Is Urban Agriculture a Waste of Resources?

This past weekend while manning the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance booth at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland a guy came up to us with a question. He seemed to have a point to prove and his point was that urban agriculture was a waste of resources particularly around the topic of water. Actually his point was specific to water. Was using city water on our urban farm more wasteful than agricultural water which he argued was just pulled straight out of the delta, rivers and wells? No treatment was needed of water for agriculture. In this sense sure, it’s more wasteful to use city water but this is a singular and relatively small issue in regards to resources, even revolving around water.

I used to live in San Luis Obispo when I was in college and the drive through the San Joaquin Valley – the most productive patch of agricultural land in the U.S. – was a twice a week trip for several years. Overhead spray was the preferred method of watering and it usually occurred in the middle of the day when it was the windiest. More water evaporated than actually met the soil to be absorbed. Why conserve water when it’s subsidized and cheap? And the water that did reach the ground collected all of the chemicals that had previously been sprayed and then carried them to the groundwater. This is a far cry from the drip irrigation that I run for 20 minutes every 5 days in the early morning before the sun is up on my sustainably grown garden with soil that actually holds more water than those heavily used ag lands. We are also able to dry farm some of our crops such as artichokes, squash and tomatoes.

But let’s get away from water because there are so many other reasons why urban agriculture needs to be a part of the food conversation. As an organization, the EBUAA, promotes growing organically without the use of even organic pesticides. We take better care of our soil which helps further reduce the need for more water (hoping for an upcoming guest post on this soon). It also allows people to cheaply produce healthy food in communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. It also reduces the amount of energy in the form of fossil fuels to grow and harvest the food because it’s done by hand rather than machinery. Transport of the food is virtually eliminated as well. And a well managed plot of land grown intensively using permaculture can produce enough food for one person in 4,000 square feet while those fields I drove by on my way to school and back were only productive enough to feed one person with 30,000 square feet.

It’s hard to argue that urban agriculture is a waste of resources when compared to industrial agriculture.

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  1. I love it when people have a point to prove as to why what you’re doing isn’t good enough. *sigh*

    Have you seen the movie “Dive” yet? I think you’d very much enjoy it, and I have to admit, every time I see it, I’m given just a little bit more to think about in terms of food production and how much waste is going on around me.

    • I have seen Dive. It’s amazing how much food we waste and I find it even more amazing that they are now locking the dumpsters to ensure that they end up in the landfill rather than allowing people to eat that food. Such a horrible waste.

  2. While watching Dive w/ some friends, I noticed one who had a disgusted look on his face. I asked him what his thoughts/opinions were, he said…it was just beatnik, disgusting, hippies freeloading. WHAT! …needless to say some people are just idiots. Obviously or we wouldn’t live in the world we live in, ya know?

  3. My rebuttal would be that centralizing all effort does seem more efficient for a while, but the problem is it doesn’t scale well. Do you see Google sending all its search results to a single or a few large mainframe computers anymore? No you dont, that would never work. They have hundreds of thousands of tiny machines all over the world. At some point, the only way to scale the food system and get rid of the waste is to better distribute and localize the work. And yes, to say big ag is a better water consumer than small ag is so stupid as to not even merit a rebuttal. Forget about overhead, I still see mile after mile of _flood_ irrigated orchards in the central valley in August, which should be completely illegal.

  4. Is there any chance you’d be interested in writing more about your dry farming techniques on your blog, and/or do you have any resource recommendations? I have been looking for information online and have found very little in terms of how to implement it for urban gardens/farms.


    • Once I get better at it I’ll definitely post about it. So far the tomatoes and squash have been sheer luck and the artichokes naturally do well in our climate.

  5. Industrial agriculture is not water-efficient, as you pointed out. Just because the water used is not potable doesn’t make it a better use of the water.
    Furthermore, nearly everyone who lives on land in urban/suburban environments does some sort of landscaping. There are some people who choose to do entirely unirrigated native landscaping, but despite incentives they are still uncommon, especially where I am in southern CA. Therefore, most people are irrigating *something*. Urban agriculture is, for the most part, much less water intensive than grass, so I would argue that for most people it is actually an exercise in conservation. Additionally, grey water usage is very doable, on some level, for most homeowners. And small-scale agriculture, like backyard growers, are much more likely to use water-saving techniques like heavy mulching and drip-irrigation. Plus all the stuff you said about reducing food miles and increasing access to good and good-for-you food :)

  6. Just to add to what Lily said, if the urban norm is sprinkler irrigated lawn versus drip irrigated vegetables, then backyard gardening is a major water saver. Besides that, the garden produyces food while the lawn produces the need to pollute and use fossil fuel through mowing.

    But another virtue of water-stingy gardening is much improved flavor in fruits and vegetables. Produce that is over irrigated due to availability of cheap subsidized water, even when organically grown in the healthiest soils, will always taste “watery” compared to somewhat drought stressed produce.

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