Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Urban and Metropolitan Agricultural Prospects*

By Jac Smit
Cairo, Egypt
Habitat Intl. Vol. 5 N0. 3/4, pp.499-506, 1980

*This paper is an extended version of one read at a conference on "Metropolitan Agricultural Systems" at Michigan State University, USA, in February 1978.

During the past thirty years, agriculture within cities and metropolitan areas has been decreasing in Europe and especially in North America. At the same time it has been increasing in quantity and productivity per acre in those developing countries that have been experiencing rapid urbanisation. At some time in the near future - or perhaps already - a situation will exist where a technology exchange can take place, with the cities in the developing countries trading their highly-developed technology of producing more food on less land in exchange for the developed countries' technology in the plant and soil sciences and methods of quality control and protective packaging and storage. Perhaps the developing countries have more to offer in this exchange! An assessment is needed of the inefficiencies of North American and European agriculture and the alternative efficiencies offered by today's intensive urban and metropolitan agriculture cf. Table 1. For example, a 1972 experiment in California achieved a 400% greater yield of vegetables than the local commercial average on one-half the normal water and nitrogen fertiliser. (1)

Table 1. Potential South-North agricultural exchange

Urban agricultureRural agriculture
developing countries developed countries
higher productivity per unit of space quality control
low capital per unit of production packaging and storage
low energy consumption pest control
low marketing cost hydroponic and irrigation techniques
special fish and fruit new and improved crops

An urban agriculture technology exchange amongst developing countries experiencing rapid urbanisation also offers great benefits. Intensive agriculture under modern urban environmental conditions is a rapidly developing technology and breakthroughs will occur from time to time in Latin America, Asia or Africa, and in arid and monsoon climates. Cities in developing countries must be much more resource-conserving (including energy) than European cities and a rational use of land and rooftops to produce selected food crops can be conservative, particularly by recycling liquid and solid urban waste.

There are several things happening in North America today that point to a need for the reintroduction of metropolitan agriculture. In 1976, over 75% of the retail price of vegetables and fruit (fresh, frozen and tinned) was due to off-farm costs. Less than one-quarter is assignable to production! About 60% of meat prices are 'off-farm'; and it is even higher for fish. The marketing costs of North American food are increasing more rapidly than the production costs, transportation and plastic packages were up 15% from 1975 to 1976, and energy costs were jumping 11% and 42% for electricity and natural gas from 1976 to 1977. (2)

Vegetable production in Florida nowadays requires a US$90,000 investment per job. In winter 1977, Florida farms dumped crops because the wholesale price was less than their costs. Prices were down because US agri-business operations in Mexico were able to deliver in New York for less. The Floridian reaction is sure to be, "We were undercut by cheap Mexican labour so we have to cut labour costs by investing more in machinery." In spring 1978, Chicano migratory workers went on strike in Florida for higher wages and urban Blacks were happy to strike-break at the wages turned down by the Chicanos. But they were not skilled workers and some of the crop was lost - pushing up costs per unit. (3)

Farming that is heavily dependent on machinery benefits from large operations. Thus North American agriculture is shifting to larger and larger units farther and farther away from markets. Production costs are kept down by getting higher returns per worker. However, marketing costs go up. As machines take over, fewer varieties are grown and flavour is lost due to greater dependence on chemicals and the longer delivery time. Four-month-old radishes have no bite!

American agriculture is moving indoors. Mushrooms are being grown in Connecticut and Pennsylvania in sheds that cost US$1.25 million per acre (approximately the area of a soccer field) and shrimp under lights in greenhouses in Arizona that cost US$3.5 million per acre. (4) Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and other salad crops are increasingly being grown in 'controlled environments' that cover tens of acres in a single structure and bigger structures are being researched. (5)

