Ikerd illustrates growing popularity of urban ag
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Agricultural economist John Ikerd was the keynote speaker at a Dec. 14 urban agriculture workshop held at Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
The one-day conference, “Farming in New Jersey’s Cities and the Urban Fringe,” brought together about 30 small-scale farmers and 25 speakers, including farmer Ryck Suydam, New Jersey Farm Bureau president, Dr. Albert Ayeni, an exotic vegetables and hot peppers specialist at SEBS, and Dr. A.J. Both of SEBS, who has expertise in greenhouse lighting, among many other speakers.
Ikerd stressed that urban agriculture is growing in popularity, not only out of concern about food insecurity in inner cities, but also as a way to bring people together while revitalizing large plots of vacant urban land to regenerate and clean up soils on these tracts.
“It may be surprising to some people but urban agriculture is a significant part of the global food system,” the Missouri-raised Ikerd said.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates that 15 to 20 percent of food produced around the world is produced by people farming in urban areas, he added.
“Urban agriculture is becoming a significant part of the local food systems in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Camden New Jersey, places where the inner cities are being abandoned by industrialization that has moved out to other areas,” he said.
He added there are areas within cities that have become food deserts, where people in inner cities are left without opportunities for fresh fruits, vegetables or other nutritious food, with few supermarkets within walking distance.
“The agricultural economist — and I am one — would say that the agriculture moved out of urban areas for good economic reasons, because it was cheaper to produce food outside the urban areas. They moved out because we began to industrialize agriculture and began to have geographic specialization,” he said.
New urban food movement studies have shown that there are a host of significant quality-of-life benefits with people producing food in cities.
“When they produce food in their own gardens, they get both nutritious food and satisfaction out of that.”
The urban agriculture movement is one of many approaches to addressing issues in the food system, “and that’s more of what it’s about than anything else; it’s not just about economics and production,” Ikerd said.
Community gardens engage people in individual neighborhoods and expose youth to intergenerational interaction and self-reliance, he said.
“It isn’t just about ag, it’s about a fundamental change that is taking place, I think, all across our society,” he said.
“Urban ag is not anything new, in the U.S. or anywhere else around the world,” Ikerd added, “the rule of urban migration was a consequence of industrialization. When we moved toward the industrial economy with large factories, people moved in to live close to these factories and that’s basically what built the cities,” he said.
He pointed out that there have been several resurgences of urban agriculture, beginning with the Depression of the 1890’s, and during World Wars I and II, “the ‘Victory Gardens,’ where half the vegetables grown in the U.S. were grown in home gardens across the country during World War II, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and again in the 1970s when we had stagflation and high interest rates, and again in 2009 after the financial crisis.”
But what the United States is witnessing now is fundamentally different, he said.
Increased interest in urban ag now is coming at a time of food abundance.
“We have abundant ag production in this country, we’re exporting 20 percent of our food and we’ve got all kinds of ag production, this isn’t a time of scarcity for food, we’re in a process of de-industrialization of the cities combined with the industrialization of agriculture, so an abundant food supply has left us in a situation where most people can afford more than enough food,” he said.
Despite this abundance, in urban and rural areas in every state in the country, many people remain food insecure.
He said about one in eight people and one in six children are food insecure nationwide.
“This is a reflection of a situation that has created dramatic inequities. In inner cities and rural areas, food insecurity is much higher,” he said
“In 1968, CBS did a documentary called ‘Hunger in America’ and at that time they estimated about 10 million Americans, or 5 percent of the population, was hungry.
“It was considered a national emergency. Now, we have three times as many people who are hungry and we hardly recognize it.”
Ikerd said he is asked frequently: What do you recommend we do about food insecurity?
“I say, why don’t we start forming community food utilities. We have public utilities for water, electricity and gas that the market won’t provide for us, necessarily. It’s called a market failure,” he said. “I contend that hunger is a market failure. We ought to have a public utility that comes together at the community level.
“We have over 130 different local public utilities in the state of Iowa, where people in the city get together and form their own utility; it can be publicly-owned, government-owned or a cooperative.”
“I say, let’s run the food line to people who aren’t getting good, nutritious food today and we do it with a public utility and make it voluntary — you can either join it or stay out of it — and we focus within the utility on producing raw, minimally processed food.
“The utility focuses on providing good food and makes sure that everybody has enough of it. We can give priority to urban farmers, but they have to agree to produce good, nutrient-dense food and do it in good environmentally sound ways that restores the health of the soil, improves the viability of the community and we can pay them the cost of production plus a reasonable return on investment, just like we pay now to public utilities.”
Food utilities are one solution people should try.
“If we leave it to the market, if the urban food movement is driven solely by the pursuit of profit, I can guarantee you we’ll end up back where we are today.”
The urban agriculture movement, he concluded, is about empowering people within their communities “and meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.
“That’s why the urban ag movement is a critically important part of creating a sustainable food future.”
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