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Cities Feeding People: An Overview

by John Henning

Dept. of Agricultural Economics,
Director, Ecological Agriculture Projects,
Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Macdonald Campus,
McGill University, Montréal

Prepared for:

Cities Feeding People: A Growth Industry, IDRC Development Forum,

Ottawa May 21, 1997, Montréal May 22, 1997.

1. Introduction:

Urban agriculture could be considered to include primary food production and distribution activities that take place anywhere within the fringe of an urban center. I would include backyard gardening in the definition. This necessarily admits a wide variety of enterprises, and reflects the great diversity of location, scale, participants, and motives that define urban agriculture as it is practiced in the world today. It also means that a "typical" urban farmer probably does not exist.

Whatever it is, it is focused on the idea of cities feeding people; producing food for people to eat, but also feeding the human spirit and thereby improving a city's social fabric. This is by no means a new idea.

"Space with power. What words could better describe a garden ? The space is self evident. The power, they say, no man has ever fully measured. It is a wonderful combination of sun, rain, and the invisible forces of the soil. This power is all ready to be turned on. All it needs is men who are skilful enough to guide it." (Williams, 1911, pp1.).

This quotation, as much as any could, concisely sums up the potential for urban agriculture to contribute to the nourishment of the people inhibiting cities and the challenge this potential entails. Dora Williams wrote from the perspective of a woman living in New England at the turn of the century. She was concerned with schools and the positive role of gardens in the education and development of children as good citizens who would contribute to society. But she also recognized that the values in gardening extended beyond children and simply producing food.

2. Location, Scale, and Diversity:

Urban agriculture can be found in developed industrialized countries, Eastern Europe, and throughout the developing world. It is an activity that is shared by more than 200 million people (Mougeot, 1994), who undertake food production to satisfy the same set of basic needs, and who share many of the same challenges. It is also a common feature that the practice of urban agriculture has been growing during the past two decades, and already makes a significant contribution to the food requirements of cities.

Some might think that urban agriculture is a fringe activity of interest only to the poorest and those facing impending malnutrition. While it may be of most immediate interest to them, there is ample evidence that it is practiced by people throughout the income distribution (Smit et al , 1996), Smit (1996), Salm (1997)). Another misconception is that it is an archaic pastime, peculiar to those who have migrated from rural farming to urban centers. In developing countries, this is not the case, (Smit et al. (1996, Mougeot, (1994)). At least in North America, it is the children of the postwar era, a generation removed from the farm, who are largely responsible for the growth in urban agriculture here.

The practitioners of urban agriculture produce virtually every food product that you might find in a rural setting: all types of fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock products. This is because these farmers produce at a variety of scales, and live among diverse urban populations with a variety of needs. The diversity in production reflects the range of conditions that exist within the urban fringe at various locations. In terms of scale, the land base can range from a few square feet up to hundreds of hectares, although urban farms are more likely to be small and intensive. The larger parcels are more likely to be found in the fringe of large North American cities. Technically, these are urban farmers, and they face many of the same constraints, and have some of the same opportunities as their smaller counterparts (Blobaum, (1987), Wilkinson, & Van Seters, (1997)).

3. Benefits and the Status of Urban Agriculture

The reported benefits of urban agriculture can be seen at several levels: the individual, the family, society and its institutions. These are summarized below.

Developing countries:

In the case of the developing world, it is clear that urban agriculture has been receiving increasing attention and support during the past 20 years, and experienced a period of rapid growth during the 1980's. Even so, according to Smit et al., (1996), in most countries urban agriculture has been underrated by both local governments and international development agencies.

The past success and future potential that proponents see for urban agriculture is most immediately related to meeting economic and nutritional needs, primarily in the lower income strata. It has been viewed as an effective strategy to respond to the urgent needs of the urban poor. A subsistence level farmer producing in the city substitutes for food that must be imported to the city, sometimes at a substantially lower cost. In this case, when the majority of the city dweller`s income is spent on food, it is understandable that the economic impact on the individual can be dramatic: higher and more stable income, plus improved food security.

Simply having access to fresh produce and livestock products, combined with the diversity of output usually found in urban agriculture directly translates into improved nutrition for the producer, their family, and the community to which they sell their surplus. When surplus production is sold, the activity also contributes to improving income distribution, especially in those cases where women are the primary producer.

