Thursday, July 12, 2012


A troubling question that haunt the world to day is whether man has the capacity to feed himself, say 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now, taking into consideration the present level of technology, land resources, increased need of inputs and water availability. There is no unanimity in coming to a conclusion on this issue though many pundits feel that with greater efficiency and more intensive efforts sufficient food can be raised to feed the population growing at the current rate. What price one has to pay to achieve higher production is another matter. Intensive industrial culture has literally destroyed the soil health, polluted the environment and disturbed the eco system seriously. Mindless deforestation, over exploitation of ground water and mono culture cultivation practices can derail attempts to achieve quantum jump in food production in future years. Serious reservation on the part of the consumer about the safety of foods due to application of pesticides and increased use of GM technology further hamper any concerted effort to continue with the present practices any longer. 

Consumers are banding together to resist attempts to force them to accept foods that are not considered appropriate from their perception and it is against such a back ground, new consumer movements for changing the present system, to usher in alternatives that can satisfy their needs are emerging. Organic foods to day present one of the most accepted alternatives to the consumers for insulating themselves from the perceived dangers of products churned out by present day industrial agriculture with more emphasis on productivity and profitability ignoring the their genuine fears. If organics food industry is growing at a frenetic pace world over, the reason for this shift is not far to seek. Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and dangerous pesticidal chemicals invariably leave residues on the food crops which are considered as poisons capable of wreaking havoc on the health of the consumers. Similarly Locavore movement, Farmers' Markets and similar anti-establishment alternatives have emerged precisely because of the above reasons. 

Many novel approaches have been proposed to augment agricultural production and enhance food availability as far as possible. Week end farming in and near city suburbs, growing food in vacant city lands, railway track sides and even roof tops are possibilities that are being explored seriously. Vertical farming now being propounded calls for multi storied green house systems which can turn out fruits and vegetables year round for supply to the city residents continuously. Recently a new concept has been tested called farm shops where consumers can pick up their needs of some foods in fresh condition from gardens behind the shops maintained by the grocery shop owner! One of the great advantages of these new approaches is that the present system of food being shipped from long distances can be circumvented by making available the same from points nearby through urban gardening. This not only saves precious fossil fuels required for transportation but also reduces the carbon emission besides serving fresher foods to the consumers. 

Urban agriculture is based on the concept that the city dwellers, generally living far away from the centers of food production, can also contribute their might to food production through their labor and other locally garnered inputs. Generally land for cultivation is the constraint in translating this concept into practice. However due to migration of many families from urban centers into country side during last 30-40 years, abandoning their properties, large tracts of land have been lying vacant with no benefit to any body. Same is true with lands by the side of disused railway tracks near many cities with potential to put them to use for agriculture. In some cities cooperative farming in the suburbs is undertaken with contract labor providing the manual input for managing the operations. Many large buildings in metropolitan regions having substantial terrace area, are also potential sites for gardening which can provide the requirements of greens and fruits in the vicinity of these buildings. According to one estimate urban agriculture can significantly augment food supply to urban consumers, cut down carbon emissions to a great extent and provide better quality produce to the consumers, making them self sufficient without depending on foods from outside their area. 

While on paper the concept sounds very tantalizing, there is a need to generate adequate logistical support to new ventures entering this sector. Big time research efforts are called for to standardize conditions for cultivation of different crops and evolve practices that can ensure success with minimum risks. Recent attempts by Michigan State University at Detroit to envisage a developmental project for studying the potential of urban agriculture are welcome initiatives and if the same materializes considerable boost can be expected to be given to accelerating the pace of expansion of the already proven potential of urban agriculture. The project in its embryonic stage may evolve into a world wide research research effort, with investments over $ 100 million, spanning over 100 acres of land and may involve countries like South Africa, China, Kenya, South America as a collaborative research and innovation engine for spreading the concept world wide. Research and development program may encompass evolving most efficient practices for growing food inside multi story buildings, innovative ways to produce energy, conserve water in food production, vertical agriculture etc. Compared to other countries the US is fairly well advanced in this area of endeavor and the Detroit project will ensure it remains the leader with willingness to share the technological prowess with those wanting to explore and expand the potential of urban agriculture fully using their resources. 


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