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OPINION: Scaling up urban farming beyond COVID-19

by Esther Ngumbi | @EstherNgumbi | University of Illinois
Tuesday, 9 June 2020 11:48 GMT

A farmer holds a tray mustard green seedlings for transplanting that are growing inside his hydroponic climate controlled farm, in the parking lot of a former Pfizer factory in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City, U.S. on May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The world has seen an increase in urban farming amid the coronavirus and fragile food supply chains

Esther Ngumbi, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology and African American Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Senior Food security fellow with the Aspen Institute New Voices

More urban dwellers who usually rely on food that is sourced from farms away from the city are turning to urban farming now that COVID-19 has fractured and exposed how fragile the existing food supply chains are. Google trends reports show that searches for “gardens” are up and enterprises that sell plants and seeds report a spike in the number of customers. Across America, people are planting more vegetables.

Around the world, other countries have seen a sharp increase in urban farming, from Jakarta, to Singapore to Australia. This is a move in the right direction and the reinvigorating of the urban farming movement should be supported and nurtured.

What does urban farming look like? According to the United States Department of Agriculture and Food and Agriculture Organization, urban agriculture can take many forms, from roof-top gardens to farming on abandoned buildings and parking lots to backyard and balcony gardening. In many African countries, it often entails sack and stack farming and traditional gardening in backyards and in some places like  South Africa, it also includes roof top gardens and small farm gardens.

There are many benefits to urban farming including condensing the mileage of food from the farm to the market to improving personal health, ecosystems and food insecurity while promoting sustainable livelihoods. Most importantly, during the pandemic, urban farming has helped families to cope with food insecurities.   

The urban farming movement is especially welcome in Africa, a continent that is rapidly urbanizing, with cities that are crowded and costly.  At 3.5 percent per year, Africa’s urban growth rate is the highest in the world, and that number is expected to keep increasing. Supporting urban farming across Africa would allow the continent to be ready for any future pandemics.  Moreover, at the moment, urban cities in Africa rely on rural areas to meet their food demands, because most of the food consumed is bought in markets and from vendors who source their food directly from farmers that are based in rural areas. 

How do we then tap into the renewed attention to urban farming by city dwellers? 

Well, to develop effective support systems while further nurturing urban agriculture, there is the need to first and foremost accurately capture and map the current state of things. How many new community and city gardens and farms have been planted? Who is doing it? What challenges have they faced? What kind of food are they growing? How did they finance their venture? Who are they distributing the products to? How big is the space and land they are using?

Creating databases and dashboard maps of this information is vital to growing the urban farming movement. This can be done by sending surveys by organizations that are already practicing urban farming, city governments or educational institutions that are based near urban cities. Creating these inventories would also serve to inform urban city planners and policy makers and governments while connecting urban farmers with each other, to potential funders and to consumers.

Second, farming and agriculture is knowledge intensive. Consequently, there is need to establish support systems for these farmers. Urban dwellers need current knowledge about recent growing methods, innovative business models and other best practices to ensure they make the most out of their urban farming enterprise. The good thing is that there are ample resources such as on the sites of USDA, and UN FAO.

Moreover, as urban farming grows, a community and network of support would be key. Urban farmers living in the same cities and regions can form partnerships to support each other.

As we nurture the movement, we must also encourage many more urban dwellers who have not yet ventured into urban farming to give it a try. From university webpages to private organizations to associations YouTube videos including guiding African cities urban dwellers on how to successfully create a bag garden

Food supplies disruptions due to another pandemic or other causes are likely to happen. This new appreciation for urban farming fostered during COVID-19 lockdowns should keep growing. We must continue to tap onto urban agriculture to grow fresh, healthy and nutritious food for urban city dwellers.