Urban farmers also produce other amenities of benefit to the larger community. They provide an outlet through which to recycle community wastes. The existence of city farmers throughout an urban landscape creates a decentralized waste handling system that effectively converts a waste problem into a valuable resource. This can reduce waste handling costs, and related health problems. The simple act of farming also contributes by reducing air pollution, and improving the visual space of the community.

Developed countries:

Since the 1970's, many of the same preconditions for an increase in urban agriculture have been found to a greater or lesser extent in most of the large cities of the developed world: a crumbling urban core, combined with resource outflows, increasing urban poverty, malnutrition, social network decay, and market system failure. But, the interest in urban agriculture has even deeper roots.

The resurgence in urban agriculture only underlines the fact that there was a time when significant amounts of food were produced in cities. But, their capacity was progressively lost during the twentieth century. It was lost through the effects of development pressure emanating from the city core, combined with the remarkable progress in the productivity of industrialized agriculture. At the same time, there were significant developments in processing and transportation technology to deliver cheap food, reliably to market, and a mass marketing apparatus to help shape demand.

These developments made it more "efficient" to move food production away from the city, commodify it, and deliver it through what has become an increasingly centralized, harmonized, integrated, and capital intensive global industry. While it costs consumers in excess of 50% of disposable income in many developing countries to purchase food (Mougeot, 1994), the system delivers food to the developed world at about 15% of disposable income. It is designed to cater to the needs of a mobile, modern, and relatively wealthy population of consumers. In North America, the system generates in excess of 10,000 new food products per year in order to satisfy "consumer needs".

However, some of the wealthiest nations (e.g. Japan and the Netherlands), have led the modern development of urban agriculture. And, it has been some of the relatively well off in these and other developed countries who have helped to create the resurgence. In spite of the fact that those participating in urban agriculture do derive an economic benefit, they are also motivated by needs that "the system" is unable to satisfy.

Urban Agriculture in Canada:

There has been considerable grass-roots interest in urban farming and gardening in Canada's major cities for nearly two decades. Yet, at an institutional level, this interest has not extended much past local city government. With some exceptions, provincial and federal governments and the academic research community have had little interest.

There is no mention of urban agriculture within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's recent strategy document for Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture (AAFC, 1997), and it has not been addressed seriously in any policy document in the past ten years. This is not entirely surprising given that urban agriculture is closely related to "Food Policy"; Canada does not have a food policy. Another possible explanation is that, as practiced in Canada, community gardening is almost entirely organic. At least officially, governments have been careful to limit their recognition of organic farming to simply identifying it as just another method of farming, and thus not grant it any special status.

Research on urban agriculture in Canada is scant. A recent search of the federal government's Canadian Inventory of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Canadian Technology Network, and Food Net produced no research citations related to urban agriculture or farming. The result is that the extent of activity in Canada is largely unknown, and most information concerns the situation in Canada's three largest cities. Montréal has nearly 7000 plots in 75 community gardens, in Vancouver, there are over 2000 plots in 21 operating community gardens (Connolly, 1997), while the Metro Toronto area probably has about 3000 plots in 20 locations. In all three cities, the municipal government provides supports of various kinds, with minimal provincial participation.

Yet, it would seem that there is a significant potential for urban agriculture to contribute to the welfare of Canadians, and justify more institutional support. The need is there, considering that numerous surveys during the past decade have indicated a growing concern among consumers about the ability of the food system to deliver an adequate food supply (Henning, 1994). There are about 2 million Canadians using food banks. But are there the resources to expand urban agriculture ?

Most cities in Canada probably have ample land available to support the production of most of the vegetables and fruit needed to feed their citizens, without unduly encroaching on public spaces. As an encouragement, consider that Hong Kong produces nearly 50% of its own vegetables and most of its own poultry (Rauber, P. 1997). A city of 500,000 would require on the order of 3000 acres (1250 ha). That is about twice the size of the land holding at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in the suburbs of Montréal.

There is available labour. Urban farming already accounts for some of the time of the tens of thousands of back yard and community gardeners. More of this time is available. But Canada also has approximately 1.6 million unemployed in addition to the underemployed. To put this into context, there are about 275 thousand farms in Canada, according to the 1996 Census of Agriculture (Statistics Canada). Official agricultural output is produced by about half a million people.

