Guiding the Urban Agricultural Donkey

Wednesday, 1 July, 2009 - 09:23

If we seriously want to support urban agriculture so that it can help achieve a revised land redistribution target, we need to find innovative ways to obtain and keep land in and around urban areas for agricultural activity. We need to find ways to guide urban agricultural development into areas where we want farming to take place and guide residential, business, industrial and other development into other areas where we want future urban development to take place

The South African government has set itself the target of redistributing 30% of South Africa’s commercial farming land to black farmers by 2014. So far it has only achieved just over 4%.

The easiest way to quickly reach the 30% target would be for government to find large amounts of cheap, unproductive peripheral land and allocate this to a few people. This land could be in the middle of the arid Karoo or the Northern Cape.

However, many questions would need to be asked if such an approach was followed. Is this land suitable for significant agricultural activity; would the number of people allocated the land be able to make a decent living from it; where would the produce be sold; do the beneficiaries have adequate skills to use the land effectively?

Perhaps the 30% land redistribution target needs adjustment. A more appropriate land redistribution target should not look at how many hectares of land have been redistributed, but should rather focus on how many beneficiaries are able to make a productive living from land they receive and contribute to the development of the country’s economy. The size of the land is of secondary importance.

Agriculture closer to and within urban areas (called urban agriculture) provides an additional overlooked opportunity to address this revised target of increasing the number of productive farmers. Urban agriculture includes household gardening, community gardens, and small- to medium-scale farming activities for commercial, subsistence and/or recreational purposes.

There are very few programmes which cater specifically for urban agriculture. However the Department of Land Affairs’ commonage programme is the one that is of relevance to urban agriculture. Within the Eastern Cape, the Siyazondla programme (with the provision of seedlings to households), and the Siyakhula programme (with assistance to gardening projects of between one and 49 hectares) provide examples of government programmes which can assist urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture brings with it many advantages: processed urban solid and liquid waste can be used as nutrients and compost to improve soil fertility and productivity; food production and markets can be brought closer together, reducing travel costs and the need for middle agents; more varied crops can be grown to meet urban market tastes; urban farmers can still have access to urban amenities like schools and recreation facilities; and it is easier to set up and maintain value-added production activities like canning, packaging, drying, and other food processing activities in urban areas.

Urban agriculture also provides numerous environmental benefits such as: energy consumption on transport can be reduced, thereby also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating against climate change; organic agricultural practices can be used in order to reduce the reliance on fossil fuel-based fertilisers; air temperatures and air pollution levels within urban areas can be reduced as urban agricultural land functions as green lungs for the city; and more wilderness areas can be conserved as pressure for agricultural activity to expand into these areas is reduced.

Urban agriculture can be used to both help grow the local economy and contribute towards reducing poverty. As Goran Tannerfeldt and Per Ljung state in their book More Urban, Less Poor, “urban agriculture is just a small share of total agricultural production, but it can make a significant contribution to livelihood and health of many urban poor”.
The policy issue is to facilitate, i.e. support, urban agriculture for the poor. This is a conclusion borne of years of experience working with the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) in many parts of the world.

One of the main problems preventing the emergence of urban agriculture becoming widespread is the way that the urban land market functions at the moment. Most land owners on the edge of or in urban areas which is suitable for urban agriculture want to make money from selling or developing the land. Farmers are usually unable to pay the price that non-agricultural land users are prepared to pay for the land with the result that agricultural activity is pushed further away from urban areas.

Municipalities face the same market forces when it comes to the use of commonage and other public open space for urban agriculture. There is no incentive for urban farmers to invest in the property they own or rent as there is always the threat that some developer will come and offer a land price the farmer or municipality cannot refuse.

If as a country we seriously want to support urban agriculture so that it can help achieve a revised land redistribution target, we need to find innovative ways to obtain and keep land in and around urban areas for agricultural activity. We need to find ways to guide urban agricultural development into areas where we want farming to take place and guide residential, business, industrial and other development into other areas where we want future urban development to take place.

The land market, like a donkey, operates according to its own rules. If a donkey owner wants to encourage a donkey to move in a certain direction, there are four things that the owner can do:
a) build a fence so that the donkey can only move in certain directions;
b) offer the donkey a carrot to move in a certain direction;
c) hit the donkey with a stick when it goes in the wrong direction; or
d) talk nicely to the donkey and educate it on the need to move in the desirable direction.
There are similar techniques that government could follow to guide urban agricultural activity into certain areas.

