The role of urban gardens, family gardens and school gardens (Willem Van Cotthem / IRIN / FAO)

For years we have been promoting family gardens (kitchen gardens) and school gardens, not to mention hospital gardens, in the debate on alleviation of hunger and poverty.  We have always insisted on the fact that development aid should concentrate on initiatives to boost food security through family gardens instead of food aid on which the recipients remain dependent. Since the nineties we have shown that community gardens in rural villages, family gardens in refugee camps and school gardens, where people and children grow their own produce, are better off than those who received food from aid organizations at regular intervals.

2007 – Family garden in Smara refugee camp (S.W. Algeria, Sahara desert), where people never before got local fresh food to eat

Locally produced fresh vegetables and fruits play a tremendously important role in the daily diet of all those hungry people in the drylands.  Take for instance the possibility of having a daily portion of vitamins within hand reach.  Imagine the effect of fresh food on malnutrition of the children.  Imagine the feelings of all those women having their own kitchen garden close to the house, with some classical vegetables and a couple of fruit trees.

No wonder that hundreds of publications indicate the success of allotment gardens in periods of food crisis.  See what happened during World War I and II, when so many  families were obliged to produce some food on a piece of land somewhere to stay alive.  In those difficult days allotment gardens were THE solution.  They still exist and become more and more appealing in times of food crisis.

2008-10-25 – Allotment gardens Slotenkouter (Ghent City, Belgium) at the end of the growing season

There was no surprise at all to read, since a few years that is, about a new movement in the cities : guerilla gardening.  Sure, different factors intervene in these urban initiatives, be it environmental factors (embellishing open spaces full of weeds in town) or social ones (poor people growing vegetables on small pieces of barren land in the cities).

Today, some delightful news was published by IRIN :”Liberia: Urban gardens to boost food security” :

“MONROVIA, 19 January 2010 (IRIN) – Farmers are turning to urban gardens as a way to boost food security in Liberia’s Montserrado County, where just one percent of residents grow their own produce today compared to 70 percent before the war.

………………

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is targeting 5,000 urban residents of Montserrado, Bomi, Grand Bassa, Bong and Margibi counties, to encourage them to start market gardens or increase the amount of fruit and vegetables they grow on their farms. Participants had to have access to tools and some land.  The aim is to improve food security and nutritional status while boosting incomes, said project coordinator Albert Kpassawah. Participants told IRIN they plant hot peppers, cabbage, calla, tomatoes, onions, beans and ground nuts. Health and nutrition experts in Liberia say increasing fruit, vegetables and protein in people’s diets is vital to reducing chronic malnutrition, which currently affects 45 percent of under-fives nationwide.

………………………..

FAO assists primarily by providing seeds and training in techniques such as conserving rainwater and composting. The organization does not provide fertilizer, insecticides or tools – a concern to some participants. “You cannot grow cabbage without insecticide. It doesn’t work,” Anthony Nackers told IRIN.  Vermin, insects and poor storage destroy 60 percent of Liberia’s annual harvest, according to FAO.  And many of the most vulnerable city-dwellers – those with no access to land – cannot participate at all, FAO’s Kpassawah pointed out. But he said he hopes the project’s benefits will spread beyond immediate participants, since all who take part are encouraged to pass on their training to relatives, neighbours and friends.  And there is ample scope to expand techniques learned from cities to rural areas, he pointed out. Just one-third of Liberia’s 660,000 fertile hectares are being cultivated, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

==================

Let us express our sincere hopes that FAO will soon be able to show to all aid organizations that sufficient food production can be secured by the population of any developing country.  What is possible in urban areas of Liberia can be duplicated in any other country.  What can be achieved in urban gardens, can also be done in rural family gardens.  Why should we continue to discuss the alarming problem of those vulnerable children suffering or even starving from chronic malnutrition, if  school gardens can be a good copy of the successful urban gardens in Liberia?

Don’t we underestimate the role container gardening can play in food production (see https://containergardening.wordpress.com) and the pleasure children can find in growing fruit trees and vegetables in plastic bottles.  Pure educational reality !

We count on FAO to take the lead : instead of spending billions on “permanent” food aid, year after year, it would be an unlimited return on investment if only a smaller part would be reserved to immediate needs in times of hunger catastrophes, but the major part spent at the world-wide creation of urban and rural family gardens.

We remain in FAO’s save hands. We wonder what keeps United Nations to envisage a “Global Programme for Food Security” based on the creation of kitchen gardens for the one billion daily hungry people who know that we have this solution in hand.  Let us spend more available resources on “Defense”, the one against hunger and poverty!

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.