Urban gardens and the global food crisis

Urban gardens and the global food crisis

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By Rob Sawers

While farmers around the world suffer the effects of this corporate offensive against traditional agriculture, it is the urban poor who suffer the most acute risks of malnutrition in this food crisis. Community groups in countless cities have started urban gardens in poor neighborhoods and offer a nutritional alternative for those who survive by eating street desserts and junk food.

São Paulo, Brazil. All over the world, prices of basic foods are rising. FAO openly admits a “global food crisis”. There is strong evidence that food prices are one of the critical political unrest throughout the world. The causes of this crisis are varied, and include extreme and erratic weather and high oil prices. However, as in previous times of hunger and famine, the food crisis is not only the result of natural phenomena, but is compounded by the greed to profit from human misery by manipulating the markets. Today, peasants have the ability to feed the world, but for those who control factory farms, export markets, and supermarket chains, it is more convenient to push prices higher still. The increase in profits caused by climate change is proving too tempting for companies.

While farmers around the world suffer the effects of this corporate offensive against traditional agriculture, it is the urban poor who suffer the most acute risks of malnutrition in this food crisis. Their food and nutrition are completely dependent on the food industry as long as their wages are not rising fast enough to avoid hunger.

It is clear that we need alternative solutions. For those facing imminent malnutrition as they watch prices climb week by week, it is no longer simply the option of waiting quietly for government or capitalist-led development to reach the slums. Across the Americas, from Buenos Aires to Detroit, many communities have reacted proactively to this crisis. Community groups in countless cities have started urban gardens in poor neighborhoods and offer a nutritional alternative for those who survive by eating street desserts and junk food. In addition, they make possible the development of local economies to market their products. Unfortunately, the only other local economy for some of these neighborhoods, like São Paulo's Favela Sabopemba, is drug trafficking. Put in this light, orchards and markets are not only a source of nutrition and income, but can stimulate an alternative mentality that resists the dehumanization of drug trafficking and the fatalistic dependence on capitalist development.

Urban vegetable crops have been adopted by communities in response to food price inflation, but the first push towards mass urban agriculture was a response by Cuba to food shortages due to the “Special Period” a early nineties. With the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, Cuba was left without subsidized oil imports, without pesticides and fertilizers. Overnight, once thriving Cuban agribusinesses closed. The island had no choice but to use all its available space to plant vegetables and feed its population. In just a few years, Cuba was producing in its organic gardens as much as with its industrialized agricultural system of the 1980s. The only difference was that Cubans now ate much healthier food thanks to fresh vegetables. Furthermore, this transformation put the means of production in the hands of the communities, and not in the hands of the state bureaucracies. By the mid-1990s, 60 percent of all fresh produce consumed in Havana was planted within the city limits.

Since then, urban gardens have flourished throughout the continent, not because there are food shortages, but because of the increase in dysfunctional food markets.

Popularized by the 2008 documentary The Garden, the South-Central Los Angeles garden was the largest urban vegetable garden in the United States, producing food for thousands of downtown residents. Promoted by the community and local NGOs, the garden resisted pressure from the city government and the absent landowner on an abandoned lot. Ultimately the orchard was razed with trascavos. The destruction of the orchard appeared to be an act of anger by the landowner, but perhaps the idea of ​​inner-city Chicanos resisting the corporate agri-food industry was too threatening to pass up.

This tragic example of corporate machismo should not discourage the urban poor from seeking to take control of their food security. In many other countries, governments are beginning to recognize the benefits of urban farming at the grassroots level and promote these projects. The Argentine and Ecuadorian governments have sanctioned such projects in Buenos Aires and Quito, and have even started some community projects in Mexico City and Detroit, to name just a couple. In São Paulo, the community organization Cidades Sem Fome (Cities without Hunger) has developed an urban cultivation project that uses wasted or unused space, within or near the neighborhoods, in order to undertake organic vegetable production. In most cases, CSF has persuaded property owners that a communal property planted with vegetables implies less legal responsibility than leaving the space empty, which exposes the land to be used as a garbage dump or opens the possibility for them to grow. precarious housing on the property. With this model of borrowing land, CSF has developed an organic farming cooperative of more than twenty orchards scattered throughout one of the largest cities in the world.

The achievements of urban gardens are immediate and obvious to those who otherwise would not have any access to fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone organic, local produce. Cidades Sem Fome founder Hans Dieter Temp encourages first timers to start growing lettuce and radishes. The idea is to start with plants that grow very early, allowing growers to see the benefits in their diet and income as soon as possible. Later, people are encouraged to take on a wider variety of vegetables, to achieve a greater nutritional variety. People who work with CSF now grow a vast array of products, including a variety of local vegetables, such as "chuchu."

One of the most inspiring aspects of this movement, and indeed of the full potential of urban crops in general, is that these gardens have begun to transform neighborhoods that suffer from extreme poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the firm grip of the drug trafficking gangs. In the Sabopemba Favela, notorious for its poverty, young people have very few job opportunities, and the temptations of drug trafficking are great. In the case of women, they are either unemployed, or work as laundresses or servants for middle-class families in other parts of the city.

But the power of collective work (mutirão in Portuguese) is strong, and the organizers of the movement are already looking at improvements in nutrition and in people's mentality. Temp recalls how difficult it was to convince the women of the neighborhood that they themselves could make a difference for themselves and their community. The strange thing was that when they were shown the lush orchard of a neighboring neighborhood, already functioning, the women of Sabopemba at first were immovable. The feeling of these women seemed to be: "How can we replicate something so beautiful", they said. But the women of Sabopemba joined CSF and the act of collective farming began to deconstruct their discouragement mentality. These women have given their children and neighbors something very unique in the slums, the pride of being able to achieve something in their communities and in themselves.

