Urban agriculture: A viable safety net for the urban poor during times of crisis?

Blog Cities, COVID-19 and Cities that Work

One of the most devastating side effects of COVID-19 and the associated national lockdowns is the impact it is having on food access for the poor. Sub-Saharan Africa, with an already fragile food system, where rapid urbanisation and the rise of urban poverty pose substantial challenges to food security and nutrition, is likely to be hit the hardest. A simulation by the IGC shows that an eight-week lockdown could result in 168 million people across sub-Saharan Africa no longer being able to afford their usual food consumption. As leaders scramble to respond, various stakeholders have highlighted urban agriculture as a solution to improving the resilience of the urban poor to this, and other future shocks. But such a proposal requires further scrutiny: although urban agriculture can bring significant benefits of improved nutrition and community stability, urban land is scarce, and locking the city into a low-value activity could hamper future productivity if it is not adequately regulated.

Transforming unused city space into nutrition, economic opportunity, and resilience

Urban agriculture involves individuals, families, or communities growing crops or keeping livestock within their plots (backyard farming), on rented urban land, or on institutional lands such as schools and hospitals. It can also include using derelict or underutilised open spaces such as roadsides, along railway lines, under power lines, rooftops and marshland. A variety of crops and livestock are produced, often using novel methods to make the most of limited space and resources, including vertical gardens made from sacks and hydroponics systems using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil.

It is surprising how much food can be produced from such little land: research shows that yields are usually much higher on smaller farms, and urban farming operations are no different. Just a square metre can yield 30kg of tomatoes a year, 100 onions in 120 days or 36 lettuce heads every 60 days; and with modest water requirements of just three litres a day. Old car tyres, lined wooden crates and redundant plastic containers are all inexpensive ways to grow root crops, vegetables, mushrooms and fruit. Moreover, vertically stacked chicken and rabbit houses, using locally sourced material, substantially increases the number of animals that can be raised, providing an important source of dietary protein.

Produce from urban agriculture is usually consumed by the family or community. For poor urban households that typically spend up to 80% of their income on food, home production has the potential to provide substantial savings, with the additional advantage of dietary diversification and improved nutrition. For larger operations, there is also often surplus that can be sold at the side of the road or at the increasing number of city farmers’ markets, providing welcome additional income for the farmer. Studies in Senegal have shown that just ten square metres can yield between USD I5 and USD 30 a month in excess produce sold. Other benefits include increased urban greening, shorter supply chains, building community cohesion, and creating productive opportunities for the youth, women, elderly and disabled.

What’s the catch?

Urban agriculture will never be the bedrock of national food security. Given the scarcity and high cost of urban land, it is unable to reach the scale required for mass affordable food production in the same way that rural agriculture can. High yields do not make up for the significant logistical costs of numerous micro-farms, and would require strong cooperatives for quality control, marketing and transportation of goods to even come close to competing with rural operations. Moreover, cities are only places that promote productivity and liveability when they are densely populated with close connectivity between people and work. Urban land needs to be invested in and transferred to its highest value use, reducing sprawl and enhancing the efficiency of city operations.

By this logic, however, vacant and underutilised urban land can be made more efficient by devoting it to more informal urban agriculture practices. In these cases, no market-related rents need to be covered, and any farming conducted will be on a micro-scale. However, this usually means farmers’ land rights will be tenuous, leaving them vulnerable to be removed by city authorities or legal owners of the land at any time. Contestation around land rights can also prevent vacant land being used for urban agriculture from being transferred to a more productive urban activity in the future. Thus, while land use may be made more efficient in the short run, it can be impeded in the long run.

Urban agriculture in times of crisis

Although not the solution to all economic and food security problems of the poor as many claim it to be, urban agriculture does have the potential to improve the resilience of communities to market shocks. Markets are prone to internal supply chain shocks as well as external physical and economic shocks, thereby impacting prices and market participation. The current coronavirus pandemic is a clear example of such a shock, disrupting supply chains and eliminating incomes to access food through the restrictions placed on movement of people and goods. In some countries, food prices have risen by more than 100% due to panic buying, in tandem with large portions of the population losing their incomes.

The trade and distribution disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of short and local supply chains during times of crisis, with less transportation, lower storage and refrigeration costs and greater variety of fresh food. Further, local produce from backyard gardens and other available spaces are proving to be vital safety nets for many low-income urban dwellers, providing essential food supplies within their neighbourhoods. In some cases, even taking off as viable economic enterprises as demand for local and innovative food delivery services increases. African cities may be particularly amenable given that vacant and underutilised land can often be found in abundance; while so too can the urban poor – a vast majority of whom are under-employed and vulnerable to crises.

Implications for cities’ COVID-19 policy response

Unfortunately, urban agriculture falls between the two stools of agricultural and urban development policies; as such, it is mostly unregulated, unrecognised and receives no public assistance. This results in a haphazard and high-risk approach by urban farmers. For urban agriculture to be a viable option to improving the resilience of urban dwellers to the economic shock of COVID-19, it first needs to be recognised as a legitimate solution. For example, urban farming has now been highlighted as a critical part of the Freetown City Council’s COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, with the rationale that it will increase compliance and resilience in informal settlement communities when lockdown measures are in place. Provisions have thus been made for training to be provided by extension officers, as well as distribution of vegetable seeds, holding devices (such as pots and tyres), tools and soil.

However, for long-term success, this recognition needs to be complemented by clear regulations that capture the short-term benefits whilst avoiding the long-term costs. We need to place urban agriculture within the broader food system, assessing trade-offs with urban land use planning and better distribution networks to low-cost, large-scale rural food production. Its promotion and control need to be integrated into national and local agricultural development strategies, food and nutrition policies, and urban planning policy instruments. Ongoing training would be needed to make urban farmers self-sufficient over time, and strong logistics solutions combined with e-commerce initiatives should be supported for more efficient distribution of goods. In this way, urban agriculture can provide a productive activity to help the most vulnerable citizens of the city weather this crisis, without impeding future urban development.