The Garden of Thought: A multinational debate on urban farming

The agriculture of the future? Neither organic agriculture nor agroecology but urban farming has won the spotlight. However, not everybody thinks of it in the same way.

The second day of ICYA 2017 turned its priority to agriculture in modern cities. Standing out from solutions for education and waste reduction, urban farming attracted the most attention from the audience. The topic was not new. But neither was it conventional.

In the last several decades, cities has taken up a vast amount of agricultural land. Fertile soil was turned into building and urban infrastructure. There seemed to be a conflict of interest between agriculture and economic development.

The idea of growing food in cities is as old as the hills. Many city dwellers whose life has no connection with farms have taken up gardening as a hobby in their free time. Standing at the middle of a metropolitan area, one can easily spot a terrace full of edible leafy greens or Mediterranean herbs quivering behind a window. But the public has only shown a serious interest in urban farming lately, as it has come to be seen as the potential key to many problem of cities, such as food waste and hunger among the poor.

The discussion in the afternoon between students and two speakers – Prof. De Baerdemaeker (KU Leuven) and Mr. Van Acker (AVFami) – started off with some awkward hesitation. Earlier in the morning, they had talked mostly about high-tech farming practices which made urban farming productive and sustainable. Then a Cameroonian student suddenly asked for advice on how to promote a similar project in her country. The answer she received was not really persuasive but it did unleash a serious and very interesting discussion.

Living more than 20 years in a city of Vietnam, I had help my mother growing vegetables constantly throughout my childhood after class. Such activities are so common there that housewives hardly think about it as ‘a solution’ while tending their mini-gardens. This is the legacy of the extreme poverty in North Vietnam under the central planning regime of the ruling communist party until 1986. The obsession with hunger has somehow transformed into a habit of growing food whenever possible.

Personally, I don’t believe that any of the high-tech urban farming techniques of developed countries would be of any use to my country. Hydroponic, aquaponic, greenhouse, light control, vertical gardens, etc. all function very well there just as they do in the EU or the US but the cost is disproportional to the revenue due to very low price of vegetables. In fact, their implication can only be found in research institutes and hobbyists’ venue.

The discussion in Leuven brought several opinions to the fore, though. The opinions of the participants were quite divided. Students from developed countries seemed to care more about landscape and legal requirements while those living in poorer economies tended to focus more on economic performance of urban farming projects. Frequently during the discussion, the coordinators had to interrupt us to keep us from straying too far from the main topic. However, the more I talked about our beliefs and opinions and the more I listened to the others, the more complete my idea of urban farming became.

When the debate came to an end, Hristiyan from Hungary, despite his doubt on the necessity of urban farming, shared a success story of urban farming in Africa and his country. Listening to him, I felt inspired! Regardless of my initial skepticism, my peers had, through our discussion, widened my horizon and made me look at urban farming differently.

At the end of the day, I think I learned more from them than from the experts.

Blogpost by Kim Anh Luong, #ICYA2017 Social Reporter –  kimanh3108@gmail.com

Photo: A 20,000-square-foot rooftop vegetable garden at Chicago Botanic Garden. (Credit: NPR – Courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden)

This post is part of the live coverage during the #ICYA2017 – The International Conference for Youth in Agriculture, organised by IAAS (The International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences).  

This post is written by one of our social reporters, as part of their training on social reporting, and represents the author’s views only.

The #ICYA2017 social reporting project is supported by GFAR, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research.