Cities have always imported much of their food from outside. But residents today are becoming concerned about the impact of pollution and pesticide. And this has spurred an interest in organic food cultivation, with many city residents now trying kitchen gardening in limited urban spaces.
But how healthy is urban agriculture, however? Some studies suggest that it may be dangerous to consume food grown in cities, where the soil, air and water are contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead. Eating food contaminated by these pollutants can lead to a range of health problems, particularly in children. Washing locally grown produce, and testing soils for contamination, are simple precautions, but those that need to be taken.
Another question is: can locally grown food feed an entire city? Studies indicate that smaller towns may be able to largely feed themselves with food produced locally, or at least relatively close to the city, but for large megacities, the volumes of food required make it virtually impossible for the city to be self-sufficient. If one were to ask whether cities could reduce their carbon footprint by growing more food locally, certainly the answer would be that there is much scope for greater sustainability.
Cities, with their growing number of poor residents, also need to pay attention to locally-grown food to address challenges of urban hunger and nutrition deficiency. Many slum residents who live around lakes, for instance, harvest greens from the banks. Others grow drumstick and Agase trees, using the leaves for cooking. These are important supplements for people who cannot otherwise afford to buy greens and vegetables on a daily basis. We need to build on the city’s older, now largely forgotten tradition of growing and eating local food. In Bengaluru, many areas of the British cantonment and anglo-Indian neighbourhoods such as Whitefield, as well as Indian settlements in the neighbourhood, provided ample space for home gardening.
A British Sergeant in 1888 grew 16 different types of fruit in his garden. From the largest to the smallest plot in major areas such as Malleswaram and Basavanagudi, homes had enough space for a kitchen garden, where residents grew vegetables and greens. Across the city, Indian horticulturalists used water from wells and lakes to supply the city with locally-grown coconuts, mangoes, and vegetables. On the sides of roads and in groves, fruiting trees — mangoes, tamarind and jackfruit — supplied local communities with fruit. It is then sad that the role of urban agriculture is being neglected by planners today. While citizens seem to be interested in growing their own food, officials are no longer planting edible species such as drumstick and avocado in inner city lanes, or larger fruiting trees such as tamarind, jackfruit or mango on large streets and along lakesides. Growing our own food can help a city cut emissions and feed its people. But this process needs attention, not just at the level of individuals, but at the scale of the city itself.
The writer is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future....