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Locavorism: threat or menace?
August 10, 2013 5:24 AM   Subscribe

"Consider some iconic acre of Brooklyn vacant lot. You could grow food on it—or you could throw up a 30-story apartment complex housing 600 people. That’s 600 people who won’t be settling in low-density exurbs where they would be smeared across 60 acres of subdivision; in turn, those 60 acres of vacant exurb could remain farmland or forest. Using communal laundromats and lacking basements to put junk in, those new Brooklynites would lead lives of anti-consumerism. And because they would use mass transit instead of driving everywhere, their carbon footprints would be roughly a third as large as the average American’s. That fundamental land-use equation is the key to understanding how cities promote global sustainability. By concentrating high-density housing, business and lifestyles inside its borders, New York lifts enormous burdens from the ecosystem outside its borders, but that potential is squandered when we consign pristine brownfields to low-density crop-growing. We may root for the community gardeners in their eternal battle with real-estate developers, but it’s the developers who are, despite themselves, the better environmentalists." -- The case against locavorism and or urban farming.
posted by MartinWisse (72 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Put the garden on the roof of the apartment building.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:40 AM on August 10, 2013 [41 favorites]


This is a bit of a strawman. No serious environmentalist has suggested that NYC should grow its own food. Locavorism as expressed in this article is far more about conspicuous (non)consumption than it is about making a difference to the planetary emergency. There are solid critiques of the concept of food miles, it certainly isn't all that it is claimed to be, but this is not that article - it is dealing with a ridiculous case.
posted by wilful at 5:41 AM on August 10, 2013 [19 favorites]


Vertical gardening and converting unusable space to beehives, chicken coups, etc, does provide some benefit, although far from sustenance. I guess there's also something to ve said to making a space that functions to give pleasure, like a park.
posted by Halogenhat at 5:46 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article looks like a kind of response to "Elegy for a Garden" and essays like it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:47 AM on August 10, 2013


The charitable interpretation is that the author doesn't actually know what community gardens are for.
posted by phooky at 5:48 AM on August 10, 2013 [34 favorites]


Life Cycle Analysis is a pretty dismal and weak science at the moment. Take for example the case of tomatoes in northern Europe. If you're a conscious consumer, should you buy your tomatoes grown in a hothouse in the Netherlands, or a hothouse in the Costa del Sol, or from a field in Italy? The first, massive energy use, but relatively clean and few transport miles. The second, immigrant labour and water consumption. The third, dodgy pesticides and further away. What if the Netherlands hothouse was nuclear powered? Or the trucks from Italy bio-diesel powered? You can't add all these things up equally, you just can't.

But one thing you will know - eat fresh tomatoes mostly in autumn and sun ripened, they're better and cheaper. Maybe don't buy local, but do buy seasonal.
posted by wilful at 5:51 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have no idea where my food comes from,

I have no idea why I should read the rest of this article...
posted by yoHighness at 5:52 AM on August 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


Okay, number one, locavorism doesn't mean "turn vacant lots into food for the city". It's about finding nearby food. There's a food shop near me whose gimmick is that all the food they sell is "locally sourced," and their definition of "local" is "no more than 250 miles from here". 250 miles from New York can get you as far as the Catskills to the north, and all of New Jersey and northern Maryland to the south.

And number two - yes, it's true that they could build housing on all the vacant lots in Brooklyn. ...But they aren't. There are 596 acres of vacant land that's just sitting there, and has been sitting there for a hell of a long time. So if no one wants to build housing on it, it's not fair for them to just sit on it when it could alternatively be used to grow produce for an area that maybe doesn't otherwise have access to it.

So it's not a matter of "oh no, we could have built housing on that land if those nasty locavores hadn't pushed us off," it's a matter of "that lot was just sitting there and no one was doing anything with it and it maybe became the local trash dump but now the kids on the block are growing corn and tomatoes on it".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:55 AM on August 10, 2013 [49 favorites]


Even better than roof gardens and skyscraper farms and all that, I'm always surprised that for coastal cities like NYC there isn't more interest in building floating hydroponic farms on the ocean. There's lots of technical hurdles, making sure it's transparent enough to allow sunlight through to sea life for example, but it seems like it would be much easier and greener than the urban farming designs I've seen.

(Having read the article now I agree with many of the author's points, except for the way he scoffs at eggplant. Many of my nomnomiest nomnoms are made from eggplant.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:59 AM on August 10, 2013


...those 60 acres of vacant exurb could remain farmland or forest.

Except, they won't be. Unless the "vacant exurb" is truly way out in the hinterlands, it's not going to be turned over into farmland. It's far too valuable/expensive. If it's developed at all, there will soon be a strip center planted there, replete with an Applebees, Staples, Starbucks, etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hopefully this straw man is made from scythe-cut, locally-sourced, rain-watered native grasses and repurposed clothing.
posted by dubold at 6:24 AM on August 10, 2013 [34 favorites]


And now having read the article I have even more problems with it. Particular with his bit about CSA's -

" The member agreement guesstimates that your weekly allotment may suffice to vegetate three or four dinners for two, but it pointedly stipulates “no guarantee on the exact amount or type of produce.”"

Yeah, my CSA says that too, but it's clearly a CYA verbiage thing meant to account for Extreme Acts Of God; there was a year once when nearly all the tomatoes were wiped out for a month because of an outbreak of blight.

More typically, I get seven pounds of food every week (and a half dozen eggs on top of that) and have trouble eating it all before it goes bad. The biggest reason I taught myself canning and such was simply so I could cope with the haul every week; I easily have two and a half pounds of collard greens and two pounds of zucchini in my freezer right now that I got from prior CSA boxes this season, which I can avail myself of throughout the winter. And that's on top of the kale I have from last year still, and today - after I go get my share - I'm probably going to add some sweet corn and tomatoes to that store in the fridge. And I haven't even mentioned the jams and fruit butters and syrups and applesauce I've made with the fruit - usually, whatever I haven't eaten by the end of the week gets turned into jam and put in the cupboard. So it's ultimately saving me from buying produce this winter - and the produce will also be delicious.

And as for the "but you don't know what you're gonna get" whining - well, lots of CSAs will let you swap your broccoli with someone for an extra share of peas if you really want - I do that all the time, I can't eat broccoli. And y'know, there's something to be said for trying new foods...hell, I thought I didn't like beets until I got some in my CSA, and realized that oh, wait, I do like them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 AM on August 10, 2013 [17 favorites]


>I have no idea where my food comes from,

I have no idea why I should read the rest of this article...


