August 5, 2011

Farming in the cities

As Indian households strive to maintain food consumption in the face of high inflation, increasing demand, and relatively slower increases in supply, promoting urban agriculture in a scientific manner could contribute to food security. Low per capita consumption of food by Indian households, and increasing urbanisation of the Indian population lend greater urgency to promoting urban agriculture.

In 2008, for the first time in history, a majority of the global population was classified as urban. In India, urbanisation is accelerating. The share of urban population was 30 percent in 2010, and projections by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) suggest that this will increase to 40 percent in 2030 and to over 50 percent in 2045. The averages for the country conceal wide variations in the level and pace of urbanisation in different states.

The share of India’s population living in the cities of more than one million people will increase from 12.5 percent in 2010, to 15.5 percent in 2025. Thus, India’s future is increasingly urban, just as India’s demographic trends suggest increasing ageing of the population.

When such a large proportion of the population becomes totally detached from agricultural activities, while demand continues to grow, huge strains on food logistics and supply chain can be partially mitigated by promoting urban agriculture. In India, significant migration from rural to urban areas, some of which is seasonal, provide an opportunity to use agricultural skills of the rural migrants in an urban setting.

This, of course, is not a substitute for improving productivity and sustainability of the agricultural sector as a whole by applying knowledge management concepts and techniques.

High food inflation is a global phenomenon, and it is expected to continue. In May 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations’ food price index was 37 percent higher than a year ago. The G20 nations have placed food security at the centre of their 2011 agenda, launching an Agriculture Market Information System (AMIS) initiative to develop better data on global production and stocks of food commodities for better policy coordination and reduction in price volatility.

There is a growing interest in urban agriculture, though its scale and reasons vary. Urban farming yields direct income through sales and employment, or indirect income through reduction of expenditure on food. Greater autonomy over food production by urban residents could also assist in urban human security and co-operation, and be an integral part of greening efforts of cities.

The FAO defines urban agriculture as: “An industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel, largely in response to the daily demand of consumers within a town, city, or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intensive production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban wastes to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.”

The FAO definition however suggests that organising and sustaining urban agricultural (and horticultural) activities is a complex task, particularly given the acute scarcity of space, water, and other resources in urban areas. It also suggests that agricultural activities should be combined to maximum extent possible with management of water resources, and of municipal solid waste particularly the organic materials.

An important insight from the literature on growth theory suggests that innovation generated progress comes from reconfiguring the existing ways of combining various factors of production to obtain economically more efficient outcomes. Urban agriculture is ideally suited for such reconfiguration and therefore innovation led economic growth.

As India develops new townships, and as the concept of sustainable cities becomes increasingly acceptable, there are opportunities to build environmentally and economically sound urban agriculture systems, involving waste and water management can be incorporated from the beginning.

As urban agriculture is knowledge-intensive, scientific management of and involving solid waste management and scarce water resource, there are potential opportunities for socially-oriented enterprises to specialise in this area, thus helping to diffuse such knowledge throughout the country. As is well known, many cities and other parts of the country will be facing water scarcity, requiring implementation of newer methods of water conservation and augmentation.

The role of government should remain as a facilitator, as any uniform regulation for heterogeneous needs and capacities will be counter productive. This is especially true in India where urban governments are still struggling with performing basic municipal functions with reasonable degree of technical competency and economic efficiency.

There are encouraging experiments in urban agriculture in different parts of India. Thus, the nutritional garden programme in Cuttack in Odisha benefits primarily low-income households.

Resource Centre on Urban Agriculture and Food Security Foundation (RUAF) has documented urban agricultural activities in many cities, including Mumbai and Hyderabad. Among the findings are that the vertical structures can increase the surface area to grow vegetables; and that new technological experiments are essential to integrate growing food with organic waste and waste water.

Urban agriculture can be practiced in vertical spaces in the city, including municipal lots, areas of housing co-operatives societies, household kitchens, schools and colleges. Examples of terrace gardens at Mumbai Port Trust, and at Rosary High School in Mumbai have often been cited to indicate the potential of urban agriculture.

But these represent a very small beginning. There is a need for greater awareness of the urgency and feasibility of urban farming throughout the country. A facilitative environment, including clarity of property rights of urban open spaces, and co-ordination among multi-stakeholders are needed. Social-oriented enterprises have significant potential role to diffuse knowledge-intensive techniques in this area.

In India, the micro-finance sector has a good potential to expand in the urban sector where it has so far been relatively weak. Financing urban agriculture activities through self-help groups and through other entities including individuals, has the potential to become a socially productive opportunity for micro-finance institutions. Other financial institutions, such as the co-operative banks, can also play a useful role.

In assessing the governance performance of various states, appropriate indicators of the extent to which urban agriculture is facilitated should be included.

The constraints in promoting urban agriculture are organisational and attitudinal, not technical or financial. The mind-set of the urbanites, particularly the upper income groups who regard food security as simply being able to buy food from the market, and regard farming as a loco status and less skilled activity, also needs to undergo a change in order to recognize the importance of urban agriculture.

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