Food for thought: Does terracing for food aid in lock-down?
Updated: May 26
The world is in flux, more so than ever--events of the recent past have given the world much to deal with. Right from lifestyle changes to changes in the habit of functioning on a day to day basis-- everything has changed. COVID-19, the by the now dreaded virus has brought the world to a grinding halt. Since time immemorial, human beings have faced challenges to their existence in the form of pandemics but never before has the modern world population concurrently faced risks, threats and hardships that are so aggregate. A virus-- invisible to the naked eye-- significantly smaller than a strand of hair and lying on the boundary of living and non-living has done the unimaginable. The pandemic, while exposing the flip side of globalization, has pointed out the glaring deficiencies of urban life and the race to achieve the greatness that human beings have always pursued. People like you, me and a million others are sharing this feeling at the subconscious level. The need for balance in urban life and having a closer connection with nature has been felt across the major city centres for some time now. Panic buying and empty racks in supermarkets in the break of the pandemic has left people shaken worldwide. It has led to questions on how easily food supply chains can be disrupted and the fragile nature of the same. During World War II, millions of Americans faced a similar situation of shortage of food supplies. One of the response measures included planting “victory gardens” in their own backyards which eventually supplied approximately 40% of fruits and vegetables to a hungry nation. This model sustained and helped America come back stronger. In this current crisis, countries like Singapore, Netherlands, with their carefully nurtured green spaces are leading the way in making significant contributions to household food security, especially in times of food supply disruptions and shortages.
The Netherlands has many citizen initiatives related to local food production and consumption (Schans, 2010). It has approximately 250’000 community and allotment gardens accounting for 4000 ha of land. Several exciting projects, such as the commercial urban farmer in Rotterdam or the office rooftop garden in Amsterdam Zuidpark are leading the Urban Agriculture projects in the country. Particularly in Rotterdam, Netherlands, urban farming is a multifaceted phenomenon with community kitchen gardens on derelict land and green zones, the largest urban farm in the Netherlands (Uit je Eigen Stad) located in a port area, mushroom farming in a former swimming pool, a vegetable garden thriving atop an office block (Dakakker) and a popular locally sourced farmer’s market. In the garden city of Singapore, the practice of urban farming has picked up in scale and sophistication in recent years. Unavailability of land is not a problem in Singapore, as innovative approaches like rooftop and vertical gardens have been introduced to enhance food supply resilience. Sustainability initiatives like zero-waste and energy-saving practices have also been incorporated in these farms to reduce environmental impacts.
Urban agriculture project initiatives are being taken up in densely populated areas of Lima, where there are two distinct types of urban agriculture producers. The producers in densely populated regions use private spaces, like backyards. At the same time, commercial horticulture is practiced in open areas located in the Central part of the city. Similarly, in Nairobi, Kenya, over 650 hectare of land and around 1.18 million people depend on urban farms for food security and livelihood. Peri-Urban agriculture is mainly practiced either on privately owned properties. In the case of densely populated areas, container farming is widely practiced by the citizens.
Policy initiatives to encourage urban farms have been gaining popularity in several states of the USA. These promote access to land by allowing the use of public land and vacant lots for urban farming in return of property tax incentives. Such legislation was passed by California in 2013, which allowed them to create Urban Agricultural Incentive Zones (UAIZ). Through this bill, cities and counties entered into contracts with landowners to use their land for small-scale agricultural production. In return, the landowners have their property assessed at a lower rate based on the per-acre value of cropland in California.
A country like India, with shrinking agricultural land per capita and burgeoning urban population (377 million), rooftop/terrace/community farming in the urban setting has the potential to manage its fresh vegetables demand- especially in times like these when the countrywide supply chain is hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing are inevitable, people are required to limit their grocery outings, avoid stepping out of home for days at a stretch. During these times, it is a relief to know that the supply of fresh greens is just a few feet away in the comfort of our homes and can be picked up as required. Deepa Prabhu, an IT professional, based in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh considers herself lucky that she and her husband worked hard over the years to set up their own small kitchen garden spread over 260 square feet area. The kitchen garden now helps her avoid any grocery trip out of her safety zone. Her family comfortably manages from their small kitchen garden produce that includes okra, spinach, coriander, curry leaves, green chillies, fenugreek & gongura leaves and fruits such as papaya, guava and banana.
The trend of rooftop farming, however, started much before the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily to meet the growing requirement of fresh and chemical-free veggies. Mr. Chinmaya Kulkarni, an Investment banker by profession, moved to Pune after spending years in London. Soon enough, the family faced a problem of lack of good quality and fresh vegetables in the city. It was tough for his family as in London the quality of the farm-fresh (some of them imported from India) was better. It was then that Mr. Kulkarni, with the support of his family and friends, converted the terrace on his apartment building into a kitchen garden. Approximately 1000 sq.ft in area, terrace farming turned out to be a huge success, not only it met the demands of his family, but they were also able to share the produce with their friends. Inspired with this, Mr. Kulkarni founded Vegrow Farms- an organization that supports people to establish rooftop/terrace farms in Pune.
The motivation behind converting even a small space in an urban setting into a small kitchen garden can be manifold, ranging from the requirement of chemical-free greens to love of gardening. For Mr. Bhuban Mohan Pattnaik, it was the latter. After retiring from his full-time professional responsibilities as the General Manager of NABARD, he immersed himself in this activity, using the garden at his home as his canvas. Today, he grows around 12 varieties of vegetables that includes spinach, brinjal, papaya, ladyfingers, tomato, beans and many others based on the need of the family. In these days of total lockdown and given the fact that their area has been completely sealed, this kitchen garden produce is sufficient to help his family of three members for daily consumption. They are easily able to consume at least one papaya per day along with the other veggies they grow. Inspired by this success at home, Mr. Pattnaik tried to scale up the initiative by forging collaboration with like-minded people in the form of a Kitchen Garden Association. Presently this association has 100 members. The members help each other by sharing tips, procuring organic manure, herbal neem spray etc. The members have also started an association known as, ‘Amrut Vatika’ which is like a community kitchen garden to produce and sell to members once it is scaled up. Given the challenges that the humankind is up against- the recent one of a pandemic and the ongoing climate change issues, this might be the right time to stress on sustainable living. Growing our own food is definitely a part of it!
(Please leave a comment if you would like to know more of such initiatives or learn from them. Also please visit https://www.faceboook.com/humanswhogrowfood/ to learn more)