Perhaps if the author had written "I have no idea how this food got wedged in my refrigerator or why," it would have gotten a warmer reception.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:29 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


As people said above, having a community garden isn't about the environment. It's about the community. People get together and make something nice out of something nasty. It improves the neighborhood. When I lived in Crown Heights it was the best part of the block, and it clearly gave a lot of grandmas and teenagers something cool to do on the streets other than sit inside with no air conditioning. If your neighborhood doesn't want that, build another yuppie tower, go for it. But if a neighborhood does, that's their decision to make.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:31 AM on August 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


Also, it's not like a new apartment building's going to suddenly convince 600 people looking for a house in the suburbs that they want a small apartment in the city.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:54 AM on August 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


A Very Selfish Tree Grows in Brooklyn
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:55 AM on August 10, 2013 [14 favorites]


Also, it's not like a new apartment building's going to suddenly convince 600 people looking for a house in the suburbs that they want a small apartment in the city.


no, not at the margins. but if urban ag becomes a public policy priority and uses larger amounts of land that could otherwise be used for housing, then rents stay high and people are less likely to stay and more likely to leave.

(FTR, I left Brooklyn because of the double whammy of the high rent and high income taxes. I was also a member and very involved volunteer for an urban garden, which was a beautiful space and very important for the neighborhood)
posted by jpe at 7:06 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have no idea where my food comes from,

That's why he is royal and you are servile!
posted by The Whelk at 7:11 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, that is one intellectually dishonest article.
posted by gwint at 7:24 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


That article is the stupidest piece of bullshit I've read in a while.

No offense to the OP intended. All directed at the author.
posted by entropone at 7:48 AM on August 10, 2013


There are a bunch of kids in a neighborhood in my town that would otherwise probably be at-risk for doing a lot less productive things with their out-of-school time, that are out volunteering in a an urban farm in that neighborhood, which has no grocery store, crappy public transit, and a high poverty rate. The neighborhood gets fresh vegetables and the kids have something fun and useful to do. I haven't heard anyone affiliated with the farm use the phrase "carbon footprint".

There is much more to urban farming/community gardening than environmentalism. But I didn't see in the article why the author considers himself to be an "environmentalist" anyway. Perhaps he misspelled "troll".

[...It may seem mean-spirited to judge Red Hook Farm during its late-winter hibernation, but that’s a telling aspect of urban farms....]

Well, maybe it's a telling aspect of that urban farm. I live in North Florida, and a telling aspect of urban farms here is that we don't really have much of a late-winter hibernation, we just grow different stuff. This urban farm in New York looks like they did OK in the winter, though.
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:26 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


This urban farm in New York looks like they did OK in the winter, though.

Co-incidentally I just got a copy of 'The Winter Harvest Handbook' by the guy who runs Four Season Farm in Maine, in the post yesterday, and it makes an interesting point about the latitude of the U.S. Even New York, for e.g., is actually at the same latitude as Naples and Madrid - so light for growing all year just isn't really a problem, all you need is a little heat. So, glass-houses on the roofs of apartment buildings...
posted by titus-g at 8:42 AM on August 10, 2013


As Wilful says, strawman. Also, kind of a befuddled argument. Urban gardening is not at all about creating urban autarkies, it is about giving people a connection to their food production, a sense of how food is created. I grow some tomatoes and fruit in my backyard, but have no intention of growing all of my own food in my (large for San Francisco) 1600 square feet. Nobody in these mythical Brooklyn empty lots does either. Urban gardens are 'vital community assets' because they are wonderful ways of creating urban community, of people doing something nice together.
posted by jackbrown at 9:02 AM on August 10, 2013


I have this crazy friend who says it's wrong to grow food in urban areas is he crazy?

No, Jimmy, just ignorant!
posted by MoonOrb at 9:09 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is redolent of that annoying sort of smartest-kid-in-the-room smugness that associates any sort of attempt at progress that doesn't instantly revolutionize the whole universe in one shot as a huge, hypocritical failure.

What? Hybrids don't immediately solve pollution and oil wars? Sheeple!
What? Vegetarian diets don't immediately rid the atmosphere of CO2? Dupes!
What? Eating better is expensive and a hobby of wealthy white people? I'm the canary in the mine!

Sometimes, a first step is a first step, and a way to have nice fresh basil on hand, for chrissakes.
posted by sonascope at 9:12 AM on August 10, 2013 [29 favorites]


So we went to a restaurant in my city that sources local food but it's not like "local" means next door; the farms are in the general metro area which has always been full of farms. If any thing it prevents sprawl because it gives the farmers a livelihood so that they don't have to sell out to the developers.
posted by octothorpe at 9:27 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sometimes, a first step is a first step, and a way to have nice fresh basil on hand, for chrissakes.

Exactly. I appreciate the fact that my CSA habit cuts down on factory-farming and does have a net positive impact on reducing carbon footprint (despite what this yutz says), but neither of those things are the reason I do it - I signed up with a CSA because I want food that actually tastes good. Hell, I'm considering signing up for a similar program for fish that's starting up.

(Oh, and for the record: today's CSA haul was 4 ears of corn, a pound of zucchini, a pound of cucumbers, a whole canteloupe, a pound of potatoes, 3 beefsteak tomatoes, a pint of cherry tomatoes, a half pound of salad greens, 6 eggs, 2 pounds of peaches and 2 and a half pounds of plums. Wow, I'm at such a risk for starving!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read most of an article online. Trying not to rebut every thought. One thing I want to say to the author is that efficiency is why our world is messed up in so many ways. High density conventional agriculture is efficient, but it can be tracked back as the root of so many environmental concerns. Dead zones in large bodies of water, expanding deserts, the dwindling number of legacy family farms... I could write an article.
posted by valentinepig at 9:36 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I took locavorism to its logical conclusion and became an epivore: I only eat things that I can grow on my body. Also known as Personal Area Farming.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:38 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


No serious environmentalist has suggested that NYC should grow its own food.

The problem is that people do suggest that all the time. Maybe not the serious environmentalist, but I've worked both for groups doing this work and the environmental funder that reads their application and I've seen the suggestion that urban agriculture is all about the environment more times than I can count.

Which does the whole movement an disservice. There is the elitist side of the movement, as criticized by the author, but there is also this amazing and incredibly powerful community development piece that is far too often missed in the media and popular thought. Which results in it being undervalued and under appreciated.

