Thursday, July 03, 2008

Urban Farming

Mexico City, one of the world's most populous and polluted metropolitan areas, is working on its own solution to the rapidly rising cost of food: grow your own.

Led by Marcelo Ebrard, the city's leftwing mayor, the local governmenthas decided to expand a "backyard agriculture programme" launched last year to encourage the capital's residents to use all available space to grow crops.

"We want to make people realise that they can use their gardens, yards and roof terraces to grow food," says Adolfo López Villanueva, the programme's director. "With the climate we have in Mexico City you can get between two and three harvests a year and that would help families keep costs down."

The programme was launched last year. But the spiralling cost of food has given new impetus to plans for its expansion and this year officials have decided to increase its scope by at least 50 per cent.

Together with agronomists from a local university, the city's government gives families technical support and agricultural supplies to get their vegetable gardens going. Among the crops available are carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and chillies.

"We get them to provide the land and the labour and we provide everything else," said Mr López Villanueva.

A parallel project, the urban agriculture programme, focuses on communities, encouraging them to make communal land available for more ambitious crops such as corn, a Mexican staple, and fruit. Mr López Villanueva said the target was to involve about 200,000 city residents in the medium term.

Both programmes were launched last year in the hope that adding a dose of agriculture could improve the city's notoriously poor air quality.

But this year's global surge in commodity and grain prices has added to the interest in the programmes. In the past 12 months alone, food costs have increased by about 8 per cent in Mexico compared with less than 5 per cent for the overall consumer price index.

The jump has hit the poorest hardest because they spend a larger proportion of their total income on food. That is particularly worrying in a country such as Mexico, where the minimum daily wage is $5 a day and almost half the 106m population lives below the poverty line, according to government figures.

Mr Ebrard and his team have begun to see their urban agriculture programmes increasingly as a way of combating soaring food prices rather than just pollution. Mr López Villanueva is so optimistic about their prospects that he even believes that participating families could end up generating a surfeit of agricultural produce, which could give rise to farmer-style markets in the city.

"Backyard agriculture could in time become small commercial enterprises," he said. "The ultimate goal is to lower prices for the whole city."

In response, Mexico's federal government, headed by centre-right President Felipe Calderón, late last month announced a series of measures to try to relieve the pressures. These included additional subsidies for agricultural producers as well as a temporary suspension of import tariffs on maize, wheat, sorghum and dried milk.

Source - Financial Times


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