Agroecological farmers are not busy with urbanisation or are mostly confronted by the problems it causes. Cities do not see the farmers and the transformative potential of agroecology.
How can we move beyond the conversation stoppers that block the mobilisation around shared matters of concern?
In a search for financial autonomy, farmers have extended their own business model with extra activities: bed and breakfast, management services, subsidies, tourism. Farmers’ autonomy is not a feature of the farm but depends on the context in which farmers operate. How can we enable a context where the food producing part of a farmer’s business model is not pushed out by other more lucrative activities? How can we consider the autonomy of farmers beyond the individual business case and think about the structural conditions that make farming possible, starting with the availability of land at a fair price, for long periods of time? How do we turn the current state of economic dependency into opportunities for farmers cooperation? In urbanised environments, organising control over resources such as water, organic matter, or even land, collectively and in relation to other actors rather than at the level of individual farms, might actually strengthen the autonomy of agroecological farmers.
Food is not an urban question by default, it is only so to the extent that urban communities (re)claim their role. As consumption centres, cities have a high mandate and impact to relocalise the food system. And as responsible authority in many other areas (land policy, green policy, etc.), cities possess many instruments that can also be used for agricultural purposes. How do we rethink these instruments so that they actively support a local food system?
Urban environments are places where the competition over land is strong, and food production is not the only need. However, producing food elsewhere may feel liberating, but also makes the city structurally dependent, vulnerable and blind to the ecological and social damage it causes elsewhere. The competition over land does not secure the sustainable use of local resources but rather its opportunistic short-term consumption. Import is not a substitute for local production. Neither should food be played against housing, the labour of land workers against the jobs of others. How can we reinvest in professional farming in or around the city in order to regenerate land, labour and soil life?
Today we are very used to the image of the city as a group of consumers who, apart from literally consuming food, have nothing to offer to farmers. This image is not consistent with a number of historical counter-examples, but also ignores numerous contemporary examples where cities or city dwellers make efforts to organise solidarity with the farmer or infrastructure for agriculture, for example. Cities can be much more than places of mere consumption.
Many cities and their historical hinterlands are confronted with the systematic decline of the number of active farmers. While this has been made up by import and by increase in productivity, the downside of this model is becoming increasingly present, losing the eyes, hands, hearts and minds that used to care for the environmental resources. Agroecological farmers are key stewards of food, water and energy and their multiple connections. Consider how many urban policy objectives or Sustainable Development Goals are difficult or even impossible to achieve in an environment where all farmers have disappeared.
On a global scale, agroecological food production plays a very significant role, outweighing the importance of industrial agriculture in many countries in the global south. The residual agroecological practices in the global north are destined to remain niche as long as they are in competition with a globalized agricultural model that extracts resources from elsewhere and has benefited from decades of public infrastructure investments such as our road and harbour networks. Can we redirect public means to support a distinctively local food system? What is the needed infrastructure for agroecological farmers in urbanised environments? In other words, how do we imagine an agroecological urbanism?
Urban food poverty is caught in a vicious circle. Cheap global food produces precarious farmers' livelihoods, resulting in rural depopulation and, consequently, urban poverty in several regions. The perverse effect is that this same system is only possible by overproduction and enormous amounts of food waste, by which urban poverty is sustained. The city presents a concrete opportunity to break the vicious circle building up solidarity between local production and local consumption.
Today we are very used to the image of the city as a group of consumers, who may or may not be interested in ecological consumption, may or may not be willing to pay a more fair price. However, there are plenty of examples where solidarity between consumers and producers extends further, and includes risk sharing, direct (voluntary) engagement, sharing of space and infrastructure. How can we multiply these possibilities and imagine cities that are more than places of mere consumption?
It is good that environmental policies are seeing the ecosystem services that can be derived from nature inclusive and regenerative farming models, such as carbon sequestration, nature or water management. However, exclusive focus on the benefits may distract from the farming model through which services are provided. Sponsoring benefits does not guarantee the transition to sustainable forms of farming. Agroecology is more than a set of tricks, it requires intensive engagement with the local context, and a lasting balance between farmers' production and investment in the regeneration of soil fertility, knowledge, and skills. If we want lasting ecological benefits, let’s start caring for the soil carer, beginning with supportive physical and social infrastructure.
This is true for how the city is organised today - at the expense of agroecological food production. However, there is no reason why urban life could not be organised differently - in function of agroecological food production. This is what we have called the search for agroecological urbanism.
At present, most cities have no coherent vision on the agricultural land within their jurisdiction. This puts agricultural land in a fragile position. Agroecology has a role to play to turn this around because it has the unique potential to break the conflict between environmental objectives and productive objectives in the open space arena. A growing number of cities realise that they need specific farmers close to the city: to reach ambitious goals around local food production, and to help realise climate policy, to combat the loss of biodiversity, to manage the landscape, and so on. What if agroecology became a matter of public policy?
Yes, some urban farming initiatives are symbolic attempts that serve as an excuse for policy makers not to engage with land-based farmers in the urban fringes and beyond. Other urban agriculture initiatives do make a difference and challenge the way the city is organised today. They are an inspiration for a model of urbanisation that shifts the focus from expensive greenwashing projects to creating enabling environments where the conditions are right, soils are cared for, land is made available, training is adequate, and logistics are in tune. Many urban agriculture projects reconnect city dwellers with food, seasons, living soils and help to stimulate community building. These are all important elements for the recognition of professional land-based agriculture as an indispensable asset to the (peri-)urban agenda.
For many cities farming is indeed an afterthought. There are few farmers active within the municipal boundary of cities, and the politics of food growing has been relegated to other levels of government. The question of how to feed the city, however, is and remains one of the most pertinent issues for the organisation of urban life. The marginal urban attention to agriculture today leads to a mental and physical competition between city and hinterland, while they are part of the same larger ecosystem which affects the city directly. Cities and farmers have a shared responsibility towards the ecosystems they depend on. Let’s team up with agroecological farmers to imagine ways of urbanization grounded in the cultivation of nature rather than its systematic consumption and destruction.