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Hungry trade-off - Urban farmlands shrink as real estate soars

BY: Seth J. Bokpe
Urban agriculture has the potential to provide fresh farm produce for urban dwellers
Urban agriculture has the potential to provide fresh farm produce for urban dwellers

Close to a railway line that splits Alajo and Abelenkpe, two suburbs of Accra, a man is busily watering rows of green leafy vegetables.

In the absence of mechanised irrigation, he dips a watering can into running water in a drain, going back and forth to nourish the vegetables.

The water sprinkling from the can appeared clean but the canal is not. Just a few metres away, a group of market women are busily buying what is ready for the market—cabbage, spring onion, lettuce and carrot.

This vegetable farm and a few others at Opeibea, Dzorwulu, Weija, Haatso, Pantang Hospital and Tuba are the only few spots of urban agriculture at a time peri-urban agriculture is fast disappearing.

This is as a result of the rate at which farmlands are shrinking as they are being sold to real estate companies and individuals desirous of owning homes.

According to experts, a few years ago, peri-urban farming provided enough vegetables to feed Accra.

But today the country imports vegetables including tomatoes and onion from Burkina Faso, a country as close to the Sahara as James Town is to the ocean.

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Housing vs food

Ghana's 1.7 million housing deficit means that increasing demand for housing is competing with farmlands particularly in peri-urban areas such as Dodowa, Pokuase, Amasaman, Ningo, Prampram and Afienya where farmlands are shrinking.

Although data on how much farmlands the country is losing is hard to come by, the country’s estimated 14 million-hectare agriculture land, out of which six million is lying fallow, continues to be under threat due to the urban drift that has increased demand for homes.

UPA

Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA), according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) can be defined as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture provides food products from different types of crops (grains, root crops, vegetables, mushrooms, and fruits), animals (poultry, rabbits, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, guinea pigs, and fish, among others.) as well as non-food products (aromatic and medicinal herbs, ornamental plants, tree products).

UPA includes trees managed for producing fruit and fuelwood, as well as tree systems integrated and managed with crops (agroforestry) and small-scale aquaculture.

“The rapid growth of cities in the developing world is placing enormous demands on urban food supply systems.

“Urban agriculture provides fresh food, generates employment, recycles urban wastes, creates greenbelts, and strengthens cities’ resilience to climate change,” the FAO observed.

However, in Ghana UPA is largely absent in agriculture policies and does not feature anywhere in urban planning which ordinarily would zone areas and make lands available for farmers in cities and semi-urban communities.

In the absence of regulations, growers often operate without permits. Since it is officially "invisible", the sector receives no public assistance or oversight in many cities.

According to the FAO, urban agriculture carries health and environmental risks from potential use of contaminated land and water as well as noise pollution and inappropriate use of pesticides and of raw organic manure that can leak into water sources.

These situations, it says, require proper attention.

Away from official lands for farming in cities, the fact remains that most people have shied away from backyard gardening.

Backyard gardens

One would have wished that the planting for food and jobs policy, modelled on the highly successful “Operation Feed Yourself (OFY)” programme of the 1970s, would drive urban and backyard gardening but it has not been the case.

The policy has been biased towards farmers in rural communities who could have been encouraged to focus more on producing enough for the export market.

Households don’t need much land to start a backyard garden. With lorry tyres and abandoned plastic bowls, fresh vegetables could bloom in homes across the country.

Give it a thought, particularly when research after research points to the fact that farmers in the city are using contaminated water to irrigate the produce.

A survey carried out between 2007 and 2008 by the Small Grants Programme of the UNDP/Global Environment Facility (GEF) revealed that vegetables consumed in Accra had more than a dozen chemicals all above tolerable percentages and these have serious health consequences for consumers.

The gains

What are the benefits of backyard gardens and urban agriculture? They are numerous and healthy.

Freshness - As anyone who has ever eaten a tomato right off the vine can attest to taste.

Sustainability - Eating local is one of the best things we can all do for the planet and avoiding transportation energy cost and pollution.

Access to quality food - Some residents in cities do not have access to high quality, affordable fresh fruits and vegetables and a community garden can make all the difference in the world to them.