Resilience is a hot topic right now: consultation on New Zealand’s new National Disaster Resilience Strategy recently closed, and the Paris Agreement’s focus on adaptation includes the goal of strengthening climate resilience. It seems like everyone’s talking about resilience, particularly in relation to climate change and the worsening effects it is already having on our societies. The food system, meaning the eco-social system that produces, distributes, sells, consumes food and disposes of food waste, is both particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and thus also a promising place to focus efforts for increasing resilience.
There’s a lot of disagreement about what resilience means, but for the purposes of this article it is defined as the ability of a system to maintain its basic structure and function in the face of adverse events, such as extreme weather related to climate change, political instability, or community breakdown. “A resilient food system provides a reliable source of nutritious, safe, accessible food despite disturbances.” The resilience of a system can be enhanced by a number of factors, including its diversity, the interconnectedness of its diverse elements, and how much capital it has (including environmental, social and physical capital).
Farmers have always struggled with extreme weather events – droughts, floods, wildfires – and they have struggled with the weather generally. In the past, though, at least extreme events could be relied upon to be relatively rare, and long-term climate patterns could be relied upon to be fairly consistent from year to year. The first and last frosts would always come at around the same date. The rains would come at the same time. Winters would be consistently cold and summers consistently warm or hot. These days, though, everything is changing. The increasing severity, unpredictability and frequency of weather disruptions make resilience vital to the ability of farmers to consistently grow and raise food.
The problem is, though, that the industrial system which has come to dominate the global agricultural landscape over the past three quarters of a century is anything but resilient. Crops are grown in vast, homogenous fields (in a practice called monocropping, where a single type of plant is grown, year after year, in the same fields); soils are degraded and the microorganisms that help them to function properly are killed; even the number of species raised and grown within the industrial system for human consumption has narrowed to a range a fraction the size of what it once was. The food system is vulnerable to human-caused shocks as well – the commodification of food, for instance, makes food prices vulnerable to speculation and the fluctuations of financial markets, as well as to competing demands like the demand for biofuel, which uses staple foods such as corn and soybeans (which you might notice, can be connected back to the lack of diversity in the industrial food system. These problems are all connected – the failure is systemic). These factors, and others, risk putting basic nutrition out of reach for the most vulnerable in our societies.
Urban food system resilience is important given the urbanised and urbanising nature of the world’s still-growing population. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, but cities typically rely on a globalised food system, based on very long-supply chains; very little food is actually produced in or around most cities themselves. This means that the food security of my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand, for example, might be negatively impacted by severe weather or social upheavals in distant parts of the globe. The long supply chains that deliver food to the city could also mean that in the event of a severe earthquake (which, let’s be honest, is only a matter of time), Wellington might be cut off from its food supply for a significant period of time, with no local production inside the city to tide it over.
Urban agriculture, while unlikely to ever replace traditional rural forms of agriculture, is one way in which cities can increase their food system resilience, by reducing their reliance on international supply chains. In times of food system disruption, urban-dwellers will be less severely impacted, and their food security will be protected. By ensuring that urban agriculture projects are regenerative, rather than following the non-resilient industrial model of farming described above, these projects would be better able to withstand shocks to the urban climate. Urban agricultural policy can also put pressure on peri-urban (i.e., the areas near and around the city) and rural agriculture to produce food in ways that are more resilient and regenerative, further enhancing the resilience of the city’s external food supply chain.
The resilience of a city overall can also be improved by urban agriculture. I chatted with Peter Wells of the Food Resilience Network in Christchurch, who spoke about the environmental benefits urban agriculture can have – providing habitats for pollinators, improving the soil, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, and improving air quality. Urban agriculture can provide a buffer against sever weather events like flooding (by improving city soils’ ability to absorb water) and heat waves (by reducing the urban heat island effect). All of these factors not only improve a city’s ability to deal with climate change and the various other ecological crises we are currently facing, but also actually help to avoid them.
Urban agriculture can also build other forms of urban resilience, particularly social resilience, by strengthening peoples’ sense of community and improving food security and control over their food supply for people in marginalised social groups. It can be a “primary [force] for social integration, food-related education and environmental justice“. Because of existing structural challenges such as poverty and systemic racial discrimination, though, urban agriculture will not necessarily have these positive, inclusive social effects. If urban agriculture projects and policies fail to seriously consider inclusivity and discrimination, they can end up having negative effects on marginalised communities by further perpetuating their exclusion.
Improving food system resilience is critical to the ongoing viability of human societies as we enter an era of greater uncertainty and more frequent disruptions. The weather is only going to get weirder, and this in turn is going to put more and more pressure on the social structures we exist within, particularly as more people move into the world’s expanding cities. Urban agriculture is one important way to build food system resilience, which helps to build the resilience of our cities’ infrastructure and our urban communities; if done right, it’s a win-win-win.
Next week, I’ll share some great examples of urban agriculture around New Zealand, and take a look at some of the barriers to a thriving urban agriculture scene, as well as some ways to work around them.
- D.M. Tendall, J. Joerin, B. Kopainsky, P. Edwards, A. Shreck, Q.B. Le, P. Kruetli, M. Grant, and J. Six “Food system resilience: Defining the concept” Global Food Security vol 6 (2015), pp 17–23.
- A.J.D. Ferreira, R.I.M.M. Guilherme, C.S.S. Ferreira, and M.F.M.L. Oliveira “Urban agriculture, a tool towards more resilient urban communities?” Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health vol 5 (October 2018), pp 93-97.