Urban Agroecology Sustainability

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green-basics-organic-produce-standSome environmental activists have used the metaphor of the lifeboat to explain how we can get out of our worsening environmental predicament. Business-as-usual is the Titanic, sinking fast. What we need, then, is a renewable energy powered life raft (complete with organic rations) to rescue us. To lead the way, we need a kind of lighthouse. As Altieri sees it, urban farms and gardens based on the principles of agroecology can serve as that beacon.

Agroecology is an always-evolving learning process, linking science, practice, and social movement. Putting theory and practice on a level playing field, it departs from high modernist approaches to agricultural problem-solving, and instead seeks to plumb the locally adapted, inventive, and often improvisational techniques that farmers have honed through millennia of cultivating land. This perspective, according to a recent history of agroecology by Steven Gliessman, harks back to the writings of US tropical ecologist Daniel Janzen, who argued that production should be "grounded in local ecological knowledge, locally adapted, limited by local environments and culture, and designed to meet local needs first rather than respond to the demands of export markets for single commodity crops." Janzen's insights were mirrored in multiple emergences of agroecology across Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s. The Mexican ethnobotanist Efraím Hernández Xolocotzi insisted that all studies should include the full participation of farmers and their communities – especially those being rapidly marginalized by the Green Revolution.

Farmers and gardeners working in the soil have long been recognized as agroecology's true innovators. The challenge today, as ecologist Richard Levin puts it, is how to link the "broad but shallow" knowledge of Western science with the "deep but narrow" knowledge of traditional and indigenous farmers.

Equally pressing is the shape and direction of agrocoecology as a social movement. From its roots in resistance to the Green Revolution to the ferments of transnational peasant organizations today, agroecology draws its energy from people with an explicit goal of transforming the food system. To date, these movements have mostly focused on rural societies and ecosystems. But as the number of displaced farmers worldwide continues to mount, the planet's expanding cities are now sites for some of agroecology's most dynamic research.

Altieri provides some daunting statistics. In just one century, the number of people living in cities has ballooned from 15 percent of total world population to more than 50 percent today. This figure is projected to climb to 69 percent by 2050 as global population rises to 9 billion. How are we to face this change, in which the number of food-eaters grows even while the number of food-makers declines? The solution favored by many is industrial intensification of the countryside. Supposedly greater use of synthetic fertilizers, improved seeds, agrochemicals, and vast monoculture will feed future cities, using less human labor. Another idea hinges on helping peasants continue to farm as they arrive in cities, and transforming long-time urban-dwellers into a new corps of urban agrarians.

Both approaches, according to Altieri, could be supported by urban agroecology. But his assertions rests on many caveats – scalability, energy efficiency, land and labor costs, to name but a few. By highlighting the productivity of Rene Zazueta's backyard, Altieri offers an example of the kind of work necessary. With local vertical agriculture projects, urban farms, and backyard gardens one can glimpse the social relations that bridge science, practice and social movements.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Zazueta says, his backyard was a disaster. A carport had collapsed onto the vehicles beneath, crushing glass, chemicals, and toxic metals into the soil. Rather than rebuild the concrete lot, Zazueta invited friends to help haul away the scrap metal and contaminated dirt. After weeks of heavy work the plot was ripe for an experimental garden.

Entering Zazueta's backyard, one finds something of a planned Mediterranean jungle. Lining the fence are fruiting trees of all types: avocados, citrus, persimmons, plums, pears, mulberries, cherimoyas, and apples – an array chosen to bear fruit throughout the entire year. In the center, raised beds brim with leafy greens, root and cruciferous vegetables, melons, and berries, each row meticulously intercropped with beans to provide nitrogen, and flowering plants to attract beneficial insects. In the garden's rear, peppers, herbs, potatoes, and tomatoes peep out of modular planters. These, Zazueta says, are experimental designs for pop-up vegetable gardens using low-cost materials like wood pallets, hay, and chicken wire.

Learn more at Earth Island Journal

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