Urban farming, some believe, is the solution to all our problems. Rather than shifting food from distant locations to the urban communities where we live, we farm the corners, roundabouts and gardens and cultivate diused land so as to feed ourselves. It's all terribly jolly and green, typified by the Incredible Edible programme in Todmorden. I love it, the randomness, the cheeky nature of swooping on a little patch of urban green and seeding it with herbs is great.
However, when people start taking this stuff seriously they start talking nonsense. Here's a report from some professors at Sheffield University:
THE COUNTRY may only have 100 harvests left because of intensive over farming unless drastic action is taken, according to university scientists
They say the problem has depleted the soil of the nutrients needed to grow crops and suggest converting parts of the UK’s towns and cities into new farmyards.
Scientists from Sheffield University warn that a lack of bio-diversity is causing a dramatic fall in the country ‘s wildlife populations.
A study by Dr Jill Edmondson has also found that soils under Britain’s allotments are significantly healthier than soils that have been intensively farmed.
Now I'm going to take the scientists' information at face value - it really isn't surprising that the soil in allotments, lovingly and intensively managed by the hobby horticulturalist, is better than the soil on the typical commercial farm. But that really doesn't make it either sensible of viable to replace the production from farmland with production from gardens or allotments. More significantly, yields from commercial farming as vastly higher than yields from hobby farming. Despite stagnant yields in some crops, there's not much evidence to suggest that the dire predictions from the Sheffield University team will come to pass.
However there's another important point to be made here which is about land use and land values. We know that urban and rural land values are massively different. According to Savills the average value for farmland in Great Britain is £9,750 per acre whereas residential development land can be values at £900,000 per acre of higher. Quite obviously there is no way in which the value of the land for other uses (housing, parkland, highway, commercial or industrial) can be substituted for agricultural use and for the farmer to be able to recover his outlay from the profits generated by growing stuff.
As one comment on urban agriculture put it:
What today’s enthusiastic locavores ultimately fail to understand is that their “innovative” ideas are not only up against the Monsantos of this world, but also in a direct collision course with regional advantages for certain types of food production, economies of scale of various kinds in all lines of work and the fact that pretty much anything they can achieve in urban environments can be replicated at lower costs in the countryside. These basic realities defeated sophisticated local food production systems in the past and will do so again in the foreseeable future.
While no one argues against the notion that our modern food production system can be improved, and entrepreneurs are always searching how to do so, the desire to make urban agricultural a viable commercial reality distracts from more serious issues such as international trade barriers and counterproductive domestic agricultural subsidies. The sooner well-intentioned activists understand these realities, the better.
The right response is to work on either protecting biodiversity and soil quality in intensive agriculture or at opening up more land (not just in the UK, America and Europe but in Africa and Asia) to productive agricultural uses. Suggesting that Sheffield's twee Love Square - or any similar sort of project - is any kind of solution to food supply challenges is arrant nonsense. But it's so much more fun to play at farmer in our spare time and to prattle on about urban food production.
Hardly a day passes without some further argument support intensification and densification within urban communities. It's as if that science fiction image of cities captured in biodomes, self-sufficient and shiny but surrounded by wilderness, has become the real ambition of the green movement. What they miss is that the image was always a convenient plot structure rather than a painting of a real future, a way for the writer to explore the logical conclusions - good and bad - of urban living.
The sad part of this green myth-making is the seriousness with which some folk treat it - they seem unconnected to economic reality as they pretend their sweet world of sustainable towns peopled by walking, cycling allotment owners is anything but a greenwashed version of subsistance agriculture - the very form of poverty that we escaped from by moving to cities and creating the modern capitalist society.