Rethinking Urban Agriculture. Can Urban Agriculture Solve The Social Crisis?
‘When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.’ (Bruce Mau et al, 2004:129)
There are multiple crises that are faced by humanity in the twenty-first century including global warming, poverty, biodiversity loss, and environmental damage. The scale of these crises is unprecedented and increasingly complex. It is fair to say that it is not possible to draw out the one major single problem that should be the main focus for us to solve. French philosopher Edgar Morin has coined the term ‘polycrisis’ to be able to conceptualise this (Morin, 1999). This captures the sense that we are witnessing not one single problem, but problems that are interconnected and overlap with each other (van Breda, 2007). This polycrisis is man-made, and so it is the responsibility of humanity to provide systemic solutions that can begin to deal with the major challenges of our times. Many of these crises and the responses to them can be seen through the context of food (Maxey, 2006), which is the focus for the article series; Rethinking Urban Agriculture, Written by Dr Vincent Walsh. In particular, the focus will be on food production and distribution, which is becoming a major point of research on food security (Morgan and Sonnino, 2010).
My Argument and Contextualisation addresses the question of how can we continue to produce food in the context of an ecological crisis and growing urban populations. I aim to introduce the social and ecological crises in relation to food production, distribution and access, to provide a wider context for the programme of investigation. Then I will explores some existing grassroots alternative approaches to local food production and critiques them to highlight the existing gaps in knowledge that this research aims to address.
Food Poverty: A Social Crisis
Food banks have become one of the fastest growing charitable activities in the UK, with at least three new food banks opening each week (Church Action on Poverty, 2013). Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty estimate that over 500,000 people are now reliant on the use of food banks and receipt of food parcels, a figure substantially higher than the headline figure of 350,000 supplied by the Trussell Trust (Church Action on Poverty, 2013). Food banks across Britain report being inundated with requests for emergency meals during the school holidays. Parents whose children ordinarily receive free school lunches are among those who are struggling most, as they have to find an extra meal every day. The rise of food banks in the UK has brought food poverty sharply into public consciousness.
A range of experts, including David Taylor-Robinson – a population health scientist at the Medical Research Council, have warned that UK food poverty ‘has all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive action’ (Taylor-Robinson et al, 2013). This is not just a UK problem; food banks have been common in Canada since the 1980s, and have now become normalised. Graham Riches argues that they have become:
Key institutions in the newly resurrected residual welfare state with governments relying on them as charitable partners providing feeding programmes of last resort. They permit the state to neglect its obligation to protect vulnerable and powerless people. They encourage the view that food poverty is not a critical public policy issue. They allow the corporate food industry to be viewed as responsible community partners (Riches, 2002: 654)
There is a real need to critique food banks within a wider context in order to be able to avoid their normalisation.
The rise of food banks has been connected to the coalition government’s programme of welfare reforms (Lambie-Mumford and Dowler, 2014). However, the roots of malnutrition are deeper than welfare reforms. The issue of food poverty is in fact much deeper than a lack of food for people in crisis and is connected to poor nutrition for people with low income. As Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, ‘poor nutrition is rightly described as the new malnutrition of our times’ (Unwin, 2013). This phenomenon is connected to our industrialised global agricultural mode of production, which creates nutritionally deficient food, reduces biodiversity, and relies upon oil for each part of production, therefore creating an increasingly volatile market that contributes significantly towards climate change (Tilman et al, 2002). Food production and access is therefore an increasingly important area for research and public policy. The intersection of social and environmental crises necessitates a socially just solution within the planet’s ecological limits, consistent with Professor Lang’s call for better nutrition in a low carbon sustainable food economy (Lang, 2009).
The pressure on low income families, who have seen stagnation in terms of benefits or pay, is being made worse by the rise in living costs, of which food is a major element. Families in the lowest income houses spend a higher proportion of their income on food. It is estimated that the poorest 10% of households in the UK spent nearly a quarter (23.8%) of their gross income on food and non-alcoholic beverages in 2012 (Whitham, 2012). This means that low-income families are more vulnerable to increases in the price of food.
There have been increases in prices of food generally, and fruit and vegetables specifically, particularly since 2004 (Office of National Statistics, 2013). This is due in large part to increases in the costs of global production, which is connected to the fluctuations of peak oil prices (Trostle, 2010). Growing food is not expensive in itself, but the production of oil-heavy, pesticide-based global food is socially, economically and ecologically expensive. Developing new approaches to producing local food is a major public policy challenge of our time and a pressing issue of social justice.
Having peaked in 2006 and 2007, purchases of fruit and vegetables were ten per cent lower in 2011 than 2007 for all households. For households with the second lowest income, the reduction was twenty two per cent, and for households in the poorest ten percent it was fifteen per cent. Only those in the top fifth of incomes were estimated to be eating the recommended five servings a day (Office of National Statistics, 2013). As we can see from the rising costs of these items at the same time, there is a correlation between costs and consumption of healthy food, and a clear connection between low-income and poor nutrition.
The link between poor nutrition and ill health has long been established. As shown by the 2010 Marmot Review, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, general nutrition levels in the UK are poor, with people on low incomes even worse (Marmot et al, 2010). It is estimated that poor nutrition is a contributory factor in one third of all cancers (Department of Health, 1998); nearly 30% of deaths from coronary heart disease (Peterson and Rayner, 2003); and 30% of years of life lost due to disability or early death (World Health Organisation, 2002). Other negative results of a poor diet include a significantly increased risk of obesity and poor mental health (James et al, 1997).
Healthy food production and distribution is an area that can contribute towards solving social crises, but in order to be able to achieve this, there must also be considerations of the ecological crises that are created through the global food system.
In the next article of Rethinking Urban Agriculture I will address: The Global Food System: An Ecological Crisis.