Government could:

  • invest in and develop the physical environment so that it supports urban agriculture in certain areas (‘fence’ approach);
  • entice, encourage, induce and incentivise land owners to undertake urban agriculture in certain areas (‘carrot’ approach);
  • restrict, regulate, control, and discipline land owners so that they are forced to undertake urban agricultural activities in certain areas (‘stick’ approach); and
  • pursue and attempt to convince land owners to undertake urban agriculture in certain areas by raising their awareness and knowledge of why urban agriculture is important ( ‘talk’ approach).

Urban farming approaches

The following list provides examples of the various approaches to get us thinking about how to guide this urban agricultural ‘donkey’. Note that some of the examples have elements of different approaches but have been allocated to one category for simplicity.

‘Fence’ examples

  • Plan and invest in new public transport, and bulk/connector infrastructure along certain corridors leading out of the city where urban settlement is planned to go, so that the ‘wedges’ in between these corridors can be developed for urban agriculture.
  • Plan, invest in and develop new urban villages, spatially separate but functionally linked to larger urban areas through public transport, water, sewerage, telecommunication and other infrastructure connections. Urban agriculture can occur around these villages.
  • Invest in targeted infrastructure projects in city areas where urban agriculture is to be promoted, for example: support solid waste composting, re-use of sewerage waste water, and physically secure agricultural lands, so that urban agriculture is more profitable in these areas.
  • Establish new urban agricultural land holding/banking agencies to buy land and lease it out or sell it on to urban farmers. Anticipate and plan for where future urban agricultural land should be located and buy this land at today’s agricultural land market prices. Sell and/or lease this land at cheaper prices to potential urban farmers.

‘Carrot’ examples

  • Create or promote the use of existing state subsidy mechanisms (like the commonage subsidy) which potential urban agricultural projects can access to buy urban land at market prices.
  • Tax urban agricultural land at a lower rate than other urban land users.
  • Reduce estate taxes on urban agricultural land so heirs to property do not sell the land to non-farm users for pay off ‘death’ taxes.
  • Get government (or non-profit organisations) to exercise pre-emptive rights to buy development rights when land owners in urban agricultural areas put their property on the market. The buyers of this land then can only use the land for agricultural purposes.
  • Create a mechanism where land owners can ‘donate’ in perpetuity their development rights (i.e. rights to develop at higher density on the land) to a non-government organisation or body. The owners of the land still retain ownership of the land, but the land can only be used for urban agricultural activity. The non-government body monitors that the land is used for agricultural activities.
  • Allow for land owners in urban agricultural areas to create voluntary agricultural districts or conservatories, which are registered with the local nature conservation authority. Members (land owners) from the conservatory then voluntarily manage the conservatory according to guidelines developed by the members.

‘Stick’ examples

  • Establish an urban edge boundary that prevents urban development occurring in areas where urban agriculture is to be encouraged, while at the same time making sure there is space in other areas where urban development will be allowed.
  • Zone land earmarked for long-term urban farming activity as an agricultural zone.
  • Establish land sub-division regulations which, for example, prevent land from being sub- divided below a given minimum plot size.
  • Create rules whereby any new property developer who wants to build higher income or commercial/industrial developments is required to also purchase (or at least contribute towards the subsidised purchase) of land or development rights that is to be used for urban agriculture.

’Talk’ examples

  • • Educate municipalities, communities, land owners, consumers and others on the importance of urban farming so that people understand the need for urban agriculture and the actions suggested above are implemented.

If land markets are left as ‘business as usual’, market forces will continue to push agricultural activity into the periphery and the opportunities for and benefits of urban agriculture will be lost. The Department of Land Affairs, in consultation with other departments (e.g. the Department of Human Settlements), the community, property owners and other role-players need to urgently review governments land redistribution target and start exploring how urban land can be secured and held for agricultural purposes now and into the future.

Khuzwayo W (2008) ‘Land affairs must increase capacity to use funds, says Plaas’, Business Report (September 7, 2008)
Tannerfeldt G and Ljung P (2006) More Urban, Less Poor: An Introduction to Urban Development and Management, London: Earthscan.

Ronald Eglin is a Senior Projects Co-ordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article was first published in the June-July 2009 edition of The Transformer and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.

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