by Lydia Blocksidge
Let us take you on a food journey back in time. During the First and Second World Wars food, labour and transportation shortages were prevalent all over the world. Countries including the US, Germany and England set out to fix the problem by encouraging people to grow their own food. Inspirational posters were produced and distributed and had an immense impact on the success of this movement. These gardens were popularly termed “Victory Gardens”. They quickly occupied both private and public land including backyards, vacant, nature strips and even city rooftops.
Closer to home, it was much the same. As is commonly the case here in Australia unfavourable weather conditions – in this case drought – was a major issue, as well as a lack of major imports. So we followed the rest of the world’s example and decided to include food in the war effort. The Prime Minister at the time, John Curtin, launched the “Dig for Victory” campaign urging people to contribute to the war effort by growing their own food. Many Aussies were already growing food and those that weren’t started to. Any excess produce was sold and the profits were submitted to the war front. This was aided by the formation of neighbourhood gardening groups and gardening collectives that also raised funds for the war.
First and foremost, Victory Gardens reduced the pressure on the public food supply. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that in 1943 more than 20 million victory gardens were planted, producing more than 40% of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed that year. This was roughly 9-10 million tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables solely from these home and community plots, a number that matched all commercial production of fresh produce and all the while exceeded its quality.
Case in CUBA, Haven in HAVANA
A little further down the urban agriculture track we come across the case in Cuba. What would we do if our trade imports were cut off tomorrow? Well, in 1989 this is exactly what happened to Cuba. The Soviet Union collapsed, and with it 80% of Cuba’s imports. In the years to follow, Cuba illustrated an inspiring example of human resistance to disaster. Vegetable plots popped up anywhere and everywhere, from balcony gardens to urban-fringe farms. It was a true green revolution.
The revolution started out as guerrilla gardening but the government soon supported the efforts of the community, forming the Urban Agriculture Department. City planning laws were adjusted and the transformation of unused, public land into food producing plots was legalised. Super keen community members were trained to monitor, educate and encourage gardeners in their neighbourhoods. Seed houses were established to provide resources and information on how to grow what and where. The financial viability of these gardens was upheld through the establishment of direct-sale farmers’ markets. Havana, with over 2 million mouths to feed, established 8,000 officially recognised gardens, both individual and state-run by 1998. This transformed Havana into a haven of fresh produce.
By placing food production and distribution at the heart of urban design and development, Cuba was able to produce 50% of its total fresh produce from these gardens, the majority of which were in Havana. Better yet, it was all organic. Isn’t this an incredible example of how sustainable agriculture can be achieved and how local food systems can be re-established?
The Cuban agricultural revolution presents an outstanding example of how food production can be woven into cities with a little innovation, hard work and commitment, regardless of the situation. Cities can then stop relying on large mechanical, mass-producing and commonly environmentally-destructive agriculture and start to grow their own organic produce.
Why is urban agriculture important today?
It is no secret that urban populations are rapidly rising all over the world. Currently, 54% of the world lives in cities. The UN predicts that this number will increase to 66% within 30 years. Here in Australia, 90% of us currently live in urban areas. Modern food production means that the majority of city dwellers rely on rural producers and imports, distributed by large supermarkets. More people means rising demands, demands that will become increasingly difficult to meet.
So what do we do? We take a bite from history of course! Victory Gardens and the case in Cuba are perfect examples of what urban agriculture can do for cities, by growing what we need, where we need it. It’s simply that simple. This assists and promotes local food systems, supporting local farmers and reducing the need to transport food from elsewhere. All the while, urban agriculture brings people closer to fresh, local and seasonal food while reducing energy output and emissions. Farmers’ markets are already being established in cities everywhere and they will continue to play a crucial role in a healthier food future. So what are we waiting for? Let’s take a bite from history one vacant space at a time.