Monday, August 18, 2014

Jennifer and the City

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution
Jennifer Cockrall-King
Amherst, New York
ISBN: 978-1-61614-458-6
available as an e-book

I have to say that Canadians have produced a lot of really great books on food and food systems in the last decade or so. And Jennifer Cockrall-King has taken her place in the ranks of Canadian food writers.
The book opens with a (mercifully) brief overview of the modern food system that focuses on the varied challenges the industrial food system faces; from climate change to peak oil and peak water. JCK then gets into the meat of the book, a tour of urban agriculture in France, the UK, the US, Canada, and ending up with two tours of Cuba. Each section (broken down by city) opens with some history of the city, farm, or person being visited. From the perpetuation of urban agriculture through the history of Paris, to a brief and inspiring bio of Will Allen, JCK offers us something special about her visit.
In Paris, for example, she opens with an anecdote about seeing a police station, “an excellent example of 1970s Brutalist architecture, designed to intimidate and terrorize,” where someone had planted grapevines in the street-level window wells. She “burst out laughing at the juxtaposition of these vines struggling to soften the intentional harshness of this impersonal, aggression-inspired building. Neither the vines' efforts nor the efforts of the gardener who planted them were in vain. The vines were winning.”
Because the book is meant to be inspiring rather than depressing, these are the stories she tells; stories where “the vines [are] winning.” And it's nice, as a Canadian, to read of cities here as well. So many books concentrate on what's happening in the US—understandable, as the potential market there is ten times larger than here in Canada. But Canada is at the forefront of thinking about food and feeding people. From Graham Riches work on the birth of food banks and his prescience on how they would become part of the fabric of feeding people as the social safety net here is slowly hacked apart, to Fraser and Rimas' Empires of Food showing how agricultural production forms the basis of civilization and empire (and the inevitable collapse of both), to Lorraine Johnson's City Farmer: Adventures in Food Growing which offers up the polite Canadian way of urban agriculture (as opposed to Novella Carpenter's more guerilla approach in Oakland). So JCK's overview of the urban ag movement in Vancouver and Toronto is welcome.
Of course, she does refer to Vancouver as being on Canada's “Left Coast,” a stereotype we could probably do without. She does live in my old home town (Edmonton, Alberta), in a province where politics have been silenced by big oil money, and the only movement is on the right to make the province even more of an American colony. To anyone coming from a petro-state, British Columbia's politics would look crazy. But all it means is that politics still matters out here, people still care.
And they care about food. Vancouver's large Asian and Indian communities have invigorated both the flavour palette and the urban agriculture movement. The same has happened in Toronto, which is fitting as the cities are both the largest in Canada, and the most unaffordable. So there is more pressure to think about, and get involved in, urban agriculture.
After her developed-world tour, Jennifer Cockrall-King ends up in Cuba, the epicentre of post-peak thinking and a world leader in agro-ecological research. JCK's visits to Cuba supports much of what I said in an earlier post (Cuba, Si!). Cuba is not perfect, but they are the essential test-bed for a post-consumerist, post-oil world. In Cuba, rationing mixed with local free-market farmer's markets provide a limited but universally accessible food system.Interestingly, a system that worked well in the UK during and after the Second World War. Cuba also upends our traditional thinking about social status and pay; top-level farmers earn considerably more than “white collar” professionals. Here in Canada, of course, the easiest way for a farmer to become a millionaire is to start farming with two million dollars. You'll have a million soon enough.
Jennifer Cockrall-King's book is an excellent overview of the variety of approaches to urban agriculture in the developed world. From the unbroken (though badly damaged) historic production systems of Paris, to the allotment garden and the memory of the Victory Gardens of the Second World War in the UK, and the North American experiments, we see everything from guerilla gardeners to the entrepreneurs and SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) urban farming movement. Most are farming for love, more than expected farm for money, and all of them bring an element of hope to the people around them. And, slowly, all are helping restore the agricultural knowledge-base we're going to need in the not-so-distant future.

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