Growing food in cities during Covid-19

Growing food in cities during Covid-19

FAO reports that about 80% of food produced globally is destined to feed urban areas (FAO 2020). During the last century, the bond between food production and urban planning was devalued by the very idea of urban life as antithetic to rural life. The food system seemed condemned to industrial and mass production. More recently, agriculture has slowly started to make its way back to the city.

Urban agriculture or urban farming is the practice of cultivating and distributing food in or around urban area. If urban agriculture, stricto sensu, refers to small areas inside the city such as small farms or community gardens for growing crops or raising small livestock for own consumption or sale in neighborhood markets. Peri-urban agriculture refers to intensive or semi-intensive agriculture undertaken on the fringes of urban areas (FAO 2015). Indeed, urban agriculture has been spreading in cities across the world in the last years, with the aim to boost more sustainable food systems and the hope to offer a better relationship between natural systems and human communities (McDonough 2014). In New York City, for example, growing food in the city has been booming in the last years and agriculture networks strengthened (McDonough 2014). In London, the enterprise GrowUp Urban Farms, which produces fish, salads and herbs in unused city spaces now sells wholesale (Lovett 2016).

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only changing our daily lives but especially the way we live in cities. It also affected the globalized and industrialized food system producing a variety of responses, both in the short and in the long-term. FAO and RUAF provided a framework to understand the vulnerabilities of urban food systems, to improve communication and cooperation and provide new strategies to safeguard food security and nutrition during this trying time (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). In particular, they recognized how some cities are particularly exposed to food supply problems, given their lack of diversification of food value and supply chains, their dependency on imports and other economic and natural vulnerabilities (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). The less cities rely on their rural hinterlands, the more they result unprotected to unpredictable shocks of their food supply chain, as the pandemic showed.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Indeed Covid-19 health crisis has quickly aggravated food security for most vulnerable urban populations. According to FAO, “the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems worldwide, posing a number of challenges for cities and local governments that are obliged to deal with rapid changes in food availability, accessibility and affordability” (FAO 2020: 1). In London, for example, foodbanks are struggling to provide food to city dwellers during the lockdown, and this is affecting mostly low incomes, older people, those with disabilities, rough sleepers and asylum seekers, given the fall of donations, the insufficient supplies from supermarkets and lack of volunteers (London City Hall 2020).  RUAF also reported that in Quito, Ecuador, public places being locked down meant that local markets, could not remain open and provide food to low-income residents (RUAF 2020). Maximo Torero, Food and Agriculture Organization chief economist, explained that the challenges that the pandemic is posing to the food system do not affect the supply of food in itself but the logistics of food distribution, given the high dependency on food imports (Harvey 2020). Moreover, The Economist reported how current food system bottlenecks have severe impacts on consumers, who are facing reduced or lost incomes since the lockdown measures were implemented globally (The Economist 2020). In fact, vulnerable urban residents can only afford to buy food in small quantities and depend mostly on small shops and open-air markets rather than supermarkets and other food delivery options. Therefore, some national governments are trying to maintain outdoor food markets open to support vulnerable groups’ access to food. For example, in France food markets partially reopened at the end of March (The Connexion 2020) and UK is prepared to reopen all outdoor markets from the 1st June (Sustain 2020).

Hence, it could be interesting to investigate if among other long-term actions that cities and local governments can implement to strengthen urban food systems’ resilience, growing food in cities may be a viable option. FAO stated that promoting short supply chains may adequately support the resilience of urban food systems in the long-term. In particular, “the crisis provides an opportunity to underline the multiple benefits of local food systems, enabling local actors to better coordinate during the crisis to avoid main gaps distribution, and making cities more food resilient” (FAO 2020: 6).

Therefore, cases of urban and peri-urban agriculture and/or urban residents directly growing their food from home are spreading. In particular, Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the designer of the largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok stated that “more people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions” (Chandran 2020). She also reported how urban planners and local governments tend now to be more concerned with land-use in cities (Chandran 2020).

For instance, Singapore relies on other nations for almost everything its residents eat. More recently, it has been working on addressing land constraints to diversify food sources and increase local production. According to William Chen Professor of Food Science and Technology ant Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020), Singapore is not only developing expertise in technologies such as vertical farming, but it has also been working constantly to increase free additional urban spaces for urban farming, such as rooftops on multi-storeys car parks (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020). An example is a structure atop a car park in the Ang Mo Kio district where “Citiponics Pte Ltd. grows about 4 tons of Georgina lettuces and other leafy greens a month, while part of a former downtown high school site has also recently been re-purposed for urban agriculture” (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020).

In the meanwhile in UK, the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food is working on the launch of the Resilience Food Project which will see the creation of “financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localized high tech intensive food production method” (Nickles 2020). The project aims to assess the financial viability and resource efficiency of urban agriculture, gather evidence to stimulate investor confidence and explore ways to involve local communities in the co-production of farms and food, particularly in more vulnerable urban areas (Nickles 2020).

Also, in Bolivia, lockdown measures highly affected the urban food system. However, families working in urban and peri-urban agriculture resulted fundamental to guarantee the supply of food into Bolivia’s cities. With local governments and FAO’s support to urban and peri-urban food sector, farmers managed to shorten food value chains and guarantee food access in Bolivian cities during quarantine (FAO 2020).

These examples showed how the increased attention towards urban and peri-urban agriculture in the attempt to shorten food supply chains has become even more urgent, since lockdown measures have been implemented in cities all around the world. Even if urban farms can only partially address food needs in cities, they seem able to promote more sustainable communities and generative capacity of buildings and urban infrastructure (Yang 2020). Additionally, Covid-19 is showing how urban and especially peri-urban agriculture will certainly play a more relevant role in reducing food insecurity and food supply chains vulnerabilities, if unpredictable shocks happen to compromise the food system. Therefore, more attention from local authorities is needed to ensure the safety of local food production by supporting policies aimed at shortening food supply chains. As Jane Jacobs noted, perseverance of peri-urban agriculture embodies the symbiotic relationship that occurs between cities and their hinterlands (Jacobs 1984) which can definitely be a shock absorber during disruptions such as a global pandemic. Therefore, in a world after coronavirus, as the European Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, advocated “we need to have our own food, produced on our fields, by our own farmers, and we have to take better care of local markets, shorten those supply chains” (POLITICO 2020).


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