And of course the author ignores what I believe is the most powerful environmental benefit of these spaces (and the one we look for when evaluating grant applications) - the educational opportunities presented when you can take a group of people, drawn into 'the conversation' through one thing that is universally important (food), and can then move into deeper discussions of environmental issues, critical thought, and the importance of looking more closely at the implications of the decisions we make.
posted by scrute at 9:47 AM on August 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'd rather see what can be done to stop acres of highly productive farmland on the edges of town from being transformed into a handful of mansions for the rich to house a family of 3.
posted by humanfont at 9:52 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Some sensible ideas sprinkled through several acres of bullshit.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:55 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


And of course the author ignores what I believe is the most powerful environmental benefit of these spaces (and the one we look for when evaluating grant applications) - the educational opportunities presented when you can take a group of people, drawn into 'the conversation' through one thing that is universally important (food), and can then move into deeper discussions of environmental issues, critical thought, and the importance of looking more closely at the implications of the decisions we make.

there aren't many abandoned 1 acre plots on the upper west side. the "elitism" is baked right into the "environmental" message.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:08 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


A side point. Miss Callipygos addresses this criticism:
The member agreement guesstimates that your weekly allotment may suffice to vegetate three or four dinners for two, but it pointedly stipulates “no guarantee on the exact amount or type of produce.”
by saying:

Yeah, my CSA says that too, but it's clearly a CYA verbiage thing meant to account for Extreme Acts Of God; there was a year once when nearly all the tomatoes were wiped out for a month because of an outbreak of blight.

More typically, I get seven pounds of food every week (and a half dozen eggs on top of that) and have trouble eating it all before it goes bad.


It's a cover-your-ass clause, I agree, but it gets used. I'm as pro-CSA as you can get, and I love the fact that the weekly distribution forces me to get creative with squash and so on, and the article's line "CSAs are the worst food deal imaginable" makes me feel stabby. But it does farms, farmers, and the project of CSAs a disservice to obfuscate the fact that part of the entire point of community-supported agriculture is sharing in the risk. And hoo boy, is there risk in farming, and I'm not talking about a month without tomatoes.

Hurricane Irene obliterated multiple farms in my area. Multiple major fields were washed clear out, leaving nothing. My CSA suspended distributions completely for the rest of the season. Basically I wrote off half the value of my share. That's a lot of food that my dear farmer expected to grow and I expected to eat. I understood and I wasn't sore about it, because A) I had the money to absorb the loss, B) I was cognizant of the risks going in, and C) it was an enormous and hopefully rare storm.

But some friends of mine were pissed. Some were pissed because they were less understanding of the risk. Some were pissed because they saw a noticeable decline in the quality of their diet--it was hard for them to afford the CSA in the first place, and now they were directly and tangibly hurt by the storm via the CSA. I'm aware that the counterfactual (farmer goes bankrupt or sells the farmland to be developed into condos, everyone gets cardboard veggies from MegaGrocery) sucks more, but what happened was hard for some people and it wasn't just missing out on tomatoes.

I'm virulently in favor of CSAs. I think it's the right choice for us to share in the risk. But I think it's important that people understand that CSAs are more than a plain transaction of Odd Vegetables for Money Up Front. It's a commitment to support the farm as an institution. It's a radical decision to eat seasonal food grown by people you know who live in your community. It's volunteering to bear some of the burden of capricious weather. People should absolutely be convinced to join CSAs, but not by hiding their radical nature.

Anyway, the article sounds like a bunch of contrarianism that tries to pit any improvement against unattainable perfection while making a series of willful conflations and misrepresentations of any approach to food systems other than Buy Your Food At The Supermarket And Be Happy About It. His characterization of urban farming as a "scene", only worthy of money as art or hobby, tells me that he hasn't thought through the problems with signing our food systems away to capitalism and the Farm Bill.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


What some people don't always realize about urban living is the hidden costs. I mean, a metric shit-ton of upstate New York's watershed is controlled by the NYC water system to guarantee them a clean water supply. Maybe it's more efficient to just use the water coming from that acreage instead of living on it, but it isn't like cramming 600 people on a half acre of city land doesn't use up land elsewhere.
posted by gjc at 10:17 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


But I think it's important that people understand that CSAs are more than a plain transaction of Odd Vegetables for Money Up Front. It's a commitment to support the farm as an institution. It's a radical decision to eat seasonal food grown by people you know who live in your community. It's volunteering to bear some of the burden of capricious weather. People should absolutely be convinced to join CSAs, but not by hiding their radical nature.

No, I agree here - but I think that the level of risk, while indeed very real, is not quite as high as the article makes it out to be.

And there are a lot of other ways that CSAs handle risk - my own was affected by Irene as well, but they didn't do anything like cancel the distribution for the rest of the season. The farms we worked with actually figured out something they could do to pull the fat out of the fire, as it were - we did get a little less, yeah, but it still wasn't nothing. At most, we maybe missed two distributions.

So there's risk, but it's not like it's a regular occurrence for 80 people to be trying to divvy up three turnips, which is what the article made it sound like.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:18 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


chicken coups

Who went up against the wall first, the chicken or the egg?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


fucking stupid ass article in 60 different ways.
posted by edgeways at 10:36 AM on August 10, 2013


OH come on, show me an urban farm in NYC that would otherwise be apartment buildings? I worked in the NYC urban "farming" scene for about a year and later ran a few CSAs.

Maybe the Red Hook farm, but that area has had some serious issues, like um...hurricanes. That area is full of abandoned buildings and underdeveloped lots. That neighborhood has geographical and transportation issues that are not going to make it a development hot-spot anytime soon. Same with East New York, which also has a similar farm amidst an economically depressed neighborhood with plenty of abandoned real estate. These are not places with housing shortages.

The rest would probably be parks and it's pretty charitable to call them farms rather than garden-parks anyway. They emphasize education and neighborhood community rather than food production. The Brooklyn Grange "farm" is on a roof in an industrial area. Most of the stuff at the farmer's market and CSAs doesn't come from these operations, it comes from the ample countryside of upstate NY and lower New Jersey.

The real reason more housing isn't built isn't because of "farms." It's because of NIMBYs who want their neighborhoods to retain historical characters appropriate for the 1920s rather than becoming Hong Kong. They don't want to let developers tear down pretty 3-story buildings in the East and West Villages to put up giant towers. I can't blame them, but it has created huge problems for people who aren't super-rich who want to live there. There just isn't enough housing for the demand, so the housing that is there is unaffordable.

