at City Hall are just more of the same, and meanwhile real “green” and “community” activities, which once formed the core of the city’s services, are threatened or destroyed.

  • This is a bit tangential to the issue, and the project covers a couple of City Councils, but I’ve been horrified at what has been done to Granville Street from Drake to Georgia. Hundreds of beautiful trees were murdered (their pitiful stumps oozing sap like blood) and the quaint old fashioned street lights were replaced with sterile, steel phallus-lamps. (Not to mention the parking bollards).There was nothing wrong with Granville Street that required a $23 million upgrade,or anything near it. I consider it a cold, unwelcoming environment now especially at night.
    Can you imagine the awe that would have been inspired worldwide when those gone trees bloomed during the Olympics?

  • Bill McCreery

    An example of sustainable, local agriculture is that of a friend on Denman Island. She has a lovely, rustic garden of about an acre in size [43,560 sf]. She is entirely vegetable self sufficient 12 months of the year. As well she has seasonal fruit. Her’s is an inspiring lifestyle. However, this is her primary preoccupation & lends credence to your concern about economic viability.
    You mention ‘obstacles which prevent schools from practicing the growing of food’. Are these in Vancouver? I’ll send you a picture of the school garden @ the Richmond school where my partner teaches. School families were assigned 1 week responsibility to look after the garden over the summer & it has thrived. No fences, just a sign respectfully asking the garden to be left to blossom. It certainly has.

  • Max

    I agree with you 100% on the Sahota decision.
    Truly, these are slum lords that have been at constant battle with groups to clean up their act, they add to the poverty in the DTES, and yet the city grants them tax breaks all in the name of a garden.
    Not a well though out plan – not at all.
    They (Sahotas) must have been laughing when the received that proposition.