Temp adds that when Sabopemba started farming, the conversations they overheard while working were mostly gossip about crack abuse and the prices different dealers charged. Now, women exchange knowledge of cultivation or cooking while they work. Despite the anecdotal, the movement believes that this shows a dramatic shift in mentality.

However, mentality is only part of the problem because in São Paulo, the supermarkets are far from the favelas and the prices are incredibly expensive for the poor. A mother with mouths to feed who works washing clothes for middle-class families at the other end of this mega-metropolis may have to take multiple buses to the supermarket and back. With this sort of epic transshipment, a head of lettuce or a few ripe mangoes can be squashed or marred by the time you get home to prepare the meal. Although these kinds of problems may sound grossly mundane and irrelevant to the realities of poverty, many people in the Sabopemba Favela have pointed to exactly these kinds of situations as part of the obstacles they face in achieving good nutrition. What happens is that at the prospect of coming home with a lettuce that they can hardly afford, that they spend time and money on transporting, and that on top of everything arrives ruined, they simply choose the cheap and reliable: rice and noodles. , and not nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What is required, and CSF hopes to be part of that change, is a move away from large-scale industrial agriculture and the supermarket chains that distribute its products. In Brazil, and certainly throughout the American continent, giant corporations control much of the agricultural production of the countries. The corporate industrial model of agriculture relies on massive government subsidies, specialization and intensification of crops, and uses expensive machinery and chemicals. Against these Goliaths of production, small holders and family farms do not have many opportunities to compete. Small farms go into debt and bankrupt, and the corporate giants of agriculture clench their fists.

In turn, these vertically integrated agribusiness corporations rely on supermarkets as a mechanism to increase their profits. Supermarkets can be the stage in which the drama of social exclusion is enacted. A percentage of the world's population (a rapidly growing percentage) sees supermarkets as their primary access to fresh food. They display a variety of goods for the consumer, with brands and packages that cultivate brand recognition and brand loyalty. In these havens of corporate profits, shoppers are divided along class lines based on what each can afford and the goods that will survive the long journey home. The rich and the poor may shop at the same stores, but they leave the store with very different purchases.

The division is equally sharp between classes of producers. Many small farmers simply cannot stay in business by selling their farm produce to supermarkets because supermarkets pay wholesale prices that are artificially low. For example, the French supermarket chain Carrefour is very powerful in Brazil, as it has 50 million consumers in nearly 500 stores in southern Brazil. (1) At the time the interviews were conducted for this text, Carrefour in São Paulo paid farmers six Brazilian cents (about four cents) per piece of lettuce. For those with hundreds of thousands of acres, and millions or billions to spend on sophisticated machinery and chemicals, it is possible to make a profit on lettuce that sells for four cents on the dollar. But for peasants on small plots trying to compete, it is no longer profitable to farm. They end up going to the cities, to wash clothes, or to sell drugs in the streets; and the trend towards rural deterioration continues.

To confront both sides of this challenge facing slum residents, CSF cultivates gardens that, being large enough, can be economically productive, and are not just bordering on the nutritional lifeline. Producing surplus leads to the development of local markets for organic fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods that never before had such luxuries. Markets are, in fact, one of the most exciting aspects of the Cidades Sem Fome model, because they begin to unravel the nutritional apartheid that divides São Paulo between rich and poor. In addition to the pride and self-esteem that comes from neighbors working together to mutilate these markets, the low prices give a much larger section of the population access to fresh produce. A head of lettuce in these markets sells for one Real (about 60 cents); Compared to Carrefour, it is a much lower price for the consumer and it is much higher profit for the producer.

Prices in these local “peasant” markets for fresh vegetables are lower than in supermarkets, among other things due to the absence of intermediaries. As noted earlier in the example of how Carrefour sets the price of lettuce, corporate supermarkets require a huge discrepancy between the wholesale price and the retail price for fresh produce, in order to support the indirect costs of full international corporations. . From grocery store staff up, through engineers and mechanics and back offices, legal teams, financial advisers, executives, board members, the entire bill to the bottom of the line is paid by farmers and consumers. But why does it have to be that the struggling peasants and the dispossessed who inhabit the slums are forced to take part in an unjust and so overloaded structure? Why do the women of Favela Sabopemba have to contribute to the benefits packages of the Carrefour board of directors?

If it is thought of as a development model or as a solution to the global food crisis, some will argue that growing vegetables and local markets are "little thing", a simple bandage on the wound caused by a food production system that is being getting out of control. This may be the case, and perhaps the long-term solutions are not in the cities that consume but in the countryside that produces. Peasants and smallholders around the world cry out for land reform as the capital-intensive food-producing machine damages more land and makes more local markets obsolete. But as the peasant struggle continues, perhaps invisible or alien to the world's urban population, the marginalized poor in cities and slums cannot keep waiting for the promises of capitalist development to be fulfilled. When food prices climb to ridiculous heights, thinking that capitalism will pay off is a fantasy that they can no longer afford.

One of the main challenges of this autonomous movement that seeks to get rid of industrial agriculture and urban hunger is to find a method of distribution of agricultural products that gives back to supermarkets and all the problems they generate. That is why the organic vegetable markets in the favelas promoted by Cidades Sem Fome are so important. It's not just that they put organic produce and gardens directly into the hands of those most desperately in need; they play a role in supporting this courageous departure from the system that destroys economies, habitats, and families.

Rob sawers | 01 November 2011 | Biodiversity - Oct 2011 -


(1) Reardon, Thomas. et al. "Supermarkets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America." American Journal of Agricultural Economics. V.85. No.5 (2003) 1144

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