Can Urban Agriculture Address Food Insecurity?
Big Issue|Issue 290
No, says Associate Professor Jane Battersby from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.
Jane Battersby

Within the first few weeks of the South African COVID-19 lockdown, it became clear that food insecurity was a pressing crisis in the country. Government and civil society’s immediate responses focused on food parcels and vouchers, soup kitchens and other crisis interventions. Increasingly, attention has turned to “Build Back Better” efforts, and government, community groups and Community Action Networks (CANs) have focused a considerable amount of attention on starting up food gardens. Amidst the urgency of doing something, it is useful to ask: “Can urban agriculture address food insecurity?”

This is not a new question, and food insecurity is far from a new challenge. In 2008 we conducted a survey of three low-income areas in Cape Town and found 80% of the sampled households were either moderately or severely food insecure. Follow-up work has found that over 60% of households across the city were unable to afford a nutritious diet.

The COVID-19-related food insecurity crisis has deep roots. In the 2008 food security survey, we found that only five percent of households were consuming any foods they’d grown. Why, in the wake of such high food insecurity, were so few households growing food? Could urban agriculture address this?

The existing data from various pieces of research across South Africa prior to COVID-19 do not tell a compelling story of the potential of urban agriculture to address widespread food insecurity. Case studies have consistently shown limited impact on household food security status (but urban agriculture does increase dietary diversity). Additionally, in most cases the economic benefits accrued from sales of crops are limited, although some farmers are able to generate significant economic benefits.

Finally, despite the intended target of most urban agriculture projects being “the poorest of the poor”; most of the participants do not fall into this category. This is in part because the most vulnerable cannot afford inputs or the risk of crop failure, and are unable to access land.

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Can this new wave of urban agriculture produce different outcomes? Can urban agriculture address food insecurity? Given the existing evidence and the breadth and depth of the problem, the answer is clearly no if we are expecting to address all food security.

No one, of course, expects it to solve food insecurity. Except, it does appear to be the sole entry point to addressing food insecurity of most provincial and local governments and civil society organisations.

Why is urban agriculture again being treated like a silver bullet to an immensely complex challenge? My sense is that it intuitively feels like the right thing and is viewed through an empowerment lens. And yet, food insecurity is the outcome of structural challenges in the food system and urban system of systemic marginalisation.

Expecting the urban poor, who have the least access to the resources necessary (money, land, tools, seed, knowledge and equipment) to establish and maintain successful agricultural ventures, to grow their own in order to uplift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity, fails to recognise the massive barriers constraining urban agriculture and the general lack of agency of the poor in South African cities.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BIG ISSUEView All

TO GO FAR, GO TOGETHER

Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), an area-based community development organisation, has used social innovation to coproduce strong neighbourhood economies while helping to fight COVID-19.

6 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

The food stories of our komvandaan* *Komvandaan means ‘where we come from'.

During a time when big media houses closed esteemed magazine titles, one small, black female-owned company – Mikateko Media – launched a brand-new quarterly magazine called Koe’sister.

6 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Living gently

Nicola Rabkin shares what a typical, environmentally conscious day looks like for her family, who is striving for eco-mindfulness.

4 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Share your notes!

In 2020, two Bishops Diocesan College matric boys created a website called Notes Share to help online learning for all students from Grades 8 to 12.

2 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Run, scramble, swim, repeat

SwimRun offers athletes and fitness enthusiasts a novel new way to test their limits.

4 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

BUBBLES SANS BOOZE

Zari Sparkling, an alcohol-free bubbly, has been creating a new niche in the beverage sector since 2010.

5 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

A breath of clean air

An enterprising group of South African doctors, engineers and designers based in East London has invented a medical device that revolutionises oxygen delivery to COVID-19 patients.

3 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Food App With A Social Conscience

What sets the Pekkish SA food-ordering app apart is that it empowers local food businesses and connects hungry customers with lesser known gems in their neighbourhood.

5 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Activism In The Time Of Covid-19

The Bench Marks Foundation rose to the challenges caused by the pandemic through innovation and creativity with its community activist training programme.

4 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293

Poo: An Early Warning System For Covid-19

The South African Medical Research Council explains the unexpected role that sewage plays in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

4 mins read
Big Issue
Issue 293