Exploring New Frontiers in Urban Agriculture

The ongoing global trends of rapid urbanisation and decreasing land availability for agricultural practices have called the resilience of national food systems into question. As a result, governments across the world have focused on diversifying the approaches to strengthening national food security.

One such approach that has been gaining attention is urban or peri-urban agriculture. The concept of urban farming has long been practised in urbanised countries such as Singapore and the US. The practice has demonstrated tangible benefits in these countries, such as improving the availability and accessibility of nutritious food for local communities, while also decreasing the energy footprint required to transport and store agricultural products.

The benefits of urban agriculture extend beyond improving food security and environmental sustainability. Community-run farms help increase social interaction and communication in local communities too. Urban farms with a commercial element can also develop human capital and generate income for individuals and communities in the long run.

However, the concept still has yet to be widely embraced in Malaysia, even though 77% of our population live in urban areas. Previous campaigns such as the 2005 Bumi Hijau may have succeeded in increasing the number of participants and locations for urban agriculture, but the benefits were short-lived because the campaigns lacked guidelines on best agricultural practices and training for farmers.

It has only been in the last decade that policymakers have realised the immense potential of urban agriculture. For example, the National Agro-Food Policy 2011 emphasised employing new types of dynamic technologies which are appropriate for use in limited and narrow spaces such as urban and peri-urban areas.

More recently, the Penjana stimulus package highlighted the relevance of urban agriculture through its allocation of RM10 million for the Urban Farming Project. This allocation coincides with renewed public interest in urban farming, as more urbanites spend time at home, owing to the Covid-19 Movement Control Order (MCO) restrictions and look for ways to reduce the cost of living.

The time is right for the government to take on a sustained effort to promote urban agriculture. Our experiences with jumpstarting the local urban agriculture movement prove that an accommodating policy framework needs to be created for the movement to thrive.

The development of such a framework should be one of the priorities of the recently established Cabinet Committee on National Food Security Policy. Various city and municipal councils should also be engaged in developing the framework, as they will be instrumental in driving the success of urban farming.

The good news is that the framework does not need to be planned from scratch; similar guidelines have been developed by PLANMalaysia in 2013 for green neighbourhood development initiatives. However, those guidelines did not gain the necessary traction and were eventually adopted by only a handful of local councils. Policymakers can also adopt several successful best practices from other countries into the eventual framework.

There are three issues that the Malaysian urban agriculture policy framework should address. First, there should be formal acceptance for the use of land for urban agriculture. This includes enhancing access to vacant open urban spaces through the planning system and increasing tenure for land gazetted for urban agriculture. Gazetted land will also need to be supported by the corresponding regulations, such as proper irrigation requirements and waste disposal services, to reduce the health and environmental risks associated with urban agriculture.

Second, urban farmers need to be given access to training, technical advice, and financial support. Young adults, housewives and the elderly make up a large number of aspiring local urban farmers, all of whom possess no formal experience in farming. In the United States, community-based programs like the Missoula Urban Demonstration (MUD) Project support community gardening by securing tools, transport, financial assistance and other farming needs to create an interactive and sustainable community farming landscape.

Beyond community farms, there are also cutting-edge technologies being deployed for commercial urban farming. Local private companies like CityFarm and Sunway FutureX are banking on vertical farming for future food security, as it is a sustainable way to grow plants without requiring large pieces of land.

Policymakers should turn to our neighbour Singapore as a benchmark for commercial urban farming. Large scale projects such as Sky Greens – the world’s first low carbon, hydraulic driven vertical farm – were made possible with seed funds by the Singaporean government. The government also constantly surveys and designates suitable buildings which can accommodate commercial rooftop and vertical farms.

Third, an effective urban farming ecosystem has to be set up. This entails establishing networking platforms for agricultural producers to connect with potential distributors and retailers. Partnerships with food banks and local social enterprises like PichaEats and Masala Wheels could be advantageous when it comes to food storage and distribution. In addition, universities that offer courses on agriculture should be actively involved in training and updating the community on the latest developments in urban farming.

With national food security in the spotlight once more, owing to the pandemic, it is imperative look for sustainable and innovative approaches to diversifying our sources of food. Urban agriculture is a proven method for bolstering food security, and it is crucial that the government and other stakeholders start developing a robust urban farming ecosystem now.

This article was originally published on March 1, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

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  • March 1, 2021
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