I ran into this interesting article from the Sustainable Business Forum discussing the grand potential of urban agriculture as a way to social change. From increasing social capital, offering commercial opportunities, and limiting food travel miles, urban agriculture is presented as a strategy that is capable of addressing many of the ills of our unsustainable society and the answer to urban redevelopment. This is all well and good, but this piece falls into a well-worn path: that of the local trap.
Born and Purcell give a series of warnings concerned with the tendency of some progressive planners and activists to equate localism (in the case of this particular paper they look explicitly at food systems planning) with progressive social outcomes. We hear varied manifestations of this thinking constantly. The assumption that buying "local" is inherently more sustainable (even though lifecycle and transportation costs are often misestimated), that local businesses are somehow more progressive (without examining actual labor practices of business), and that spending locally will "keep money in the region" (ignoring the distribution of said economic resources) are all "local trap" arguments that equate a particular scale of action (the local) with a set of desired political outcomes, such as GHG mitigation, fairer wage and labor practices, local economic development.
This urban agriculture piece follows in this proud tradition of equating a particular scale of operation, in this case looking at urban agriculture, with a series of political and economic goals that may not actually be addressed by focusing on local level intervention or, in this case, encouraging urban agriculture. For example, urban agriculture is supposed to strengthen social capital by reconnecting people with their food and strengthening community and also battle food insecurity by "lowering reliance of the market". Besides the utter lack of proof or empirics to back these statements, the author does not offer any semblance of a causal chain between these results and increasing urban agriculture or offers even a tentative strategy as to how these things could occur. Not to mention the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with people not being directly involved in the growing and harvesting of their food (a HUGE normative assumption). These contradictions and gaps become even more evident when you see the second recommendation is to encourage commercial scale urban agriculture as a way to legitimate urban agriculture interventions. So, something that is somehow supposed to liberate people from the "market forces" that dominate food will be helped by...wait for it...opening up urban agriculture to the market by commercializing operations.
Look, I have no real issue with expanding urban agriculture. I think there are spaces and places where urban agriculture holds real opportunities for folks. A great example of this is Will Allen's Growing Power. Growing Power seeks to provide jobs to low-income folks, act as a land bank for re-use of currently vacant or blighted land, and open up opportunities for people to connect with food in a new way. But Growing Power is explicit in its mission. It stands as an organization dedicated to community re-development. Urban agriculture, in this sense, is a strategy for the purpose of community development goals. Urban agriculture itself is not the answer. An industrial scale urban agriculture operation can still reproduce all of the messed up ecological and social relations that we ascribe to non-local agricultural producers and distribution chains. Simply moving the operations from Smithfield, NC to Portland, OR doesn't really change anything if the practices remain polluting and exploitive.
I'm a believer in the potential of many sustainability strategies and schemes to fundamentally transform the relationship we have between ourselves and our surrounding environment and socioeconomic relations. But simply shouting,"Urban Agriculture!" or, "Buy Local!", or my all-time favorite, "Think Glocally" doesn't actually give us any particular strategy to actually transform these relations. If you find GHG emissions to be important, fair wages to be vital to a functioning city, and re-invigorating culinary practices as a way to better connect people, then we should pursue strategies that actually meet those goals and to figure out what scales are appropriate to act those out. It is entirely possible that reconnecting people to a culinary tradition or relationship with food may involve going to a national chain grocery store and holding cooking classes. Maybe we should advocate for national minimum wage reform to guarantee a fair wage for all of our workers. My point is this...if you want greater social equity, better labor relations, a more sustainable food system, then you should seriously look at strategies to reach those specific goals and recognizing that attacking these issues requires actions at multiple scales, not just the local.
As always, keep it surly. And please, please, please stop recommending "going local" as a strategy to solve societal ills. Free yourselves from the local trap.