A majority of the long-range thinking for North American agriculture sees the agricultural worker as being less productive than workers in other industries and thus obsolete. (6) Research and plans extend the trends of the past thirty years towards fewer and fewer family farms and fewer-but-larger multinational agri-businesses. These transnational food conglomerates are programmed to world markets - fruit to Europe, grain to Russia, soy beans to Japan, etc.- and to produce where there is a suitable climate and a comparative labour advantage (cheap labour) - strawberries in Mexico, bananas in Nicaragua, oranges in Egypt, mushrooms in Taiwan, etc. (7)

It is quite clear that this trend to big and far-flung enterprises is not the only possible future for agriculture. Germany and Japan are just as modern as North America and as capable of putting together transnational conglomerates. German wheat and rye yields per acre are double those of North America. In this and other developed countries there are many family farms and locally-grown fresh vegetables are readily available in their metropolitan cities.

United Nations data suggests that whether farms are big or small, or capital or labour intensive, has not been determining in the increases in food prices. From 1965 to 1975, it found, Japan's food cost went up 140% and West Germany's only 40%. Canada's large farms returned a 95% increase and Australia's only 75%. Sweden and USA, with no farm-size similarity were in the middle, with a decade increase of 86% .(8)

While US agri-business searches world-wide for markets and competitive labour advantage, their metropolitan cities (where 70% of the population lives) are actively producing vacant land surrounded by unemployed workers. In the central cities, square miles of tenements are being demolished. Suburban sprawl follows major highways and leaves vacant land behind in the interstices where family farms are abandoned, as the small farmer can no longer pay property taxes (levied on the basis of potential urban uses).

The abandonment of the central cities is largely due to jobs moving to the suburbs. For instance, from 1966 to 1975, Commonwealth Edison lost 20,000 commercial and industrial customers (employers) within Chicago, half-a-million people left the city, and over 10 square miles (26 square kilometers) are lying vacant. (9) Unemployment rates amongst young men and women near this vacant land, mostly non-white minorities, reaches 50%. One estimate places 28,000 acres of vacant land in New York City, at least one-half of it cultivatible - 22 square miles. (10) Cleveland and Detroit both have four or five square miles of vacant cultivatible land at their urban cores. In New OrIeans, salaries of the non-white population are one-half those of the white population; and non-white unemployment is three times white unemployment - while 25 % of the city area is blighted vacant land. (11)

The idle vacant land in the suburbs is much more extensive. It is a little less accessible to services, markets and labour than central city land but is much better related to all three than rural land.

What is wrong with North American agri-business seems not to be in keeping production costs down but that the marketing costs keep going up, and are likely to do so at an accelerating rate. Further, quality in terms of taste, variety and nutrition is deteriorating - particularly fruit and vegetables compared to those in other countries. Thirdly, there are fewer jobs each year due to increased mechanisation and to the export of jobs to other countries. Lastly, just as the world is running out of fossil energy - with North America in the lead - US agri-business is becoming more and more energy consumptive per item on the supermarket shelf. For instance, Iowa corn in the 1960s consumed five times as much fertiliser per acre as in the 1940s. (12)

North American metropolitan agriculture is likely to have smaller production units, similar to family farms. It is unlikely to have lower production costs, particularly when one includes the cost of overcoming soil and air pollution. However, marketing costs are likely to be much lower with savings in transport, packaging, middlemen and wastage losses. Nutrition and taste could well be improved and, with more hand labour and the greater number of producers, selection should be greater. The number of jobs in agriculture and within metropolitan areas and central cities will be much greater than under the current system. Perhaps equally important, new local business could be generated which will contribute to community stability. Metropolitan agriculture will conserve energy. It will also recycle waste and thus conserve other resources. And, last but not least, it can convert blighted vacant land into environmentally pleasant and productive places, cleaning the air and enriching the soil.

Why, if metropolitan agriculture has so much to offer, has its share of the market been shrinking for a generation in most developed countries? There seem to be two basic reasons and a host of smaller problems. The first is the land and how we price it, tax it, and control its use. The second is our agricultural technology and know-how.

