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Putting Ecology Back Into Urban Agriculture

Cities across the country are looking to support urban agriculture in a variety of ways. New York City recently released its FoodWorks Plan; San Francisco has proposed zoning changes to support community gardens and city farms; and Seattle has been implementing a Local Food Action Initiative over the last several years.

While government and NGOs are working to increase gardening and farming in the city, there are lots of developer/engineering schemes to incorporate food production in high density projects – and make as much money as possible doing it.

I suggest we first concentrate on the basic principles of ecology (Ref: Concepts of Ecology, Edward Kormondy) and try for once to design with – rather than against – nature. Once the limitations are established, we can then move to find the natural system resiliency on which to restore and rebuild using the appropriate new technology effectively at the right scale.

After we separate out the fast-buck folks, we’ll find our best investment is in people and land and the sensitive re-employment of both in cities.

We need to rid ourselves of an antiquated land use policy that turns everyone into a real estate broker. We’ve allowed exploitive bankers and developers to set our cultural limits. So, first, we need to give our cities back to the people. Next, we need to open the cities up by tearing down obsolete, energy consuming structures and letting natural light and fresh air back in. How about restoring natural functioning wetlands and open savannas as pasture?

When we build over natural ecosystems and limit urban open space, we create much more harm than we can rectify with vertical farms and aquaculture. Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. Unfortunately, the main thrust has been exploitation of people and nature to create an undeserved capital for the privileged elite – who, by the way, generally live outside of town.

There is no quick fix in nature. With maturity in ethics, we will come to respect the limits of science and implement more intelligent and careful use.

First and foremost, we need to limit our numbers worldwide and respect what natural systems remain as our primary route to survival. The corporations have sold the world on a technical solution that is nothing more than a ploy to expand their profits. Money is their quest, not good food or human well-being.

So, putting everything back into an ecological context and then doing the right thing becomes obvious. No free lunch! All energy and matter are finite. Well-functioning ecosystems retain all the parts; they do not become subject to reductionism. In other words, keep thinking and testing applications but respect natural processes and all life on earth.

Look around; you’ll see Mother Nature is the best engineer. Human engineered biological systems don’t live long and are not very efficient; but they do make money, at least in a society that values material short-term profits for the few above the lasting welfare of the many.

Fabricated agricultural systems that do not follow on the principles of ecology are nothing more than the unjust, short-term redistribution of capital for private rather than public gain. Real scientists are never certain; too often, engineers driven by investors are ready to go ahead without the necessary deeper understanding.

Who would you bet your life on?

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For more information:

The Vertical Farm: An Organic Learning Experience

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery

The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture by Sir Albert Howard

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