I am a white-collar worker with plenty of money and I would have trouble affording things like a $4000 dollar a month one bedroom apartment. The only people I know these days who can live in places like that are students with subsidized rent-controlled housing or people like my cousin who is married to an oil baron and the top 1% of the 1%. Even her kids are having to share a room because their place is so small. It's a two-floor townhouse taking up land that could easily hold a tower with housing for hundreds. Good luck getting the development permits for that though. The 1% of the 1% likes how their neighborhood looks and wants to keep it that way.
posted by melissam at 10:42 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


there aren't many abandoned 1 acre plots on the upper west side. the "elitism" is baked right into the "environmental" message.

I agree that in general, environmentalism,as North Americans define it, has historically been the property of the privileged (of which I am one), but there are some groups (in NYC and beyond) that are doing some great work to make sure this isn't necessarily the case going forward.
posted by scrute at 10:46 AM on August 10, 2013


daveliepmann's comments about his CSA experience after Hurricane Irene also remind me that that equation works two ways: another good reason to grow your food locally is that an environmental disaster can also wipe out supplies of some produce that you get at the supermarket. It's not like factory farms are immune from the weather, either.
posted by Cookiebastard at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


We may not know our neighbors—Eliot Spitzer may not even know the women he sleeps with—but at least we can forge a deep personal bond with the farmer who feeds us.

I've been over the article a few times and while there are a number of things I could take issue with, for some reason this sentence seems like its problems in microcosm:

* "Neighbor vs Farmer" is a false dichotomy (and that might be overdignifying it). It's not as if I'm going to know my neighbors better if my food-miles are nice and high.

* there's no demonstrated grasp on why some people think a knowing those who produce what they consume might be important.

* and of course there's the zinger and turn of phrase that doesn't add anything to the discussion, other than to let the author revel in how clever he is. Or to piss people off so they talk about it on social media and the article gets read, in which case, mission accomplished at the cost of weighing down whatever analytical merit the article may or may not have with the respective rhetorical baggage.

I think it's valuable to have conversations about whether "food miles" are a useful concept and other considerations of cost, energy, and efficiency. I'd just prefer to have them with/conducted by people who are a bit more holistically thoughtful and less invested in their apparent identity as a rare-unicorn environmentalist who can do math.

Oops, guess the author is not the only person who weighs down their prose with little jabs.
posted by weston at 11:56 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think this article was poorly constructed in some ways and some of the arguments are weak, but I wish one of the points he had made was this: Whatever we do with "locavore" stuff, it would be impossible to feed NYC (or any other high-density city) from food grown within the borders of that city. Hence we're stuck with industrial farming for the vast majority of our food, especially for people on marginal incomes who cannot afford the boutique-pricing of locally grown food.

I think we would, overall, be doing much more for the health of the environment to work on making industrial farming more environmentally friendly, than to spend the same energy and money supporting urban farming, especially with money from the government's coffers. Obviously we can do both, but I suspect a lot of people check off "bought from farmer dude at market, I've done my part to solve the industrial farm problem," when we really should be figuring out the big stuff first.

And I thought his fuel efficiency points were right on. If I grew vegetables here to sell at the farmers market 10 miles away, my old truck would consume 2 gallons of gas getting there and back, and my old truck isn't much different than the ones I see parked around the stalls there. That's less than .5 ton-miles per gallon of gas, given the likely payload. Even if everyone gets in their Prius to drive 10 miles to my place, produce from CA shipped by rail and semi to a Safeway here used less fuel in their transportation, per pound. (That obviously only includes the fuel used in shipping, and not the fuel used in growing/fertilization, which the local grower probably, but not necessarily does better at.)

In any case, I love the idea of urban farms tucked into unused spaces, but we should respect them for what they are (community centers, exposure to "nature", reconnection with the land, etc), and not for the idea that they're some sort of environmentally-friendly cure for the industrial farm.
posted by maxwelton at 12:20 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, one of the points up-thread, about watershed protection to provide drinking water for cities being an impact of the city, is actually an argument in favor of cities. Protected watershed land is often the most-protected, wildest land we have left, and any other use would be worse for all animals who aren't capitalists. Even national forests/parks/wilderness areas feel our footprints far more than protected watersheds (depending on the definition of both, of course).

Cities' biggest curse is sprawl, but that's another issue.
posted by maxwelton at 12:27 PM on August 10, 2013


On a related note, here's an article about Wendell Berry, one of the founding fathers of the localism movement, who celebrates connecting to the land and the community, knowing your farmer, being in tune with nature, manual labor against mechanization, respecting natural limits against human hubris — all the cliches of locavorism that we know and love today. But behind the scenes of Berry's lovely pastoral nostalgia you will find the economic and social arrangements of the Jim Crow South.

The local-organic food movement hasn't dealt with the labor issues. Everyone agrees that this type of agriculture is more labor intensive - who is going to do that work? The median agricultural workers lives below the federal poverty line. We all realize that working class people can't afford to shop at Whole Foods, but many agricultural workers are on food stamps and WIC - they can't even afford conventionally grown food without federal assistance.

The people who advocate for transforming our food system are generally white and middle class, and they show their commitment by volunteering on the weekends at their local urban farm. I'd be much more impressed if they were also preparing their children for a lifelong career as a farm worker, but they aren't. Urban farms function today on volunteer labor and unpaid internships. Because they are a "social movement", they can make up for low wages by providing other benefits denominated in the currency of Doing Good and Contributing To Your Community. So the unspoken assumption is that once the movement gets off the ground, the white people will brush the dirt off their hands and millions of brown people will rush in to take their place for poverty level wages.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:02 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


is actually an argument in favor of cities.

Cities are so obviously better for sustainability and the environment that I'm always surprised when anyone argues otherwise. High density housing is the future! There's virtually nothing you could do which is worse for the environment than living in a single family home with a big yard out in the suburbs or rural areas.
posted by Justinian at 1:03 PM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


But behind the scenes of Berry's lovely pastoral nostalgia you will find the economic and social arrangements of the Jim Crow South.

If this is your summary of his writing, one could be forgiven for thinking you don't know what you're talking about.

How much of Berry's work have you read? Was The Hidden Wound part of it? "The Making of a Marginal Farm"? There's considerable evidence from the former that Berry doesn't at all support Jim Crow racism or any formulation of the idea "labor is for brown people", and from the later that he's well aware that individual farming is currently an economically difficult proposition.
posted by weston at 1:36 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The local-organic food movement hasn't dealt with the labor issues. Everyone agrees that this type of agriculture is more labor intensive - who is going to do that work?

Which type of agriculture? Labor intensity depends on many different things. For example, organic wheat is less labor intensive to grow than conventional strawberries. That's because wheat is tough and a lot of the production is mechanized. Strawberries, even the terrible rubber-ball textured ones grown all year round in California, are relatively delicate and even fancy robots can't manage to grow and harvest them without damaging them.

