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Citywatch: Urban ag meat

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

There’s everyday unsustainable, and then there’s completely off-the-chart unsustainable. In this second slot, we can put the worldwide move to Western-style meals centered around livestock fed on cheap corn and soybeans. Feeding three squares of meat to the world’s expected 9 billion mouths in 2050 would require doubling of global grain production, which in turn would require entire rainforests converted to corn and soy monocultures.

Roberts argues that livestock production in cities is not as far-fetched an idea as many might think. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)Roberts argues that livestock production in cities is not as far-fetched an idea as many might think. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)Then there are reasonably modest alternatives, like livestock raised on grass and bugs in a managed wilderness, or even way-out proposals—such as raising animals for meat in the city.

The over-the-top option is just par for the course for veteran garden-variety city food producers. According to Toronto-based food analyst Diana Lee-Smith, a leading figure in the booming African urban ag movement, heavy duty food production in cities only becomes normalized during crises, such as war, when supply lines are cut off, or when muscle-building foods are monopolized by soldiers. Victory gardens supplied veggies to most British civilians during World War II, and when wartime rationing continued into the 1950s, “pig-bins” for food scraps that could be fed to pigs were typical, she told Nourishing the Planet. Even city food scraps become grist for the mill of agriculture.

If we rely on crisis to trigger interest in tending city livestock in North America, we might expect that to happen sometime shortly after oil runs out or just before hell freezes over.

But if we’re lucky, another factor identified by Lee-Smith may help us move a little quicker to bring home the bacon while adding authenticity to the ranch-house lifestyle of suburbia.

In Nairobi, Kenya, home of the world’s biggest slum and the place where Lee-Smith co-founded the Mazingira Institute to promote women-led urban ag, raising animals is both part of feeding families and managing urban waste.

It’s been dubbed “the brown revolution.” City livestock consume human discards or neglected resources—ranging from pools of rainwater in ditches to weeds along boulevards to food scraps to insects and larvae feeding on manure—and thereby saves cities from smothering in their own waste.

Food production as a way to manage city leftovers is the vision of Toronto’s leading urban agtivist, Lorraine Johnson, author of City Farmer and several other classics on naturalizing urban wastelawns.

“Backyard chickens are the best little compost machines you can have,” she tells me. They bring back the natural and holistic food cycle to an otherwise uncycled city. Natural cycles go like this: humans throw out veggie scraps and stale bread, chickens peck at them, feeding themselves and aerating the earth, flies and larvae dig into chicken poop , chickens eat the larvae for protein and leave the remaining poop to add rich nitrogen to otherwise depleted compost that’s overdosed on plant carbs. It’s closed loop in the Big City, true chicken poop for the soil.

Urban meat production allows us to overcome the problem that’s overtaken much of the monocultured countryside, where, as Michael Pollan puts it, the over-specialized never-the-twain-shall-meet system of growing either plants or animals took a solution and made two problems of it. That’s a reference to the old days of mixed farming, when farmers grew crops on a field one year, and restored the land’s fertility the next year by putting livestock out on the fields. That system which provided a solution to farmers seeking land fertility and diversified incomes, but was displaced by today’s more common system of buying artificial fertilizers from outside the region and relying entirely on one product for farm survival.

The economics of the alternative city cycle goes like this: instead of paying human waste handlers to haul away garbage, people provide a coop for chickens to produce gourmet fare out of scraps, then pay local butchers instead of garbagemen to handle the results, then use the primo compost to grow veggies. A chicken coop in every garage, a leased car in every parking lot, some version of an old saying goes.

Several cities across North America already allow city livestock, and Toronto will be considering a report to follow suit early next year.

The normalizing of such urban ag practices is helped along by such websites as those sponsored by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. It portrays urban livestock matter-of-factly, with portals to relevant info on the kind of critters known to do well in cities—bees, rabbits, poultry, tilapia, yellow perch. It won’t be long before dwarf goats, ducks and pigeons get added to the mix.

The most adaptable city livestock (think along the lines of the size and manageability of dogs and cats, not bulls) are small in size, can be tended humanely and safely in cramped yards, cause minimal disturbance to neighbors, consume scraps, yield fertilizer as well as meat—thereby modeling agriculture as a net producer, rather than consumer, of solar energy.

As well, Johnson notes, the small scale of backyard animal-raising holds stock problems that fester in factory farms—overuse of antibiotics and cruel suppression of instinctive animal behaviors are only two examples—at bay.

June Komisar, professor of architecture at Ryerson University, and co-author of the much-anticipated Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture, is a vegetarian.

She gulps when I ask about urban meat production, but quickly regains her composure and points out that urban livestock are the norm throughout the Global South, where all manner of farm animals have run of the street. “It’s a trend that’s developing here as well,” she says.

Tending animals is part of gaining respect for food, she argues. “We’re so divorced from sources of our food that it makes people queasy to see the animal they’re going to eat.” A common commitment to mindfulness may bring urban livestockers and animal welfare supporters together on this one. Reducing the distance and time between where an animal lives and where it’s slaughtered is considered crucial to reducing the greatest burden of suffering by farm animals.

Komisar is also inspired by La Finca, a community farm in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the Hispanic group, Nuestras Raices, turns a mixed farm into a mixed life skill, work skill and community development incubator.

Though Toronto is a world leader in many aspects of food policy, it’s quite behind the curve than the U.S. for mixed urban ag, likely the embalmed legacy of Toronto the Good, which still inspires staff to enforce blanket prohibitions rather than adapt with bylaws that identify conditions and safeguards for innovation.

But animals are the mixed in mixed farms, and will inevitably be part of the urban ag mix of tomorrow. Otherwise, Komisar asks, “what will we do with all the hens” once their egg-laying days are over? “Keep them all as pets?”

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