Ecology & The City: Growing Where You Least Expect It

Zaktualizowano: 29 cze 2021

Picture yourself at your local supermarket buying produce. Maybe you need an onion, so you go to the box of onions and search for the biggest one with the least amount of marks and bruises. In this situation, do you think of anything else about the onion? Do you think of where it came from, or perhaps the people who grew it? Do you wonder about its life cycle, from seed to supermarket, and how long it might take? What about the farmers, if they are happy or struggling? If the answer is no, don’t feel any guilt. This is probably the last thing on your mind while doing something as mundane as grocery shopping. But incorporating these reflections into your everyday actions might help you to understand the interconnectedness of the urban and the rural, two spaces that we tend to think of as separate.

Welcome back to Ecology & The City, a series which seeks to knock down the barriers between urban and natural spaces. In this installment I want to discuss urban farms, modern agriculture, and how you can help take part in the process of food production, either directly or indirectly. Food production is something that we tend not to associate with cities. Typically, we assume fruits, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products have to be produced out of the city and imported in. While this is the most common case, many people are challenging this notion.

Urban farms have been gaining momentum in Europe over the last decade. In simple terms, they’re a plot of land in the city or suburbs which is used to grow food for local consumption. While the concept does invite certain challenges, such as limited space, increased costs of operation, smog and pollution, and vandalism, the benefits vastly overshadow the various drawbacks. This is because urban farms provide a welcome alternative to the hugely problematic model of modern industrial agriculture, which harms the environment and the people relying on it.

I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the problems with modern agriculture and what can be done to improve things, so I spoke with Jan Valeška. Jan represents an urban farm in Troja called Komunitní Zahrada Kuchyňka, as well as Asociace Ampi, an organization which seeks to improve the conditions for farmers and consumers in the Czech Republic. The problems with agriculture are varied, but Jan boils it down to the fact that it lacks “the values or the relation, passion, or love for growing food.” He says that “industrial farming is now based on profit and making money, everything is a commodity that needs to be used in order to make money.” Sadly, this means that growing food and feeding people are secondary goals, and the primary goal is to make a profit, usually by cutting ecological corners and underpaying or abusing workers. Of course there are some solutions to this that can be implemented, but Jan believes that “it’s not expert knowledge we need to change, but the connection between the ones who are eating and the ones who are producing to keep life going.” This a very broad explanation of the problem at hand, so I would encourage readers to have a closer look at the more specific problems which plague modern agriculture.

To get a better sense of how urban farms confront the issues of modern agriculture, let’s discuss what Komunitní Zahrada Kuchyňka is doing to make a difference. KZK is an urban farm, community garden, and community kitchen situated in the Troja neighborhood, which now produces and delivers food to over 70 families. It does not function using individual allotments, but instead, everyone works together to grow food while remaining ecological and ethical. This model favors sustainability and production over profitability which ensures that people get fed while the land’s resources aren’t being eroded. This has a deep impact on people’s attitudes towards food because, according to Jan, “you are becoming the actor, the agent that’s making the change. You are involved, as compared to a system where you are a passive consumer, where you have to accept what’s being offered, which is usually awful.” Under this framework, you are working with your community to produce, learn, and feed people, which has a huge impact on the attitude you have towards the food you eat. KZK accomplishes this not only though collective food production, but also through seminars and courses that help people understand more ethical and sustainable techniques.

Another beautiful example of such a system is Pastvina, an urban farm sitting right on the outskirts of Prague in Vinoř. This incredible farm has a community garden with individual allotments, an animal sanctuary where rescued farm animals are treated with dignity, an “edible forest,” and many other systems which function to produce food for the community using permaculture techniques. At Pastvina, people can help out by working on the farm in exchange for produce, which is an excellent way to involve the community and help people understand what it takes to produce food. You can also “adopt” the animals, like goats, cows, or chickens. By doing so you pay some money to help support them, and in exchange you can take home milk, eggs, or cheese. Anna Stella, the co-founder, tells me that the driving force behind this project is to get people to “change how they think about food production and growing food locally, supporting local farmers, and doing so as a community.” Anna worries about how over “the last 100 years people have started to become more individualistic,” so the farm functions as a way to produce food as well as bring the community closer together. Anna and Marcos, the founders, have a shared passion for permaculture and education, so on one side of the coin, the community are all working together to produce food in a sustainable way. On the other side, they run a kindergarten where children can interact with farm animals and eat locally produced vegetables, something that can be very hard to come by in a city.

If supporting local and sustainable agriculture is interesting for you but you don’t have the time, energy, or ability to volunteer, there are other effectives ways to get involved. One such is called community supported agriculture, or CSA (referred to as KPZ in Czech). A big problem with agriculture is that food production is inherently unreliable due to environmental factors like pests or droughts. To internalize these risks, food producers cut costs, the consequences of which fall on the land and workers. A CSA model includes the consumer in the process in order to “share the risks among a broader group, allowing the farmer to try methods that are more risky, which bring great benefits that are non monetary,” as Jan explains to me. A traditional model is one where you find a farm that has shared values, and you contact them directly to pay for a year’s worth of produce upfront. This way, farmers have extra money in a season that would normally be unprofitable for them, and they can use that money to invest in better practices or working conditions. From a consumer perspective, you are helping a local producer while getting fresh sustainable produce all year long. It is true that this is more expensive than getting fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, and it’s also a possibility that you will have varying amounts of produce in a season depending on how successful the harvest was. But in the end, this is a much more ethical and sustainable model for the producers, the consumers, and the land. If this is interesting to you, it is possible to do some research about the farms near you, and contact them directly about setting up a CSA program! An easier option is to check out our interactive map, which has a list of English-friendly CSA initiatives in Prague.

The structural issues regarding modern agriculture can feel overwhelming at times, and if you are living in a city it can especially feel like there is nothing you can do to help. If that’s how you are feeling, I hope the information here opened your eyes to how city dwellers can take an active role in food production and make the world a little bit better. When I asked Jan what advice he has for someone who is worried about modern agriculture, he simply said that “you don’t have to march down the street with Extinction Rebellion, because the greatest change takes place in your head and your heart.” So the next time you buy an onion, challenge yourself by asking some questions about its life, because this simple act could have great impacts in the future. Big changes are possible, but it needs to start with individual perceptions and attitudes.

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