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Edible landscapes

Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive

There’s a new movement afoot that hopes to tackle the scourge of hunger and malnutrition. Known in South Africa as ‘Hacking Sidewalks’, it involves creating edible gardens in public, urban spaces, from which passersby can just help themselves. If that sounds smart, you haven’t yet thought it through. [Great commentary by opinionista, Ivo Vegter. Ed] “We did it without a strategy document,” an enthusiastic Pam Warhurst told a TED Salon in London. That much, sadly, is patently obvious. The cute idea of planting food gardens on land that would otherwise be unused, paved, or covered in decorative plants might be workable in a quaint little English town, but as a concept it has so many holes it is surprising it got off the ground at all. It is not, I fear, an idea worth spreading.

It has, however, led to the launch of a local implementation of the concept, known as “Hacking Sidewalks”. Modelled on the anti-government, anti-capitalist Anonymous movement, and notable for its puerile but arresting Twitter hashtag, #OpFuckHunger, this group hopes to grow vegetable gardens in Mzansi’s blighted urban spaces.

Now let’s get a few things clear. There is obviously nothing wrong with the idea of greening urban landscapes or establishing small-scale home vegetable gardens. Such projects are quite lovely, and sometimes even provide decent fresh food for domestic consumption or as small-scale production for sale to the public. Besides improving living environments, it is from such small beginnings that great prosperity grows.

There’s also nothing wrong with involving children at schools in growing gardens and producing food, as Warhurst’s group did in their little corner of England. Exposing children to trades and skills of all kinds is to be encouraged. Even kids who expect to land high-falutin’ white-collar careers can benefit from some time spent close to the coal-face of how people’s daily needs are produced.

However, the philosophy of these urban guerrilla gardeners, as they style themselves, goes way beyond mere hobby gardening, small-scale production, or horticultural education.

They appear to be disillusioned with industrial-scale agriculture, despite its consistent record of improving quality of life and feeding the world’s ever-growing population.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, levels of malnutrition as a share of population in developing countries have declined everywhere between 1990 and 2008. Unlike the target for poverty, which has already been reached, the progress is insufficient to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for halving hunger by 2015. But it is progress. The global malnutrition level of 13% in 2008 compares favourably to levels of 20% in 1990, 28% in 1980 and 37% in 1970.

Food prices have generally declined over the past 50 years, reaching an all-time low between about 2002 and 2004. Since then, a number of factors have caused them to rise by about half. They include diversion of arable land for the subsidised production of biofuel, sharply rising energy costs and the general economic downturn. A number of droughts have also contributed, but droughts are in the nature of things, and are only considered unusual by climate alarmists with short memories.

Even despite the current inflationary pressures on food production, however, today’s food prices compare favourably with prices in earlier decades. In 1980, food was twice as expensive as in 2002-2004; in 1960, it was two-and-a-half times more expensive; and in the early 1970s it spiked to nearly three and a half times the recent minimum.

Malnutrition levels rose in 2009 but declined again in 2010, the latest year for which I could find data, so there does not yet appear to be reason for undue alarm that the long-term downward trend will suffer a significant reversal.

This record of progress casts grave doubt on the notion that growing food at industrial scales on commercial farms has in some way failed, or has caused any particular problems that can be solved by growing food for free consumption in urban public spaces.

Urban gardens certainly can improve living conditions. In fact, Gareth Ackerman, chairman of Pick n Pay, recently implicated the growth of social grants in the decline of subsistence farming and localised food production. However, subsistence farming is generally a private business. It is only once you make your garden on a sidewalk or other public space that you run into serious challenges…..

Daily Maverick: Read the full article

Hacking Sidewalks to grow freedom

Our objective is to plant up and create edible landscapes.

Our starting premise is that the food system is global and it is broken in a way that maps onto our own profound South African inequality. Globally there are about 1 billion people who are hungry and another one billion who are obese…..