Urban farms I've worked with use some volunteer labor, but generally don't use that much labor because they produce so little. I could harvest all the day's crops at The Plant here in Chicago in under an hour by myself I'd estimate.

I'm very against unpaid internships and won't work with any organization that uses them. A lot of organizations, including my own, had Americorps volunteers like myself at the time, who are paid at least decently.

As for the class-structure of the people in these organizations, places like Red Hook and East NY Farms are largely run for and by low-income people, though sadly these are not the people who outlets like the New York Times or big book publishing gives a voice to. They aren't commenting on Metafilter. But people who are involved with local ag know these folks well and are grateful that they essentially kept up a lot of the infrastructure and knowledge for high-density agriculture before the glitterai re-discovered it. The people with the biggest and most successful urban chicken operations, for example, are not hipsters, but Puerto Rican and Dominican grandmothers.

My family produces mainly beef (not certified organic, but it could be) which is not very labor intensive at all. There are some high-labor events like slaughter or fence repairs, but day to day labor is very low and the type of labor is far less repetitive. There is risks of horrible injuries, but they are low risks and the risk of repetitive chronic injury is very low as well. They are cows, they pretty much take care of themselves. Haying is largely mechanized.

So if you care about people not having to have jobs that aren't particularly coveted by people who have different choices, you'll eat very little fruits and vegetables and mostly grains, dairy, and meat. And maybe invest in robots. But does that really help the people with those jobs? It just puts them out of work.

I don't know what the solution is. Fruits and vegetables are already pretty expensive and they'd get more expensive if we paid these people a living wage. Maybe industrially produced algae-grown vitamins similar to Rob Reinhart's "soylent" really are the future.

I do think that urban landscaping can provide a lot of fruits and vegetables. When I lived in Sweden I got all my fruit just on my bike ride home since edible landscaping was so fantastic. Zero inputs from low-paid labor or pesticides. Here in Chicago things are a bit less idyllic, but I still get most of my herbs, some greens, and some berries like mulberries and serviceberries this way though there are definitely more concerns here relating to landscaping chemicals and their ilk.
posted by melissam at 1:44 PM on August 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Food grown in greenhouses heated by the bracing winds of kneejerk contrarianism. Abundant and endlessly renewable fuel source, turns wasted energy into healthy calories.

I will collect my MacArthur grant in a vehicle powered by my own sense of self-satisfaction, thanks.
posted by gompa at 2:16 PM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I like how the photo at the top of the article shows an urban farm along railroad right-of-way- as if there weren't a farm there, you could build condos three yards from the train.

At any rate, he misses several points: small urban farms can grow special produce that can't be transported across country; nearby farms that bring food to urban markets means you can have nearby farms (in spite of the higher cost of fuel for transportation, that farm is likely providing jobs and eco-services* that transported goods are not), many people volunteer in community gardens for free organic produce.

*Organic can farms provide habitat for local and migratory fauna, improve penetration of water into aquifers, bank more carbon than non-organic farms or suburbs, provide greenspace, compost resources that might be burnt or hauled away.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:23 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why not just build an apartment and then outsource the locavoring to Detroit? They have have plenty of urban land sitting empty right now.
posted by reenum at 4:39 PM on August 10, 2013


The people who advocate for transforming our food system are generally white and middle class, and they show their commitment by volunteering on the weekends at their local urban farm. I'd be much more impressed if they were also preparing their children for a lifelong career as a farm worker, but they aren't.

The (white, masters-degree-having) people I know who do the most advocating for transforming our food system have small farms or borrowed fields which they work with their own hands. You are right that labor is a huge problem for ethical eating in America, but it's no more a huge problem for locavores than it is for anybody who eats. Where do you get your food from? Care to bet those farmers pay their workers a living wage?
posted by gauche at 7:34 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, on reading that I don't mean to call you out specifically, but more to point out that labor costs are a big can of worms that, yes, some trendy people who know it's cool to talk about local food don't think about, but that a lot of people who are concerned about ethical eating actually do care about and are working on, in many cases by doing the work of farming themselves rather than paying immigrants a pittance for it. You can find those people and talk to them if you like. They are around.
posted by gauche at 7:39 PM on August 10, 2013


the article's line "CSAs are the worst food deal imaginable" makes me feel stabby.

If CSAs really are the worst food deal imaginable, people would not opt to participate in them. Ultimately, no matter how virtuous you want to be, if the CSA does not provide you sufficient amounts of food at a reasonable price, you wouldn't use it and large numbers of people would drop out. The fact that a lot of people participate in CSAs indicates to me that they feel they are getting a reasonably good deal out of it.

For CSAs to be a bad food deal, they would have to be more expensive and provide less food than Whole Foods, and the difference would have to be so stark that membership would stop participating in favor of someplace like Whole Foods, the next-worst food deal.

Farmers supply food to CSAs. Customers pretty consistently participate in CSAs enough to give farmers an incentive to given them food. So it sounds like everyone is getting a reasonable deal.

And I say this as someone who has no interest in picking up several pounds of squash, kale, and zucchini each week and being forced to figure out what to do with it.
posted by deanc at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2013


This is a false equivalence since most people use the term "locavore" to describe patronizing farmer's markets which source produce from truck farms in a ~200 mile radius.

A vanishingly tiny percentage of urbanites get any significant portion of their food from sources like urban farming. And most of those people would be wealthy brownstone owners who've decided to convert the backyard into a garden plot.

Also, none of these apartments that are being developed in Brooklyn are in any way affordable, anyhow, so whatever. As usual the culprit is runaway capitalism, not people who want to eat more mindfully/sustainably.

The actual real life "affordable housing" developments that get proposed every now and again seem to always vanish into dust before they actually supply affordable housing to anyone. *Cough* Atlantic Yards *Cough* Locavorism is a bit of a red herring.
posted by Sara C. at 9:40 PM on August 10, 2013


it would be impossible to feed NYC (or any other high-density city) from food grown within the borders of that city. Hence we're stuck with industrial farming for the vast majority of our food, especially for people on marginal incomes who cannot afford the boutique-pricing of locally grown food.

Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, yeah, the whole POINT of a city, for thousands of years now, is that you get a hub of specialists who do things that aren't farming, and their economic activity subsidizes the farmers living in the surrounding hinterlands. It's a symbiotic relationship.