Rural land price is established on the basis of its earning capacity as achieved in past harvests. Urban land price is set in anticipation of its possible built-up use: factories, stores, homes, etc. If, in an urban or metropolitan setting, agricultural use can be taxed on its productivity only, as it is in rural areas, then the single largest barrier will have been lifted. A variety of solutions to this problem are being implemented in North America and Europe. Two concepts seem central. First, taxes on increases in land value although not forgiven are deferred to the date of sale for a built-up use, unless a permanent agreement is reached never to build on the land. Secondly, the ownership of the land need not be with the producer. Most metropolitan agriculture, it seems clear, will be on short-term leased land. The land owner in the urban core is likely to be government; on the urban fringe, land development corporations; in the suburbs, organisations such as golf courses, universities, park districts, cemeteries, water districts and other large land holding agencies that need land for future expansion. (13)

Rooftops too offer an opportunity to produce food close to the consumer (downstairs). Should rooftops be rentable at a rate tied to agricultural productivity the structural, legal and other technical problems may be quite readily overcome. Part of the cost of roof top greenhouses can be recouped by using them as a solar heating unit.

Experiments in France, Scotland, and North America suggest that yields per acre of vegetables can be increased 400% through intensive horticultural methods and much more for some crops. (14) Research at leading North American universities in this direction have commonly resulted in proposals for investments of a million and more dollars per acre (0.4 hectare) for controlled environments to achieve such yields. These models are highly dependent upon chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and plastics.

In developing world metropoles, intensive farming with yields comparable to the experiments cited above has been developed with very little capital invested per acre and a modest use of water, chemical fertilisers and inorganic pesticides. The lower investment and operating costs are largely based on recycling urban biological wastes through hand cultivated 'mini-farms'.

The genesis of this technology is not neatly traceable. In the year 1900, of sixteen cities in the world exceeding one-half million population, eight were in China. Prior to the widespread use of the internal combustion engine, railroads and electricity, China had developed a very productive urban re-cycle agricultural technology. In the early 1970s, in the South End of Boston, USA, the Puerto Rican, Black and Irish gardeners were getting disappointingly poor yields for years - until they got some advice from their Chinese neighbours across the expressway about soil management and crop spacing and timing. The Chinese metropolitan agriculture technology seems to have spread with the world-wide diaspora of the urban Chinese. With the very rapid growth of cities in Asia with large expatriate Chinese population since World War II, l9th Century Chinese urban agriculture has modernised in the opposite direction of North American rural agriculture, towards more production per acre rather than more per worker.

In Latin America and Africa the evolution of urban agriculture has undoubtedly been somewhat different than in Asia. The net result, although different, shares the characteristics of demanding little capital, being intensive, and exploiting biological wastes.

In Hong Kong, a farm produces six crops of cabbage a year. In Jakarta tilapia and catfish are grown in tanks at the edge of the central business area. In Karachi, where the rains skip one in four years entirely and do not amount to much in the other three, half of the city's fresh vegetables are grown in dry river flood plains. In Calcutta, all the trees on private property bear fruit, and milk cows raised inside Circular Road return 20-30% a year on investment. (15)

The efficiency of the agricultural technology of the Third World's metropoles is not limited to production. Marketing, which is 75% of the retail price in North America, is also efficient. In Cairo and Seoul, comparable in population to Chicago and Philadelphia, produce is being bought by apartment dwelling up-towners within three or four hours of picking. Foreign visitors universally marvel at the farm-fresh flavour of the artichokes, asparagus, sweet corn and the like. The marketing system is essentially farmer-municipal market-retailer, although often there is a cooperative delivering to the market. The characteristic differences are that as distance between the production unit and the ultimate consumer is less, the amount of processing, shipping, damage, and markup due to middlemen is less.

In some of North America's smaller cities - for instance Cheyenne, Wyoming and Independence, Missouri - such simple farm to market systems are working. But not in Chicago or Los Angeles. Some rapidly urbanising developing countries seem to have solved this problem for large cities where USA has failed.

