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Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

There’s a new movement afoot that hopes to tackle the scourge of hunger and malnutrition. Known in South Africa as ‘Hacking Sidewalks’, it involves creating edible gardens in public, urban spaces, from which passersby can just help themselves. If that sounds smart, you haven’t yet thought it through. By IVO VEGTER.

“We did it without a strategy document,” an enthusiastic Pam Warhurst told a TED Salon in London. That much, sadly, is patently obvious. The cute idea of planting food gardens on land that would otherwise be unused, paved, or covered in decorative plants might be workable in a quaint little English town, but as a concept it has so many holes it is surprising it got off the ground at all. It is not, I fear, an idea worth spreading.

It has, however, led to the launch of a local implementation of the concept, known as “Hacking Sidewalks”. Modelled on the anti-government, anti-capitalist Anonymous movement, and notable for its puerile but arresting Twitter hashtag, #OpFuckHunger, this group hopes to grow vegetable gardens in Mzansi’s blighted urban spaces.

Now let’s get a few things clear. There is obviously nothing wrong with the idea of greening urban landscapes or establishing small-scale home vegetable gardens. Such projects are quite lovely, and sometimes even provide decent fresh food for domestic consumption or as small-scale production for sale to the public. Besides improving living environments, it is from such small beginnings that great prosperity grows.

There’s also nothing wrong with involving children at schools in growing gardens and producing food, as Warhurst’s group did in their little corner of England. Exposing children to trades and skills of all kinds is to be encouraged. Even kids who expect to land high-falutin’ white-collar careers can benefit from some time spent close to the coal-face of how people’s daily needs are produced.

However, the philosophy of these urban guerrilla gardeners, as they style themselves, goes way beyond mere hobby gardening, small-scale production, or horticultural education. 

They appear to be disillusioned with industrial-scale agriculture, despite its consistent record of improving quality of life and feeding the world’s ever-growing population.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, levels of malnutrition as a share of population in developing countries have declined everywhere between 1990 and 2008. Unlike the target for poverty, which has already been reached, the progress is insufficient to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for halving hunger by 2015. But it is progress. The global malnutrition level of 13% in 2008 compares favourably to levels of 20% in 1990, 28% in 1980 and 37% in 1970.

Food prices have generally declined over the past 50 years, reaching an all-time low between about 2002 and 2004. Since then, a number of factors have caused them to rise by about half. They include diversion of arable land for the subsidised production of biofuel, sharply rising energy costs and the general economic downturn. A number of droughts have also contributed, but droughts are in the nature of things, and are only considered unusual by climate alarmists with short memories.

Even despite the current inflationary pressures on food production, however, today’s food prices compare favourably with prices in earlier decades. In 1980, food was twice as expensive as in 2002-2004; in 1960, it was two-and-a-half times more expensive; and in the early 1970s it spiked to nearly three and a half times the recent minimum.

Malnutrition levels rose in 2009 but declined again in 2010, the latest year for which I could find data, so there does not yet appear to be reason for undue alarm that the long-term downward trend will suffer a significant reversal.

This record of progress casts grave doubt on the notion that growing food at industrial scales on commercial farms has in some way failed, or has caused any particular problems that can be solved by growing food for free consumption in urban public spaces.

Urban gardens certainly can improve living conditions. In fact, Gareth Ackerman, chairman of Pick n Pay, recently implicated the growth of social grants in the decline of subsistence farming and localised food production. However, subsistence farming is generally a private business. It is only once you make your garden on a sidewalk or other public space that you run into serious challenges.

The most obvious is the “tragedy of the commons”, first identified by Garrett Hardin in an article published in Science magazine more than 40 years ago. If everyone is free to harvest the crops grown on a piece of land, there is a powerful incentive to be the one who raids first, raids fast and raids often. If you want a recent example exemplifying the tragedy of the commons, think how super-trawlers go after depleted fish stocks and catch annual quotas in mere days. 

If you don’t exploit the common resource kindly provided by some soft-headed socialist, someone else will. Besides gaining free vegetables – provided you didn’t raid unripe vegetables in your rush to forestall raiding rivals – you stand to make an unearned profit by selling “your” crops at a market stall down the street. 

If everyone around such a public food garden is well-off, its planters might prove to be fortunate, and the garden might remain safe. But in a society where poverty, homelessness and unemployment is relatively common, as it is in South Africa, the appeal of over-exploiting public commons should not be underestimated. It might break your heart that facilities established for the public good get so rudely treated by what is doubtless a small minority, but that’s life. That’s why we protect private property – by force, if required. Not everyone is a thief, but a few among us are anti-social or desperate enough (or both) to steal.

There are other problems with sidewalk gardens. Their proponents rail against “factory-produced” food “laden with toxic chemicals”, but as it happens, large agriculture operations and food retailers operate under far stricter health and safety rules with much better quality-control processes. 

Even if there weren’t regulatory penalties for producing food “laden with toxic chemicals” (seriously, what kind of paranoiac writes this stuff?), there are legal risks associated with adverse health impacts. If you get sick, it is far easier to sue a big company with a highly visible brand that it needs to protect from scandal, than it is to win compensation from some guy who grows spinach in the flower bed outside his picket fence. 

One anyway can’t know whether that guy uses nasty pesticides, or has tested his soil for high lead content, which would be a problem for leafy greens. And even if the guy is sufficiently knowledgeable and responsible, how does one protect public crops from passersby, whether animal, human or mechanical? 

Frankly, if one is as neurotic of disposition as the “toxic” line suggests, there is far more reason to be nervous about eating food from artisanal urban gardens than about buying it from a supermarket.

Finally, there is a reason why large-scale production by specialist companies is how we usually produce what we need. A woodworker might make a splendid-looking coffee table, but few have the capacity or ambition to compete with your uncle in the furniture business. A knitter might make a lovely sweater, but can she produce them at R99 each, and buy two get one free?

It doesn’t matter how you dress it up. Romanticise urban gardeners with tough-sounding names like “agriterrorist”, “pavement pimp”, “sidewalk hacker” or “guerrilla gardener”. Whatever you call them, they’re just hobbyists. Lovely hobby though it may be, they will feed only their own souls and serve the fancies of the fashionable urban elite around them. If they’re lucky. If not, they’ll likely have had a serious rethink about the failures of socialism by the time the first harvest is ripe.

Small-scale, artisanal skills aren’t about to overthrow the industrial-scale production that has served the world’s growing population so well in providing nutritional food at low prices. If you think so, and you want to solve the world’s problems, you might want to draw up a strategy document, after all. If you find that it includes the phrase, “Free food will change the rules,” burn it. The ash will have more value as fertiliser. DM


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