On the other hand, though, I don't know that this proves that "industrial" agriculture is a net good. I mean, it sustains (for the time being) our late-capitalist I WANT EVERYTHING AND I WANT IT NOW lifestyle, where you can get fresh berries in November and even the poor eat meat twice a day. And I'm frankly not sure a world where everything was the same, but there were more truck farms, would be any better than the world we have now. Trade mealy turnips and George Orwell's "tea and two slices" for McDonalds, and while maybe that's more ecologically sound, it doesn't actually help much.

Then again, I think the best way to improve the lot of the poor is to improve the lot of the poor. Whether we keep the farms in Queens, Pennsylvania, or California makes no real difference.
posted by Sara C. at 9:58 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most annoying part of the article is that he equates green roofs with the urban farming movement.
the eco-system services that Brooklyn Grange’s green roof provides by cooling the heat island and sponging up storm runoff may well repay its $592,000 city grant
I think he means the urban heat-island effect, by "the heat island", but green roofs provide more benefits than simply reducing UHI effects and reducing storm water runoff, although those are important benefits.

Green Roofs as Urban Ecosystems: Ecological Structures, Functions, and Services:
Green roofs (roofs with a vegetated surface and substrate) provide ecosystem services in urban areas, including improved storm-water management, better regulation of building temperatures, reduced urban heat-island effects, and increased urban wildlife habitat.

A study in Madrid showed that a green roof reduced the cooling load on an eight-story residential building by 6% during the summer (Saiz et al. 2006).

The study mentions urban agriculture as a potential use for green roofing but you can have green roofs without urban agriculture, and for far less than $600,000.
posted by kiskar at 11:39 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


You are right that labor is a huge problem for ethical eating in America, but it's no more a huge problem for locavores than it is for anybody who eats. Where do you get your food from?

OK first, whose talking about eating here? I'm talking about the changes that locavorists want to see in the farming industry and whether those changes are desirable or not. What the advocates had for lunch has no bearing on that. If they are personally living their values day to day, that has no bearing on whether their agenda is a good one for society.

That said, many people romanticize agricultural work, and that leads them to look for moral deficiencies when others don't see it that way. I don't have a problem with moral judgments, but I have absolutely no interest in this program of moral and spiritual renewal that goes along with locavorism.

And lastly, if you advocate for a form of agriculture which requires more menial human labor paying poverty-level wages, then labor issues are more relevant. And simply tacking on a commitment to agricultural workers getting a living wage doesn't cut it for me. You have this grand vision of transforming our whole society, but all you can offer the workers is a living wage? How generous of you, that the workers you depend on should be allowed to live. Why not freed from menial labor and allowed to flourish?

People like Wendell Berry celebrate menial labor as a kind of moral instruction. I'm not sympathetic to that either, it sounds like the ethics of a prison guard supervising a chain gang.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:05 AM on August 11, 2013


How generous of you, that the workers you depend on should be allowed to live. Why not freed from menial labor and allowed to flourish?

People like Wendell Berry celebrate menial labor as a kind of moral instruction. I'm not sympathetic to that either, it sounds like the ethics of a prison guard supervising a chain gang.


You mean that those who don't want to do this kind of labor should have the chance to do something else with their lives? Literally nobody working in the locavore movement thinks that EVERYBODY should work on a farm for pittance wages. And Wendell Berry, for his faults, is someone who I believe actually does the kind of labor you're talking about and seems to find it uplifting. I don't see how that makes him like a prison guard. Your metaphor seems designed mostly to inflame.
posted by gauche at 8:12 AM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


While this article is full of poorly argued criticism of the local food movement it does hit on some points.

Anyone who has looked at the fuel use argument has to concede that it is more efficient to raise and transport a pound of food in the in industrial model than a pound of the same food in the local small farm model. But that immediately runs into problems as the comparison only holds up if we measure the tangibles and the food is identical.

The truth is that the raising and transport of food is quite possibly the biggest endeavor of all humanity so even the smallest of unmeasured intangibles can have a huge effect on our world. Humanity has a good at solving individual problems but often has problems seeing the far reaching consequences of the solutions it finds where large complex systems are involved.

There is also the fact that most of the foods being raised in small batch operations are not the same foods as are being raised by large industrial operations. Varieties with different traits are better suited to each model. The classic case is the Red Delicious apple. If all you want to do is pick an apple and ship it to another continent and still have it look great the Red Delicious is the apple for you. It is tough and doesn't bruise easily. It has a nice thick skin with a uniformly red color that looks great on the shelf. But of course it tastes like crap. But if you are a small local producer it isn't a great choice. You won't be able to tempt many people at the farmers market with Red Delicious. The same holds true for a large portion of what the small producers are offering vs what the large producers are offering. They simply are not selling the same things which is why the efficiency argument doesn't hold much water with me.

Lastly can we stop making the ad hominum argument that just because a person advocating for something is socially and economically advantaged that it is some how a bad idea? Middle class educated whites have worked for both good causes and bad. The make up of the group has no bearing on whether or not it is a good idea.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 9:10 AM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I understand that the article is offering a critique of something that is dear to hearts of many, but I haven't seen any rebuttals here that refute its central points: (a) there are more efficient uses of unused city land from an environmental perspective than turning it into farms (b) a distributed farming system is in many ways less efficient from a resource use perspective than a centralized one (c) it is impossible to grow enough locally produced food on city land to feed a city at affordable prices, and (d) even were it possible to locally produce enough food, it is unclear where the labor force to produce such food would come from.

It shouldn't surprise that a system relying on locally produced food would produce less than a modern one. "Grow local" was largely the norm throughout human history. Famines were also the norm throughout human history. If a famine wiped out crops in some random province in Dark Ages France, it wasn't realistic to simply ship food in from the Americas. A food distribution system that allows food to be shipped around the world builds a great deal of redundancy into the food supply.

That being said, modern farming and the modern food industry certainly isn't without its problems. Those should certainly be addressed. However, I don't think we should be blind to the realities of the alternatives that people propose.
posted by eagles123 at 4:43 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't seen any rebuttals here that refute its central points: (a) there are more efficient uses of unused city land from an environmental perspective than turning it into farms

I believe I refuted that in my first comment, in which I stated that these "more efficient uses of unused city land" simply aren't happening. Yes, I realize that ideally it could be a choice between "housing" and "garden," but the reality is that "housing" isn't an option that's even happening, and so the available choices for how that land is used is "garden" or "nothing".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:39 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I believe I refuted that in my first comment, in which I stated that these "more efficient uses of unused city land" simply aren't happening. Yes, I realize that ideally it could be a choice between "housing" and "garden," but the reality is that "housing" isn't an option that's even happening, and so the available choices for how that land is used is "garden" or "nothing".

