Making the Case for Urban Agriculture

The following article is a contribution from K. Rashid Nuri, the founder of the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture in Atlanta. Since its inception in 2006, Truly Living Well has grown approximately 10,000 pounds of food annually on small plots of donated land within the City of Atlanta, proving the viability of urban-oriented, sustainable food practices. Along with CNU 19 guest speaker Will Allen and his Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Nuri's Truly Living Well is among the leaders of the urban-ag movement. This piece originally appeared in early 2010.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama enumerated healthcare, the economy, job creation, environmental issues, and the lack of renewable fuels as ongoing problems requiring his attention. One suggestion the President made was to increase agricultural exports as a solution to some of these problems.

Export agriculture might help some corporations, but it is unlikely to address many of the issues that directly affect the general population. One methodology that would, however, is urban agriculture. It should be at the top of the list of solutions. Urban agriculture might not be a panacea for everything, but it can address many of the concerns outlined by the President, and do so in critical ways. 

The United States is an urban country. Recent demographics reveal that 81% of the U.S. population now lives in cities or suburbs of cities. As a result, with most of us no longer living on farms or in rural areas, our knowledge of the production and source of the food we eat is severely limited. As an urban organic farmer, I find it amazing that so many chefs, produce managers, restaurateurs, as well as the general population, are not aware about  the sources of their food. Many have no idea what food looks like coming out of the soil, never mind, the seasonal fluctuation of fruit and vegetable production.

The implications of this lack of knowledge and involvement in our own food production are immense, and affect all aspects of our life.

 Since the dust bowl era of the 1930’s and the end of World War II, there has been an effort on the part of government and corporate America to industrialize American agriculture.  Rather than growing food for Americans and protecting our agricultural resources, such as soil and water, the emphasis has been on the extensive export and industrial use of commodity crops such as corn, soy, wheat and cotton. As a result, corporations, rather than family farmers control much of our agriculture economy. Chemical overuse has damaged and polluted much of our good farmland and water. Many of our traditional seeds have been corrupted and genetically modified, ostensibly to increase yields.

Sadly, the major victim of industrial agriculture is the American public. We are subjected to more chemicals in food, additives in food products, and massive advertising campaigns for these products and offered few healthy alternatives; that is until recently.

Americans are in the early stages of reclaiming our food sovereignty. This is evidenced by the fast growing organic sector in agriculture,  the advent of urban agriculture initiatives and the increased numbers of farmers markets found in urban areas across the country.

All over the nation, urban farmers are growing crops on vacant lots, in abandoned fields, in green houses, on balconies, by schools, in prison yards, in nursing homes and in countless other creative and engaging places. These urban growing fields can be privately owned, formed as cooperatives, as neighborhood organizations, in collaboration with universities or as partners with city and county governments. The options are endless. Urban America is beginning to wake up and feed itself.

Urban agriculture can play a critical role in reversing many of the negative aspects of industrial agriculture. Urban farming enhances the health of metropolitan residents; creates “green” jobs; produces affordable locally grown organic fruits and vegetables; teaches people to grow their own foods; re-connects people to their food and the land; and strengthens the environment through reduced fossil fuel dependence. Edible landscaping is what we are doing in Atlanta, Georgia. Across the nation, many communities are also creating urban agricultural landscapes, and more can and should replicate our efforts.

The source of our food is an abstract concept for most of us. (Some urban children think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.) This is changing. More and more people seek to know the supply chain that connects the production of their food to its final consumption, whether in restaurants, from stores or at home. People are returning to the earth as they learn that urban gardens provide benefits beyond good food. This includes economic savings, environmental improvement, lifestyle enhancement, increased exercise as well as family and community bonding.

President Obama mentioned increasing agricultural exports, but he also mentioned that the First Lady Michelle Obama would continue her work on the problems of child obesity. The irony here is that the industrial agriculture he supports and child obesity are directly connected. Industrial agriculture and the lack of personal involvement in food production is one of the leading factors causing our people to become more obese and less healthy.

The time has come for Americans to re-claim our agricultural heritage. Engaging in urban agriculture would be a major step in that direction.

-K. Rashid Nuri, 2010.





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