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Monday, August 28, 2017

Can Urban Farming Save Us from Climate Change?

Growing and eating local produce has many benefits. You know where your produce was grown and what agricultural methods were used. The produce is fresher so the vitamin content and health value is higher and the vegetables can last longer than store bought varieties. A small caveat here: many varieties for sale in grocery stores are selected and grown for their shelf life often at the expense of taste or nutritional content. At the same time, certain varieties or types of vegetables that are grown in community gardens or urban farms are rarely found in grocery stores, so when we eat locally grown produce, we get to enjoy certain vegetables or varieties we wouldn't otherwise: Kohlrabi? Lacinato Kale?


The 'Food Miles' or the transportation costs of shipping produce long distances is avoided with urban agriculture. There has been much debate and some research about how true that is with some research even showing that grocery chains do better with the Food Miles metric than farmers markets .


The local produce grown in community gardens have additional social benefits which add value that is often not calculated. An excellent article describing the Bottoms Up Community Garden in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood in Oakland, CA points out the community organizing power of community gardens. Many of the posts in this blog also point out benefits that are not usually calculated when doing cost/ benefit comparisons of local produce grown in community gardens as compared to produce farmed in a distant location.


It is well established that dense cities can only produce a very small percentage of their food needs within the confines of the city so there has to be a mix of locally grown and trucked in food in our diets. However, a recent article in National Geographic Magazine, September 2017, "A Tiny Country Feeds the World" by Frank Viviano, highlights intensive agriculture in the Netherlands which is about the size of the state of Maryland yet produces the second highest food export value in the world after the USA. Much of this is done using greenhouses and the latest technology to minimize water use and produce higher amounts per acre than other countries. They have created what they call Food Valley where the latest research on agriculture at Wageningen University and Research is combined with entrepreneurship to grow more food and share the technological advances with the world, much the same as the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley.  It seems that the calculus is constantly changing and improvements in materials and methods used research and technology, I believe, keep shifting the needle toward urban agriculture producing larger percentages of our food using less inputs.


So does Urban Agriculture have the ability to impact climate change? A recent article says no. This is true at the moment but with the technological changes happening at a feverish pace that may change sooner than later. Energy use for transportation, heating and cooling, manufacturing and housing play a big role in greenhouse gas emissions so improvements must be made in those areas as well. The agricultural sector including large and small farms and urban farms will have to help as well. I believe urban farms and community gardens will contribute to slowing down global warming and impacting climate change and in fact lead the way in some cases. The social benefits of community gardening will also be an important piece of the puzzle of reversing climate change.  



Monday, May 22, 2017

Community Gardens and Donald Trump

Two terms that should never be included in the same sentence, Community Gardens and Donald Trump. As DT's budget proposals are being released and analysts have had the opportunity to evaluate and understand the fine print in the federal budget, there is a link between the proposed budget and Community Gardens. In New York City, the GreenThumb program is and for 40 years has been funded by federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). By some estimates as much as 43% of GreenThumb's funding comes from CDBG. The budget does not include funding for CDBG.


CDBG funds have been a mechanism for congress and the federal government to allocate funds to communities of all sizes for programs to improve the lives of residents. There are restrictions and formulas about how the funds can be used, they are supposed to be used for areas that fall below a certain income level. This made this type of funding a perfect match for most community gardens in NYC as the gardens were clustered primarily in low income, minority majority neighborhoods. The CDBG eligible neighborhoods change over time as gentrification takes over in a neighborhood but in NYC, the lion's share of community gardens qualified for materials, plants and technical and community organizing advice which helped most gardens thrive and grow.


The CDBG program was championed by Democratic and urban congress members as a way to channel funding to their constituents. Republican representatives have generally opposed this program as adding to bloated government programs. This program and many others that provide support to low income Americans are all targeted for elimination by Republicans. So we cannot just blame DT but he definitely supports the plan to do away with the CDBG program.


What will this mean? Potentially a loss of $1 million or more of support for GreenThumb, the 600 NYC community gardens, 10,000 to 20,000 community gardeners and hundred of thousands of visitors who take part in educational programs, community events or who enjoy the produce, quietude or the environmental benefits of community gardens.

We cannot let this happen.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Community Gardening and Climate Change

Community Gardens have both an effect on Climate Change and are affected by Climate Change. With all the recent chatter about Climate Change and all of the deniers that now seem to be running the government, I thought it might be worthwhile discussing the connection between community gardens and climate change.
Several of the causes and manifestations of Climate Change could have serious consequences for community gardens including higher CO2 levels, warmer temperatures, higher or lower than normal precipitation and severe or unusual weather events.
Higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is one of the major causes of the greenhouse effect which generally raises average yearly temperatures. Another effect of higher CO2 levels, faster plant growth, has both a positive and negative effect on plants. A study published in 2012 showed that trees in New York City grew significantly faster in the urban environment than in rural areas.  Now this is true for above ground biomass but at the same time the roots grow more slowly and the wood produced by the faster growing trees is a weaker wood. Warmer temperatures particularly at night accounted for some part of the faster growth. Both higher CO2 levels and higher temperatures are factors in the Heat Island Effect experienced in urban areas and could be looked at as both cause and effect of climate change.


Community gardens can help reduce the Heat Island effect as the temperature can be several degrees cooler in a community garden than on the asphalt covered streets and concrete sidewalks just outside of the garden. This phenomena of faster plant growth can in the case of vegetables grown in community gardens (or even on farms) results in increased yields but at the expense of lower nutrient content.
Higher temperatures can mean a greater need for irrigation as plants will dry out more quickly. Weeds can also grow faster which can create additional weeding work and can stunt the growth of the plants we want to grow. Some pests can also thrive in the higher temperatures or have an additional generation during the growing season. Community Gardeners can also be impacted by higher temperatures as the elderly, those with compromised immune systems or with chronic diseases are compromised during heat waves or just can't be out in the heat.
Most of the United States has experienced drought in the last decade, in some cases longer. Scientists are making the connection between drought and climate change particularly instances of severe drought. Drought conditions can put stresses on plants causing decreased yields or pest problems. In drought situations, increased watering or irrigation can put extra pressure on the local water supply. In community gardens, the use of water conservation techniques helps alleviate drought stresses. So most community gardens have adapted to drought conditions by using drought tolerant plants, mulch, compost, drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting . Unfortunately rainwater harvesting can't help very much if it doesn't rain at all.
A number of gardens in NYC know first hand the effects of severe and unusual weather events. The community gardens that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy needed time, labor, materials and money to rebuild after being flooded by contaminated water or destroyed by falling tree limbs or complete trees. Sandy happened in 2012 and the community gardeners are still working toward making their gardens resilient. A good source of techniques to help make a community garden is this resilient community garden manual  .


Community Gardening and community gardeners have a very real symbiotic relationship with climate change. The manifestations of climate change can have serious impacts on the ability of community gardens to survive. Community gardeners, just by being stewards of green spaces that help to mitigate climate change, find ourselves on the front lines as part of the solution that might just put the brakes on climate change.