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Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution

by Jennifer Cockrall-King

When Edmonton-based food writer Jennifer Cockrall-King began to notice city-dwellers obsessing about growing food themselves instead of simply shopping at farmers’ markets, she wondered whether it was just another passing fad or the beginning of a revolution. Did this new attitude reflect a response to any number of possible shocks – from the rising cost of food to the disruption of supply chains – that could result in our being, as one U.K. report characterized it,“nine meals from anarchy”? Are we coming to “the end of that industrial food chain”?

Food and the City addresses some really big questions. Which means that Cockrall-King spends the first quarter providing a virtual reahsh of a decade’s worth of previous books, arguments, and political events in the process of laying the groundwork for her thesis that urban agriculture is essential to the world’s future. 

Following what feels like an obligatory catalogue of the world’s food-related problems (obesity, conventional agriculture, the industrial food complex, food riots, and famines), Cockrall-King turns her attention to cities such as London, Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles, where she discovers fascinating risk-takers at the forefront of a movement to create change for themselves and their communities. This works particularly well when she focuses on specific initiatives, such as plans for an urban farm in Detroit or a four-storey vertical farm/incubator in Chicago; it is less successful when she attempts to cover too many emerging projects in one city. In the latter cases, repetition often creeps in.

The book’s final stop is Cuba, where Cockrall-King looks at the reinvention of the country’s entire food system after the Soviet Union’s collapse. With no way to pursue conventional agriculture (there was no oil, no fertilizer), Cuba had little choice but to create organopónicos, small urban farms that sell their produce on site. Although Cockrall-King hopes for cities filled with such places (minus the rations for rice and cooking oil that Cubans still face), she understands the future remains uncertain.

Her ultimate aspiration, however, is simple: that we all find a way to “liberate ourselves from that Titanic, the sinking global industrial food system.”