Could this type of agriculture be economic ? Without more research, it is difficult to be certain, but there are some who believe that sustainable community food systems can be cost competitive with industrial food systems (Wilkinson, and Van Seters, 1997). What is known is that farmers only lay claim to about 20% of the retail dollar spent by consumers. The rest is spent on processing and marketing. Beyond this economic incentive, what is certainly needed in Canada, as elsewhere, are positive policies to support and promote urban agriculture.

4. The Role of Governments and Other Institutions

"In the affairs of men, there always appears to be a need for at least two things simultaneously .... freedom and order." (E.F. Schumacher, 1974, pp53)

Various government agencies and NGO's have been active for many years to promote urban agriculture, primarily in developing countries (e.g. FAO, World Bank, UNICEF, Oxfam, USAID, IDRC, UNDP, Asian Development Bank). However, while the collective level of effort has been helpful, it has also been inadequate. There is much more to do (Mougeot, 1994).

Governments should play a role to encourage and support urban agriculture. Their role primarily can be considered to be on the side of providing order. It is within an orderly institutional framework that these farmers can develop and grow. But, there needs to be a balance with sufficient freedom, to allow the energy, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurial potential of these farmers to be expressed.

Order is required in the flows of inputs, outputs, and the relations farmers have with markets, either formal or informal. In most situations, access to the inputs of farming is impaired. Land may be of poor quality, tenure insecure, or inappropriate rents may be charged. Credit may not be available. Seeds may be in short supply, be of inappropriate variety, or poor quality. On the output side, marketing outlets for production may be limited, and poorly coordinated. The consequence is that prices and incomes are highly unstable, and any benefits will be short lived.

Probably the most important way governments can help is in facilitating the flow of information: encouraging farmers to form self-organized groups (co-operatives), form partnerships with public and private interests, and supporting research and technology transfer. Poor information and inadequate knowledge are the leading causes of the problems associated with urban farming.
To be really effective agents in promoting urban agriculture, governments and institutions simply have to help create an environment that empowers farmers to unleash the power of gardens to improve social well being and the quality of urban life.


AAFC. 1997. Agriculture in harmony with nature: Strategy for environmentally sustainable agriculture and agri-food development in Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa.

Blobaum, R. 1987. Farming on the urban fringe: The economic potential of the rural urban connection. in Sustaining Agriculture Near Cities, W. Lockeretz (ed), Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, Iowa.

City Farmer:

Connolly, N. 1997. A survey of community and allotment gardens in the Greater Vancouver region. Prepared for M. Roseland, Simon Fraser University.

Henning, J.C. Economics of Organic Agriculture in Canada. Chap. 9, In The Economics of Organic Farming: An International Perspective, N.Lampkin and S. Padel (eds.) CAB International, Wallingford, Oxon, United Kingdom. November 1994.

IDRC, 1994. Cities Feeding People: An Examination of Urban Agriculture in East Africa. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

Mougeot, L.J. 1994. Urban food self-reliance: significance and prospects. IDRC Reports, Vol21, No3, October 1994

Rauber, P. 1997. Food for Thought: Cultivating Our Cities. Sierra, Vol.82, No.3.(also available at

Salm, Amunda. 1997. Direct Connections: Farmer-Consumer Communication in a Local Food System. Community Shared Agriculture in Canada. Unpublished MSc. Thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, Netherlands.

Schumacher, E.F. 1974. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered., Sphere Books, Ltd, London.

Smit, J., A. Ratta, and J. Nasr. 1996. Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities UNDP, Habitat II Series. The Urban Agriculture Network, Washington.

Smit, J.. 1996. Urban Agriculture: Progress and Prospect 1975-2005. Cities Feeding People Series Report 18. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

Wilkinson, F., and Van Seters, D. 1997. Adding Values to Our Food System: An Economic Analysis of Sustainable Community Food Systems. Prepared for USDA/SARE, Utah State University, Integrit Systems, Everson, Washington, February.

Williams, Dora. 1911. Gardens and Their Meaning. Ginn and Co., Boston.

© 1997. John Henning. All rights reserved.

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