That might be true at present, but the piece seemed to me to be addressed towards the larger arguments of the movement. The urban farming/eat local movement certainly isn't merely pitching themselves as last resort alternatives for land that would otherwise go unused. Instead, their argument is much stronger: that a much larger proportion of the food people consume should be grown as near to where they live as possible, and that people should even take an active role in growing their food. Fulfilling these conditions would necessitate dedicating a large portion of the land in cities such as New York to farming, regardless of whatever demand existed for alternative uses of that land.

Further, I would dispute that, even now, there exists no demand for alternative uses of that land. New York City itself has some of the highest real estate prices in the world. There certainly has been new development in response to the influx of new residents to that city over the past two decades. Nevertheless, there exists a myriad of regulations limiting new development in many areas. Urban farming might not be at the heart of *most* of these, but in the end it is a question of priorities.

On the one hand you have some existing residents who want to live in neighborhoods with a certain "character". Some of these residents desire to buy food that is grown near them. On the other hand, you have people who can't afford housing. Who is the future city to be built for? Should policy be put in place to promote urban farms, or to promote dense development and the advantages that brings? I don't mean to suggest that allowing dense development by itself would solve the issue of affordable housing, but it certainly is a component of the solution.

Right now, it looks like influential people who shape policy are taken with the urban farm idea, and like to tout its environmental benefits. The piece was merely pointing out that fallacies behind these arguments and ultimate infeasibility of the idea that locally grown food in New York could ever constitute a significant portion of the food supply for the vast majority of people.
posted by eagles123 at 6:06 PM on August 11, 2013


That might be true at present,

Sure, but we're talking about community gardens, not the Coliseum. If there is a point going forward where some use comes up for these spaces, you can just stop having the community garden. You'll get a few neighborhood folks protesting, but ultimately those things pass and everyone forgets there ever was an urban "farm" because the new electric vehicle fueling station/wind farm/daycare center is such a worthwhile contribution to the area.

Further, I would dispute that, even now, there exists no demand for alternative uses of that land. New York City itself has some of the highest real estate prices in the world.

In the 80's community gardens sprung up in East Village lots left vacant by urban decay. In a lot of instances, the original owner had deserted the property and nobody even knew who owned it anymore. When real estate values skyrocketed during the boom of the 90's and early 2000's, a lot of those disputes were finally unraveled and real estate developers started snapping up the lots. Was there protest about the East Village losing its community gardens (not to mention the spirit of squatting and communal living and vaguely libertarian/anarchist self reliance)? Yes. (See, for example, the musical Rent.) Did said protest prevent the neighborhood from changing? No.

Though, on the other hand, let's all keep in mind that when that happened, the neighborhood didn't improve for locals. Housing prices didn't go down in response to an influx of new residential developments. Instead, the East Village has gradually transformed into a playground for the wealthy. So I wouldn't be too quick to declare community gardens a net ill and real estate developers as stewards of the true interests of the people.

On the one hand you have some existing residents who want to live in neighborhoods with a certain "character". Some of these residents desire to buy food that is grown near them.

Look, you clearly have no idea how locavorism works in New York City so you should just stop right now. AFAIK there are no urban farms in the quaint low-rise neighborhoods that are preserved in amber due to NIMBYism. They are mostly in vacant lots in blighted areas, parts of the city that lack the infrastructure for dense residential development, and on rooftops in densely urban neighborhoods. The only people growing food in the West Village and Park Slope are doing it as homeowners, in their own backyards. And well off people* shopping at farmer's markets are buying produce from New Jersey and Connecticut, not the Upper West Side.

On the other hand, you have people who can't afford housing. Who is the future city to be built for?

Hahalol I can't believe you really think ANYONE would EVER shape New York City in the image of affordable housing for people who would otherwise go homeless. Is that a joke? That was an attempt at humor, right? Urban farms have NOTHING to do with why housing in NYC is so expensive, and no impact on the lives of the poor. If anything, community gardens are probably a boon for the homeless because they provide a neighborhood infrastructure of people who are involved at street level and can distribute what resources exist within disadvantaged communities.

*Keep in mind, too, that NYC farmer's markets accept food stamps. I've worked at markets in mixed income areas, and trust me that they are NOT a rich people thing at all. I think that's a stereotype based on other cities where that maybe is the case. But for New York it really is not.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sara C.

Don't make assumptions about me. I am perfectly aware of where the urban farms are located. By "nearby", I meant within the same city, not necessarily the same neighborhood. I apologize if I didn't make that clearer in my response. It wasn't really relevant to my point anyway, which is why I didn't feel the need to specify.

I, like the author of the article, was responding to the broader debate over urban land use policy. Throughout its history, our country has encouraged and subsidized different patterns of development. During the 19th century, family farms were encouraged. During the post-war years, suburban development was emphasized. The current composition of our cities, the super rich and poor, is the result of a conscious decisions made by our government going back to the 1940's. There is nothing natural or inevitable about it.

For what its worth, I don't see community gardens or anything like that in and of themselves as bad, or anything like that. I certainly wouldn't want to see them all destroyed.
posted by eagles123 at 9:06 PM on August 11, 2013


By "nearby", I meant within the same city, not necessarily the same neighborhood.

A teensy weentsy little microscopic amount of the produce at your average NYC farmer's market was grown even within 50 miles of the five boroughs of New York.

The vast majority of it is grown in rural New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, the Hudson Valley, and Upstate New York.

For serious.

Locavorism and urban farming have only the most tangential relationship.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


all you can offer the workers is a living wage? How generous of you, that the workers you depend on should be allowed to live.

The people talking about offering agricultural workers a living wage are noting the problem that many workers (inside food/agriculture and out) are paid *less* than a living wage, and suggesting ameliorating a current problem by raising their pay and paying more for agricultural products as a consequence, not relegating them to a bottom rung. Why does that deserve a sneering "how generous"?

People like Wendell Berry celebrate menial labor as a kind of moral instruction. I'm not sympathetic to that either, it sounds like the ethics of a prison guard supervising a chain gang.

Berry celebrates unalienated labor -- self employment, home employment, work performed where one can engage in doing it (and doing it to one's own standards) both to enjoy its fruits and for the satisfaction in participating. This is the antithesis of menial or the forced-supervised style represented by chain-gang labor (and, arguably, many modern businesses).

It's not hard to find these ideas in his writing. So again, I'm forced to assume that as interested as you seem to be in telling people about what people like Wendell Berry think, you're basing your reading of his thoughts on something other than having spent time reading his thoughts.

