Sunday, August 3, 2008

Urban Farming

This striking image of urban agriculture is from Havana, Cuba. I read in an article that the only MacDonalds in Cuba is at the Guantánamo Bay naval base, which belongs to the US. Cubans on the other hand, enjoy a superior diet, with access to fresh nutritious fruits and vegetables, cereals herbs, etc They have an agricultural system which is largely self sufficient and does not depend on industial farming, pesticides or fertilizer, and is almost entirely organic. They also have a special food culture where communities of people farm together and are close to the production of their food.

How this came about is briefly something like this - following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba suddenly faced a severe food and energy shortage, since the economic support which included food subsidies, farm equipment, petroleum, pesticides and so on which it had enjoyed came to an end, leading to a period of great hardship.

With limited resources, no subsidies, no Soviet oil for tractors, fertilizer and pesticide, the government decided to prioritize food production, through substantial research and a search for affordable alternative farming techniques. These included many back to basics practices – vermiculture, natural composting, inter cropping, natural pesticides and bio fertilizers. In addition land was redistributed into small and large worker managed collectives, and farmer's markets opened to sell excess food crops.

By 2004, fifteen years later, 35,000 acres of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food. In Havana which is home to 20% of the country's population, 90% of the city's fresh organic produce comes from local urban farms and gardens. The country is beginning to take on legendary status as a model for sustainable agriculture and local food production.

In Mumbai Dr Ramesh T. Doshi, has done pioneering work in developing techniques for terrace farming. On his 1200 sq.ft. terrace in Bandra he grows – lady’s finger, eggplant, leafy vegetables, coconut, pomegranate, chickoo, guava, spices and more. Dr Doshi is an economist by training, and spent many years marketing fertilizer. It was only after retirement at the age of 61, he began experimenting with farming – first at his farm near Pune, and subsequently on his terrace in Mumbai. Dr Doshi's agriculture is done he says using solar energy, only organic compost and pesticides, and controlled amounts of soil, water and labour. He does his planting in closed large diameter polyethylene bags or metal drums, this minimizes the need for water as little water is lost in evaporation or leached underground. He uses sugarcane waste from the local juice vendors and all the organic waste from the neighbours to make compost, through a patented process of rapid aerobic decomposition by thermophilic bacteria. Dr Doshi believes that urban community agriculture is a solution to the problems of collecting, transporting, and disposing urban waste besides of course the access to fresh nutritious food.

Dr Doshi has been sharing his farming practices through demonstrations and trainings. One of his students was Preeti Patil. She is the catering officer at the Mumbai Port Trust Central Kitchen where she has developed a terrace farm using the techniques she learnt. The Kitchen provides food to canteens in the Port Campus daily feeding about 3000 employees. All the waste generated in the kitchen is used in the terrace garden, and all the produce which includes tomatoes, gourds, brinjal, radish, spinach, guava, chikoo, pomegranate, lemon and even cherries is used in the kitchen. She is now working on a project to teach these farming techniques to street children in Mumbai.

All over the world there have been long traditions of farming intensively within and at the edge of cities. Over the last century, with the industrial farming revolution needing large tracts of land, farms have moved further and further away from the city. With the spiraling costs of food and fuel for transportation, coupled with concerns about food security in a rapidly urbanizing world and a widespread appreciation of the superiority of organic over industrial produce, - urban farming is being re-looked at as a possible answer.

Several interesting initiatives along these lines are afoot -

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