Urban Farming on the Agenda: NYC Food & Climate Summit

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author:

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The Summit was framed as relating food issues to the concurrent Copenhagen Climate Conference. At the start, all attendees assembled in the Skirball Center for Plenary Remarks.

We were treated to welcoming addresses by video from two amazing women who provided an international perspective on the food and climate issues. Wangari Maathai was recorded in her garden in Kenya. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an environmentalist, and the author of several books. Maathai spoke about how Kyoto Climate Conference had ignored the impact of climate on food.  She and others raised the connection between food and climate so that the nexus will now be discussed at Copenhagen.  Maathai mentioned the shocking statistic that Africa is responsible for creating only 3% of the globes greenhouse gases but suffers disproportionately from the impacts of climate change. From India, Vandana Shiva, one of the founders of the International Forum on Globalization, remarked about US agro-business negatively influencing food and climate degradation.

Once plenary remarks helped establish the global context for our work, we broke into smaller working sessions a la Copenhagen.  The stated goal of the Food & Climate Summit was “to increase engagement and action around our food system’s role in climate problems and solutions.”  The organizers attempted to make good on that goal of engagement by structuring information sessions to obtain audience feedback through forming impromptu working groups.

After an expert panel presented in one of the 29 separate sessions (with some repeats), the audience would be asked to provide and distill ideas with the help of facilitators.  I thought that this approach, honored the activist impulse that drew people to this political topic and made it more like a public conversation.  A similar meeting format for the Food Justice Conference yielded the excellent report “Food in the Public Interest” last year. The session format also permitted more social networking and discussion.

I attended two sessions entitled, not surprisingly, “Urban Agriculture.”  The first session was devoted to Community Gardens and Farms.  The second session focused on Roofs, Walls and Other Under-Utilized Spaces.  Both sessions yielded a wide range of interesting ideas for promoting urban agriculture.  One idea was to hypertax owners of vacant lots with tax relief provided if owners permitted the land to be used as an urban farm for at least five years.  Reforms were offered for education, government services, tax policy, incentives, and other areas. Someone suggested the creation of Deputy Mayor of Food and Agriculture.

There was a lot of focus on government, legal and legislative reform.  It was interesting how comfortable we all have become with government intervention as the norm for social change.  I supposed being urbanites, we can’t really get along without government mediating the complex interactions that are required to make city life bearable. However, I am not always in favor of more government action for ideas that require social mobilization for real change. History shows that community organizing and popular education that result in building a social movement seem to be the only way to prompt goverment to make lasting and sustainable change. See Howard Zinn “People’s History of the United States” for more on this idea.

Despite all the seriousness, there was a marketplace after the sessions in which local food producers and advocacy groups shared their wares. The bazaar was another engaging place to learn about new food and ideas, including an excellent beer made in Harlem on the “Sugar Hill” label.

Overall, I was impressed that the conference organizers understood the important resource represented by the large, assembled group, respecting their collective time and motivation by involving them in envisioning solutions. I liked the democratic quality to the process. And I appreciated the organizer’s desire to produce a coherent consensus-driven platform for food and climate change in NYC with an eye towards the global impact.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the report that comes from the Summit. You will hear about here!

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