It's possible that part of the confusion here is between "menial" and "physical". It's fair enough to say Berry does celebrate physical labor, partly for the health of the body, partly because of the renewable nature of human power, partly as a means of staying "embodied" and connected to the satisfaction of physicality, partly because we tend to get a little monstrous about who we decide should do physical labor once we decide that in order to rise in station or quality of life it needs to not be us. Maybe that's the "moral instruction" you object to? I suppose some of those are less concrete and maybe even debatable, but at least some of them should be uncontroversial.

And seeing the ethics of a chain gang in this -- that's like seeing the ethics of the Handmaid's Tale theocracy in Ursula Le Guin's elevation of the art of keeping house. A certain level of suspicion is understandable enough that when people have used the ostensible elevation of a number of traditionally feminine activities/attributes as an excuse to confine women to them. But the abuse of a justification doesn't take away from its real merits, and it would require an inattentiveness to Le Guin's background to seriously entertain that as her motivation.
posted by weston at 10:18 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sara C-

I am not sure why you would think I would be surprised by that. My point isn't to recite my knowledge of the food micro-economy in the tri-state area. Instead, I am responding to the idea in the article that we should include the ability of cities to grow food for themselves as a consideration in planning.

From the article:

"Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s FoodWorks white paper salutes urban farms as “vital community assets,” while Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s FoodNYC report vows to “establish urban food production as a priority for New York City.”"

That idea is what I, and the author of the article, are responding to. It simply makes zero sense for a major city to "prioritize food production" as an end in itself. That doesn't mean that I don't think there other reasons to maintain community farms or gardens. Its just that particular reason is a bad one, and it might lead to the wrong emphasis in planning if the idea that a city needs to set aside a enough acreage to grow food in significant amounts becomes strong enough.
posted by eagles123 at 10:55 PM on August 11, 2013


that a much larger proportion of the food people consume should be grown as near to where they live as possible, and that people should even take an active role in growing their food.

Maybe one thing that's worth emphasizing is that the "as possible" in the sentence above plays a big role in how people think this issue. It's hard to say, given that with any group there's a varied composition, so I suspect there are in fact people who are fixated on food miles and in this to completely end any and all food supply chains longer than a certain distance. Perhaps even some for whom that distance is as small as the circumference of New York City.

But I also suspect that the majority don't fall into this category, and will accept some form of industrial production as a necessity for some things, and happily buy from some not-in-their-municipality and maybe even more distant supply chains.

What I think people are really after, to one degree or another, is:

* they want to trust the quality and safety of their food (and feel like they can do it by either participating or through personal relationships with people who are making it)

* they want to trust that the process by which it's grown and comes to them is renewable and sustainable, rather than drawing down resources which are limited or disrupting conditions that might take decades or centuries to restore

* they want to know they can take care of themselves and others

* they're interested in some basic personal agricultural literacy for its own sake, or enjoy growing things as a hobby

Participating and buying from small and localish suppliers is a means to these ends. The "locality" of it is less an absolute function of distance shipped and links in the supply chain, and more about whether these goals are being met.

As you an the article point out, in some ways localism and local-ish production are arguably less effective, so maybe making changes in how we do large scale would be a good idea, but the politics of addressing that seem to be impossible at the moment, and the people running production as a business don't seem to be interested in making significant changes voluntarily. So, this is what we've got.

That being said, modern farming and the modern food industry certainly isn't without its problems. Those should certainly be addressed. However, I don't think we should be blind to the realities of the alternatives that people propose.

Which problems are more pressing? What's currently having a bigger impact on society and the world we live in -- industrial agriculture, or localvore values and urban farming?
posted by weston at 10:56 PM on August 11, 2013


Weston -

I do think people mean different things in this discussion, and it results in a certain amount of people talking past each other. For my part, I was responding to the idea I quoted from the article: that major cities should prioritize food production. It simply isn't feasible for a major city to ever supply a significant portion of the food that would be needed to feed itself. Such would defeat the entire purpose of cities.

As a result, I think addressing the concerns you identify will necessarily mean solutions on a large scale. For example, I certainly think that industrial agriculture currently affects more people than localvore values because most people (at least in this country) get their food from supermarkets where a lot of the stuff on the shelves comes from big agricultural companies . Honestly, I'm not sure that with over 300 million people in the U.S. we can ever really change that. There are simply advantages to mechanization and economies of scale that can't be realized by networks of small, independent entities. That doesn't mean I don't think we should attempt to reign in abuses by factor farms, or that we should be unconcerned with their treatment of animals, environmental impact, labor practices, or sanitation. Its just that we are a global civilization where someone can travel around the world practically in a day. Most all solutions to the problems we face will be on a large scale.

As to your last questions, I would certainly list global warming, pollution, and stress on natural resources as environmental problems that are exacerbated by suburban sprawl. We have a growing population, and in many areas we are coming up against limits to the pattern of suburban development that this country has followed since WW2. I think these are all pressing problems. (Re)developing our urban areas and increasing density simply makes sense as a solution.
posted by eagles123 at 11:29 PM on August 11, 2013


No one is de- emphasizing urban development.

I think you may be misconstruing the kinds of land parcels which end up getting reclaimed as urban gardens in the first place. The ones that most often get used for major housing development are big ones - the Atlantic Yards one Sara C talked about above was supposed to be one (before Bloomberg's old college roommate cut a deal with him to put a stadium in instead), but before this it was a huge parcel left over from a former rail yard, and was several acres in size, and spanned a few blocks. Parcels of that size are ones the city absolutely should be using for housing.

Moreover, parcels that size are NOT the ones that community gardens start up on. They go for the small vacant lots, or half- lots, that are too small for major housing developments, and are getting overlooked in urban planning. You could build a townhouse on one, sure, but maybe get at most five or six units out of that building. The city doesn't do things that small. And in many neighborhoods, private developers aren't doing so either, either because they can't afford to or because the neighborhood is depressed itself. So those lots go unused by the city.

Again, we're talking about lots that are sometimes as small as 20 feet by 80 feet. The city would never be building housing on a parcel that small. So these grassroots garden projects simply aren't what's stopping the city from urban housing - the community garden isn't part of a city's urban planning in the first place.

I agree that cities should prioritize housing as part of their plans, but urban gardens are not the reason why they aren't doing so.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:55 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and another thing - urban city planners aren't the ones doing the community garden work in the first place, so pointing the finger at city planners and accusing them of doing so is blaming the wrong people. Community gardens are usually started by the community, and are grass-roots things.

So pointing a finger at the city and saying "you should stop planning urban gardens" is fruitless, because they're not the ones doing it in the first place.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:31 AM on August 12, 2013


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