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How Urban Agriculture Could Help Fight Food Insecurity

Unused land near city centers could be used to grow fresh produce and support certain animal products

lempert report

Research from University of California-Berkeley Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri shows that raising fresh fruits, vegetables and some animal products near consumers in urban areas can improve local food security and nutrition, especially for underserved communities.

He wrote in an article that originally appeared in The Conversation about how feeding the cities of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—where he teaches and which has a total population of some 7 million—involves importing 2.5 to 3 million tons of food per day over an average distance of 500 to 1,000 miles.

One recent survey that Altieri cites suggests that urban agriculture could help cities achieve self-sufficiency. One example: Researchers have calculated that Cleveland, with a population of 400,000, has the potential to meet 100% of its urban dwellers’ fresh vegetable needs, 50% of their poultry and egg requirements, and 100% of their demand for honey.

Cities such as Oakland, Calif., just 5 miles from Berkeley, typically known as a food desert, has 1,200 acres of undeveloped open space—mostly public parcels of arable land—which, if used for urban agriculture and added farming practices training, could produce 40 million kilograms of vegetables—enough to provide 100 kilograms per year per person to more than 90% of Oakland residents.

The major drawback, Altieri writes, is that most obstacles to scaling up urban agriculture are political. In 2014 California enacted AB511, which set out mechanisms for cities to establish urban agriculture incentive zones but did not address land access. One solution he points out would be for cities to make vacant and unused public land available for urban farming under low-fee, multiyear leases. 

In his view, the ideal strategy would be to pursue land reform similar to that practiced in Cuba, where the government provides 32 acres to each farmer, within a few miles around major cities, to anyone interested in producing food. Between 10% and 20% of their harvest is donated to social service organizations such as schools, hospitals and senior centers.

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