Urban Agriculture’s Growing Right Wing


Towards an agenda for Green Labour.

Urban Agriculture’s Growing Right Wing

Allotments in Leith, Edinburgh.

Of the many political movements to have sprung up over the past century, none have encompassed such a diverse range of beliefs as urban agriculture. Movements have taken Green, liberal, communitarian – even libertarian – forms, at once a testament to the movement’s flexibility and its apolitical nature.

In this series of articles, I’ll be examining the many grandiose claims made on behalf of urban agriculture, and exposing a selection of delusions to which some of its adherents have been subject, beginning with the strange case of libertarian urban agriculture.

Let me explain from the outset that my motivation for writing these articles is to begin charting conceptual territory from which a coherent vision of Green communitarianism could be developed, such that clear and consistent policy proscriptions that successfully address manifold economic, social and environmental crises can be agreed upon. What follows, then, is the beginning of my modest attempt to address this fertile political ground.

Urban agriculture’s growing right wing.

Incredible Edible Todmorden is a volunteer-run organization based in the northern English market town of Todmorden who grow and campaign for local food. Their organization’s Chair, Pam Warhurst, gave a fiery TEDtalk during which she outlined a unique vision of urban agriculture – the reclamation of unused urban land to produce ‘edible landscapes’ unburdened by troublesome regulation:

Expressing a utopian sentiment which has become typical of urban agricultural movements, the organization hopes their ideas can take root and be modified in other places to offer practical alternatives to global agribusiness. But there’s more. Although the organization’s motivation is revolutionary, (“We’re not doing it cause (sic) we’re bored, we’re doing it because we want to start a revolution.”), what is unique to Warhurst’s vision of urban agriculture is also the source of her vision’s confusion – it’s libertarian hue. She tells us that her organization’s aims, sense of community and “resilience” were all achieved “without a flipping strategy document” (a remark which garnered applause from the TEDtalk’s audience) and none of what they did required “a bureaucracy.” She tells us that it is about “investing in kindness” and “going to the people and saying we are all part of the local food jigsaw, we are all part of a solution” – localist sentiment conveyed using the language of contemporary corporate managerialism.

But the confused state of Warhurst’s libertarian urban agriculture is most clearly exposed by examining the issue of contamination. There are numerous ways the produce of urban agriculture can become polluted. Heavy metals (such as airborne lead) and toxic organic industrial wastes can settle on soil, fruits and plant leaves. If fresh produce is not properly washed before eaten, consumers will be exposed to these pollutants. Much of the brown-belt land of England’s inner-cities is awash with industrial contaminants – contaminants which are readily absorbed into plant leaves and fruits where, in sufficient concentration, they can become toxic to consumers. Children, pregnant women,  and  adults with compromised metabolic systems may be especially vulnerable in this regard.(1)

Even if plants are themselves put to work cleaning up polluted soils (a process called “phytoremediation”), there is a strong case to be made for coordinated public provision. For a start, the collection and dissemination of information is critical. Isaac Wynn notes: “As the popularity of urban gardens increases, publicizing safe gardening practices is critical.” Who, if not a state authority, will do this? Then there is the substantial public health requirement for urban agriculture to undergo meticulous checks for contaminants, raising the question of who is best placed to conduct these checks? In most developed nations, it fell to the state to undertake such checks, and for good reason: Corporations lack the proper incentives to invest in the public provision which oils the wheels of our economy, the shared infrastructure without which conducting even the most basic business would be impossible. After all, that’s what states are for.

In many contemporary Anglo-American economies, state-backed privatization has effectively outsourced the duty of administering such checks onto private companies who, on top of state-subsidies, very often levy a charge on individuals and organizations who make use of their administrative services (so-called ‘supply-side reform’ since, officially at least, it is claimed that such reforms do not alter the delivery of these services). Whether public or private, what is clear is that any administration needs to be sufficiently resourced, non-partisan and capable of complex regulation. Administrative requirements, in other words, necessitate the very bureaucracy and red tape towards which Warhurst, as a libertarian, directs much antipathy. The temptation to think of the state as a fundamental obstacle standing in the way of greater localism or punitively obstructing a community’s deeper engagement with food production should be resisted wherever possible. At worst, it is a symptom of a dangerous libertarian delusion that mankind can flourish in the absence of well-resourced states. The lesson both from history and from the intellectual fathers of the study of economics is that we cannot.

Hat-tip: polis

Show 1 footnote

  1. see Kate H. Brown  & Andrew L. Jameton ‘Public Health Implications of Urban Agriculture’ in Journal of Public Health Policy, Vol. 21, No. 1. (2000), pp. 20-39, http://my.stratos.net/~mmoss/public%20health%20implications%20of%20urban%20agriculture.pdf, pp.32.