It may be significant that the large cities in developing countries do not have blighted vacant land at the core or the periphery. Virtually all land is productively used, with the exception of some government holdings and land without access to water. Land values in these dominant cities of less wealthy countries are typically higher than in similar sized cities in North America and Europe. Corporations like Sheraton and Singer are well aware that land cost is higher in Singapore and Bombay than in San Francisco and Boston. (16)

A consistent difference during the 1950s and 1960s in developed and developing country metropoles was that there was always an unskilled labour surplus in the latter. In the 1970s the cities of the developed countries have a labour surplus for the first time in thirty years. Adjustments in the distribution of economic activities is certain gradually to take cognisance of this fact; agriculture may have the potential of being a bellwether.

It may be useful to consider what the nature and shape of metropolitan agriculture could be twenty years hence, in order to anticipate the tasks to be done. It seems likely that it would be organised within each metropolitan region; regional production for regional demand within selected product lines, such as fresh milk is organised today.(17) At the regional level there would be a clearing house for technical advice, market forecasting, research and lobbying.

Distribution may be largely at a community of 50-to-100,000 population level. This level of exchange beween producer and retailer is one at which many food-distributing cooperatives founded in the 1960s have functioned well and is a common size for rural and suburban towns where wholesale food markets operated as recently as the 1950s. Metropoles such as New York and Chicago have recently recognised the viability of 'communities' of about 100,000 for planning purposes. The size of the service area may be less important than the type of organisation which must be able to service many small producers as well as it services many small retailers and food-buying cooperatives.

Production in the early years and possibly in perpetuity would be in small units: family farms, community cooperative farms and small businesses with five to twenty-five employees. The production units will be primarily interim users of land, say three to ten years. Less than three years would not allow a return and one hopes that most vacant urban land would be built-up within a decade. Secondarily, production could be in roof-top greenhouses, converting unused surfaces to producing food and helping to heat homes, shops and offices. An experiment in Chicago found that in 1976 a roof-top greenhouse could produce a full-time job for US$15,000 whereas an agricultural job in Florida was costing six times as much as capital, US$90,000. (18)

Metropolitan farmers producing for a regional market would not compete for the entire market-basket of food consumed nowadays by North American and European families. They would concentrate first on those items that damage easily, such as raspberries, and those crops that benefit greatly from being fresh such as asparagus. They would avoid products that are incompatible with high air pollution levels, which might include leaf lettuce. Just as bean sprouts are now grown within the city for restaurant chop suey, tomatoes might be grown for hamburgers and strawberries for shortcake.

Surely there would be trade between metropolitan regions, but by and large small-scale farmers would produce for special sections of the local market. They could not compete in production costs, even with low land rent. However, since marketing costs could be much less, they could receive a significantly higher share of the retail price through the community distributors.

The paradigm of small producers, community distribution and a regional clearinghouse for technical and political transactions assumes participation in metropolitan agriculture by state and local government, institutions, and community organisations to gain a 'social profit'. The benefits of this 'new' economic activity should accrue mainly to those of low and moderate income who will be employed and to small-scale owner operators. However, local government will profit from productivity taxes, communities will be stabilised by new businesses, institutions will gain rental income and the environment will be enhanced by the improvement of blighted land, cf. Table 2. Several North American regions and states have already expressed an interest in reactivating local agriculture to diminish their citizen's vulnerability to national and multinational food price increase cycles. (19)

Table 2. Possible benefits of metropofitan agriculture

5 Years Plus 10 Years Plus 15 Years Plus
reduced unemployment and blight, improved community stability and cheaper food, resources conserved,
and improved nutrition in central cities physical environment and a broader economic base

Because of the substantial social benefits implicit in metropolitan agriculture, including the immediate reduction in unemployment, it may be appropriate for public investment to provide exploratory and development funding.

