Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


The trend to urban food production is manifested in various ways. What are the behavioural, policy and operational implications of this movement?

We are having great fun just now growing our own herbs.

We do quite a lot of cooking at home and simply got sick of clearing out those sad remnants of bunches of herbs we’d bought at the supermarket. You only need a few sprigs of marjoram or thyme or oregano whenever you use them, so no matter how coordinated your menu is, you just don’t need that much of the stuff at any one time.

So now we get lots of satisfaction growing a selection of our own herbs. I get to water and talk to them each morning, which surely helps me in other ways. (I promise I don’t talk to them for too long, of course.) They flourish on our sunny balcony and we get to pick them and use them as we need them. Bliss!

We are not alone in this. Urban food is increasingly in the news. In response to the growing recognition that our cities are responsible for a large and growing share of the overconsumption we need to curb, people are starting to realise that what we eat and how it gets grown and distributed is something that we can easily influence, at least at the margins.

We are in the midst of a shift towards people caring about what they put in their mouths. The slow food movement, which arose in Italy in 1986 in response to the threatened opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome – shock! horror! – brought to a larger audience the idea that there is an alternative to fast food. The idea that industrialised, processed, uniform food is not the only option and that plenty of people around the world prefer the alternative and choose it willingly is both liberating and energising. This movement has grown and spread globally; Edward Behr, for instance, recently blogged about The implications not just of Slow Food but of Slow Living.

People are also re-discovering they can grow their own food. I remember my parents carefully nurturing their own white peaches, passionfruit and apples and the delight of biting into perfectly ripe, home-grown fruit. Indira Naidoo writes of her pleasure in biting into a real tomato, as opposed to commercial tomatoes bred for ease of transport and length of storage; she cites this as the reason she became interested in turning her Apartment Balcony into a Productive Garden.

Producing food using parts of our city that would otherwise not be productive makes eminent sense. Rooftops provide a great opportunity for being converted to productive uses. Demonstration projects abound but now it is starting to go mainstream. I read recently that Wholefoods has partnered with one of its suppliers, Gotham Greens, to establish in Brooklyn. In an attempt to service the urban biome, various cities are establishing Rooftop Beehives. In Vancouver, Verticrop trialled an aquaponics greenhouse producing enough green leafy vegetables to service the needs of two local supermarkets, thereby providing a fresher local alternative to a packaged product that is trucked from southern California and Mexico.

These systems can be as simple or as complex as we want and are willing to pay for. I predict that really soon – this year and next – modular and integrated systems that can be used not only in commercial but in domestic and hobby situations will start to emerge.

One area that I think is particularly fascinating is the behavioural, organisational, regulation and policy responses that emerge from this.

Having people care about the provenance and quality of their food is a lifeline for the small producers who are being squeezed by the industrial food production model into selling their food to the large supermarket chains at lower and lower prices. Our local milk producers are rebelling against the financial pain they are suffering as Australia’s big supermarket duopoly engage in a price war that sees milk being sold at prices below production cost. As a result we are seeing different milk brands popping up and being sold through different channels.

I was lucky enough to attend a food forum a couple of years back and to participate in a range of discussions whose focus was not just on conventional ideas of engaging people in the process of growing food for the city but in creating the means for consumers of food to link up more personally with its producers. This raises all kinds of organisational and logistics issues that, on the one hand, might be seen as less efficient than the industrialised food that is dominant now, but on the other hand might just deliver a range of benefits – not just better, fresher food, but community-building, local involvement, more energy, materials, carbon and water-efficient processes, support for urban and peri-urban employment. I would quite like to know the people that grow my food and would like not only know what was coming next month, but also to be able to put in a request. Rhubarb, anyone? This idea has now grown into a genuine global movement.

The question is not whether the energy to achieve this is there – we can see it happening right now – but how the agencies that regulate and manage our cities will keep pace. It will be interesting to see if they are able to become facilitators and enablers of a movement that might just be a key part of the puzzle that is about the viability of our cities in the 21st century. Meanwhile, I am going to keep talking to my oregano.