Sustainable Urban Agriculture Could Also Offer Environmental, Health, and Social Benefits

The Lempert Report
March 22, 2019

Research from U.C. Berkeley Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri shows that raising fresh fruits, vegetables, and some animal products near consumers in urban areas can improve local food security and nutrition, especially for underserved communities.

He wrote in an article that originally appeared in The Conversation, that feeding the cities of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, where he teaches has a total population of some 7 million, and involves importing 2.5 to 3 million tons of food per day over an average distance of 500 to 1,000 miles.

One recent survey that Altieri citessuggests that urban agriculture could help cities achieve self-sufficiency. One example; researchers have calculated that Cleveland, with a population of 400,000, has the potential to meet 100 percent of its urban dwellers’ fresh vegetable needs, 50 percent of their poultry and egg requirements, and 100 percent of their demand for honey.

Cities such as Oakland California, just 5 miles from Berkley, typically known as a food desert, has 1,200 acres of undeveloped open space—mostly public parcels of arable land—which, if used for urban agriculture, and added farming practices training, could produce 40 million kilograms of vegetables—enough to provide 100 kilograms per year per person to more than 90 percent of Oakland residents.

The major drawback, Altieri writes, is that most obstacles to scaling up urban agriculture are political. In 2014 California enacted AB511, which set out mechanisms for cities to establish urban agriculture incentive zones, but did not address land access. One solution he points out would be for cities to make vacant and unused public land available for urban farming under low-fee, multi-year leases. 

In his view, the ideal strategy would be to pursue land reform similar to that practiced in Cuba, where the government provides 32 acres to each farmer, within a few miles around major cities, to anyone interested in producing food. Between 10 and 20 percent of their harvest is donated to social service organizations such as schools, hospitals, and senior centers.