Sunday, February 11, 2007

Urban/Suburban/Rural Food

In a previous post, I posed the question: Is there such a thing as urban food and rural food, or even suburban food? The distinction between the three major types of built environment are not normally applied to food, but I consider this an interesting question and an important distinction to make.

Before I go any further, I should admit my bias against most things suburban. The suburbs were conceived as a hybrid form with "the best of city life combined with the ease of rural living" which has mutated into a form of human settlement than contains few of the good qualities of the urban or the rural. It has evolved a distinct personality, culture and economy, which has infected both the urban and the rural, damaging many of the positive qualities of both. Many of us live a suburban lifestyle, regardless of the nature of the built environment that surrounds us. I could go on and on about this, but it is probably more useful to shift my focus to food.

In trying to define the difference between urban, suburban and rural food, I think that it is easiest to start with suburban food because it forms the dominant food system of the world today. Most of what we, in the wealthy regions of the world, eat is suburban food, and much of the rest of the world depends heavily on suburban food systems to provide their basic diet. If a multi-national corporation or large company was involved in growing, processing or selling the food, if it has a brand, or if it has been advertised on TV, then it is probably suburban food. Only a small portion of the money spent on suburban food goes to the people who produced, harvested and processed it. Suburban food relies on huge amounts of fossil fuels and the flow of nutrients, resources, wealth and responsibility is almost always linear. It benefits from global distribution networks, existing 'free trade' rules, uniformity, commodities and an unaware consumer. The global economy depends on the dominance of suburban food, but the local economy is usually degraded by suburban food systems.

Rural food is radically different as it is much more about homesteading and self-sufficiency. John Seymour was heavily involved in promoting rural food systems, as were Helen and Scott Nearing, and all who have followed their examples by 'going back to the land' have tried to immerse themselves in rural food. Millions of subsistence farmers throughout the world exist almost entirely within a rural food system, being largely self-reliant but perhaps selling surplus food or cash crops in exchange for things they cannot produce. Rural food has existed for thousands of years and functions for the most part outside of a money economy. Some of the surplus rural food may find its way into the suburban food system, but if the farmer produces mostly cash crops and purchases most of what they need, then they are no longer within the rural food system. Rural food systems keep the countryside populated, supply bulk goods and energy, are highly efficient at recycling nutrients and resources, and they provide people with an independence and security that they will not find in a suburban food system. When rural food systems fail, people tend to migrate to the cities, often becoming the urban poor requiring support or aid.

So, what is urban food? If you remove suburban and rural food, what is left? While suburban food is based on linear systems dominated by corporate interests, and rural food is based on self-sufficiency gained through working within natural systems, I believe that urban food is based on complex cyclical systems and on societal interconnectivity. As towns and cities formed throughout history, complex networks of personal interrelationships and specialization were established to supply staple foods as well as speciality and processed foods. Urban food systems are usually the primary driving force behind the local economy, cycling wealth, creating a diversity of livelihoods and employment and maintaining the economic viability of the city and surrounding region. Independent urban regions (either smaller towns or larger cities) require urban food systems that recycle nutrients and energy in a sustainable way if they are to thrive over an extended period of time.

Contemporary examples of urban food systems would include farmers' markets, community supported agriculture projects, independent restaurants, local grocery stores, bakeries and other local food processors. But it is urban agriculture systems, including small scale self-production, that have the most prominent role in establishing and maintaining urban food systems. Growing food within the urban area provides the most effective basis for nutrient cycling, for increasing local economic benefit and for the use of otherwise wasted resources. Urban food systems can be found anywhere from small hinterland towns to dense urban neighbourhoods, and provide for greater food security and develop a community resilience that would otherwise be unattainable.

There are of course a lot of overlaps and grey areas in this tripartite division of our food systems. For example, it is common for surplus food from a subsistence farmer in Central America, to end up as a commodity in the suburban food supply chains, and to then be purchased as a basic ingredient by a local bakery in Dublin. Applying an accurate label to any given food product or system is not so important. But it is important to recognise the difference and to work to reduce the amount of suburban food that we eat and to strengthen both the urban and the rural food systems.

1 comment:

md said...

This is fascinating.

Are you familiar with the notion of the "transect" in new urbanism? This has similarities, although the transect tends to ignore the suburban and seeks to categorize a "natural" progression of built forms from the intense urban to the untouched rural.

It's about cities but it maps an idealized connection between the city and the farm (from a city making point of view, not a food making one.)

Or... Are you an "urbanist." You may already be familair with this.

There is a symbiotic (and historic) realtionship between the urban and rural that is far more poetic than the construct of the suburban.