Whether or not there are benefits possible beyond the short-term, which seems well assured by several recent experiments, will require considerable exploration and investigation. As mentioned above, the author speculates that the two key elements will be: (i) land management including ownership, rent, taxes and regulatory controls; and (ii) transfer of production and distribution techniques from developing to developed countries. Research to discover solutions to the first issue might begin by going back to the European roots of real property and land-use law. However, the answers are likely to be more in management than in law. (20)

The problem of transferring technology from relatively youthful Southern hemisphere cities to the older cities of the North is a true frontier. As we will not be transferring a steel mill complex or a university, perhaps it can be done from entrepreneur to entrepreneur and journeyman to journeyman. Such face-to-face transfers may be all the more necessary as little of the technology under consideration is available in libraries or bureaucratic files. It is however a highly sensitive technology and a successful transfer will require the involvement of craftsmen and professionals, not apprentices. Specific transfer programmmes will need to be designed from arid to arid climate and wet to wet climate cities. The problems associated with the shift from tropical to temperate climate may be less troublesome than it seems at first glance as many temperate crops are being grown by improved methods in tropical cities. In fact, some still rely on seeds produced in temperate-climate nurseries.

There is some history of entrepreneurs from Asia and Latin America and Africa investing in businesses in North America and Europe. (21) Would not a small flow of capital following this technology transfer from poor countries to some of the poorer communities of the world's richest metropoles, because an opportunity is perceived, be an interesting footnote in the history of world development?

1 Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula/2225 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

2 All data from "Agricultural Outlook", 13 October, 1977.

3 Data for this paragraph are drawn from the New York Times, January-April 1978.

4 Cost estimates by Merle Hansen, University of Arizona, Director, Environmental Research Laboratory, University of Arizona.

5 A National Science Eoundation grant in 1977 to the "General Research Corporation," McLean, Va., researched a suspension structure that could cover hundreds of acres.

6 A current policy position of the Trilateral Commission calls for restructuring agriculture in the USA to release farm workers for more productive endeavours elsewhere in the economy. Washington Post, April 5, 1978.

7 The extreme may be Reverend Moon's use of volunteer workers to catch tuna off Glouster, Massachusetts, for sale in Japan where the wholesale price is eight to ten times as high.

8 Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, United Nations, June 1975.

9 Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, Annual Statistical Survey, 1976.

10 Estimate of Neighborhood Self Reliance, Washington, D.C.

11 CBS News Special Report, 15 February, 1978.

12 "U.S. Agriculture is Growing Trouble as Well as Crops," Wilson, Clark, Smithsonian, January 1975.

13 In Great Britain, farmland is traded on the commodities exchange.

14 "How to Grow More Vegetables on Less Land," Ecology Action, Palo Alto, 1974.

15 Circular Road is built where the canal surrounding the city was until WWI. Milk production was studied by the Ford Foundation Advisory Team in the mid - 1960s.

16 Adams, F. G. et al. Land Prices During Urbanization. Review of Economic and Statistics, May 1968.

17 Long-term packaging of milk will soon be approved by the US Government killing America's last stronghold of the old metropolitan agriculture.

18 This is the Christian Action Ministry (CAM) in West Fairfield Park. See The Reader, l0 September, 1977, lead article by Denis Declue and Christian Science Monitor, 19 July, 1977, Front Page by John D. Moorhead.

19 There are now 160 community farms in California. R. Menninger of the State Office of Planning and Research recommends that City and County governments should allocate a portion of their recreation budgets to support community gardens (farms). Also see the "Guidelines for Establishing and Operating Community Rent-A-Garden Programs," Ohio State University. In Massachusetts, the State Department of Agriculture is conducting a massive effort to recover the state's waning agriculture - Boston Urban Gardeners Newsletter, January 1978.

20 Davis California has recently passed legislation to allow small livestock in the city limits. New York State passed a bill on 8 March which allows a farmer to sell his urban development rights to the owner of a property in another part of town. New York Times, 9 March, 1978.

21 Chinese merchants in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Taipei are investing in North American cities through traditional channels.

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Revised Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture