Thursday, April 12, 2012

Waste Management: the case for urban farming

Farmers have always produced for consumers living in cities, but it wasn't until the last 40 or 50 years  that city dwellers became greatly detached from the countryside that sustains them. 

With consumers on one side, and producers on another side entirely, the big problem that emerged is waste management.

Consumers tend to purchase produce that is specially packaged to reduce the risk of damage and contamination en route to the city, and it may have been treated with chemically-derived pesticides and fertilizers.  Meanwhile farmers have to contend with the build-up of large concentrations of animal waste.  Because these two groups have little direct contact with each other, many of us are oblivious to the scale of the waste and pollution this generates.  We do, however, recognize that waste management is a costly problem, and our taxes go towards paying large sums to corporations that deal with both kinds of waste for us.

I'm realistic enough to know that megacities are going to be with us for a long time to come, and the solution does not lie in reversing the mass migration from farms to the city.

Rather, we need to figure out how to reduce the build-up of waste in the first place.

A family with a vegetable garden and several chickens can, almost effortlessly, cut down significantly on their waste, compared to a family that uses its garden for ornamental purposes and relies on grocery stores for all its food needs.  Let's call them Family A and Family B:
Family A feeds food scraps to the chickens, which in turn generate high quality manure.  They also like to forage in the lawn, pecking out grubs and other pests.  The vegetables growing in the garden are organic and don't need any chemicals for fertilizers or pest control.  They also don't need packaging, because produce is picked when it is ready to be eaten, and no fossil fuels are used to transport them from the ground to the table.

Family B needs a car to purchase their food, which is typically trucked in from far away.  The vegetables will have been sprayed but because they come from far away, it's hard to tell what long-term dangers might lurk inside their skin.  Meanwhile, their lawn is kept beautifully green and luscious with regular application of fertilizer, again, purchased from the store.  The packaging from their food, and the scraps they don't eat, are disposed of in their weekly garbage, and their city trucks it away to a landfill every week.
This is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in urban chickens.  To me, they symbolize the way to the solution.  These hardy creatures eat our consumer waste, turning it into a valuable commodity instead.  They are the link that completes the cycle.

Because most families wouldn't own more than 3 or 4 backyard chickens, they never generate enough manure to pose any kind of toxic hazard, though this is very much the case on large industrial farms.

Of course it isn't realistic for all of us to live like Family A all the time, especially when we live in climates that make it difficult to eat seasonally all year round.  However, it's not at all hard to make some significant changes to our lives.  It's certainly feasible for some of us to do it.  And so, it's frustrating to me when our by-laws force me to live in a way that I feel to be environmentally irresponsible and most definitely unsustainable.

I also find it frustrating when our societal and cultural norms tolerate vegetable gardens (albeit neatly to the side of the house where they are largely out of sight), but refuse to accept backyard chickens.  The vast majority of us are not strict vegetarians, so why not produce both vegetables and eggs?  Besides, gardens grow much better when they have chickens helping them along on the fertilizer and pest control side of things.

And when people suggest that "if you want chickens so badly, then go live on a farm", I really think they have no inkling of the extent of the waste management problems that exist precisely because of the separation of farmers and consumers.

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