Cuba’s experience with urban farming has been exemplary. It has massively increased its food production, cut down on the ecological and economic costs of shipping food to the cities, and opened up green spaces and jobs—all with practically no carbon emissions. The word “revolution” is not inappropriate.
So who’s next for an agricultural sea-change? Somewhat surprisingly, it may be New York City.
The strikingly progressive Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, has just published a report entitled “Food in the Public Interest: How New York City’s Food Policy Holds the Key to Hunger, Health, Jobs and the Environment.”
The report, rich with detail and prescription, outlines preliminary steps toward a pretty good food policy for New York, braiding together some familiar strands: the environment, sustainable development, local food, and the importance of diet. Indeed, part of what makes the report so compelling as a model for examining urban food policy is its comprehensiveness, emphasizing that hunger is intertwined with the problems of food security and food justice.
One key recommendation calls for “identifying and maximizing our regional ‘foodshed,’ the 200-mile or so radius of farmland surrounding the city.” While it acknowledges that New York won’t be able to draw all its food from that 400-mile wide circle, it emphasizes doing so to the maximum extent possible.
The city’s foodshed contains most of New York State, Connecticut, and New Jersey, as well as chunks of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. According to the USDA census, that’s well over 50,000 farms. There are already more than 100 farmers’ markets in New York City; Greenmarket‘s venues—including the always bustling Union Square market—draw more over 200 upstate farmers to the city every weekend.
Localizing food production is important, and the report’s emphasis on regional food-sheds suggests serious thinking.
The bioregional vision, popularized by environmental writer Kirkpatrick Sale, means reducing greenhouse gas emissions tied to transportation—up to 10 percent of some food’s total GHG emissions—and weaving a tighter, more localized economic net that doesn’t rely on supply lines running thousands of miles. The report further emphasizes the need for reducing reliance on vehicles and implementing a “model to reward distributors and truckers who use hybrid technology and clean fuels.”
The report, which was the fruit of a Columbia University conference that Stringer organized called The Politics of Food, calls for streamlining the use of food stamps at farmer’s markets and CSAs—Community Supported Agriculture—in order to funnel federal food allotments into purchasing local food. It also recommends subsidizing community food partnerships, and creating zoning incentives for stores to open that will supply fresh food to “food deserts.”
It also calls for the creation of urban gardens and the use of parkland for growing crops. One recommendation is to “conduct comprehensive research on sustainable urban farming methods to identify which techniques, scale and locations are most appropriate for the city’s urban conditions,” including city parks and rooftops. It also calls for pressuring the federal government to implement a carrot-stick approach to make the transportation system more GHG-efficient.
The creation of urban gardens and a regional food-production system could also fix the city’s, and the region’s, broken nitrogen cycle. That’s a very sanitized way of saying, in the words of Laura Allen of Greywater Guerrillas, that "reputable research in urban and rural settings worldwide has shown that human excreta can be collected simply and inexpensively, can be processed to remove harmful pathogens, and can then be put to use as nutrient-rich fertilizer."
Indeed, the report explicitly calls for creating “incentives for the local treatment of food waste to recover optimal energy and material value.” (Night-soil has been used as a fertilizer in China for thousands of years.) That, too, means less use of energy-intensive petrochemical fertilizers. Research from the Rodale Institute also suggests that “manure stimulates the soil to sequester carbon in more stable forms.”
The report also calls for increasing the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. More of one type of food means less of another—so in addition to nutrition counseling, calling for healthier eating patterns could mean a reduction in beef consumption, which is one of the easiest ways to reduce GHG emissions.
Additionally, it suggests pursuing an industrial retention policy to promote the food processing industry by creating financial incentives for small-scale processing in the foodshed, which may include streamlining fees and permitting processes, incorporating food processing in wholesale market development, and training local workers.
Furthermore, the report calls for nutrition counseling, and programs to reduce consumption of the junk foods that are the product par excellence of the American industrial food system. Such nutrition-deficient foods destroy Americans’ health while blowing carbon into the atmosphere throughout the production chain. Junk food is almost never made from organically grown products—and we know from the research of the Rodale Institute that organic farming produces far less GHG emissions per/calorie than non-organic.
The report recommends ordering NYC agencies to offer fresh, local food choices in lieu of unhealthy industrial food, and using grants and tax breaks as incentives for private institutions to change the way they purchase food.
But don’t get confused. It’s a good beginning for creating a local, sustainable food movement for New York that makes food production cleaner and makes food consumption healthier. It’s the most comprehensive government planning effort in the country right now. And it suggests that doors may be opening. Still, the report makes no explicit statement about either reducing beef consumption or transitioning to an organic agricultural system—the steps that must go hand-in-hand with a conversion to local farming to make it ecologically sustainable.
It’s still only a start.