Interview: Kurt Ackermann

Nutritional values

Kurt Ackermann is an associate in the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town and is co-founder of the Oranjezicht City Farm in Cape Town, itself part of the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust

Paul Edmunds: Urban farms are insignificantly small when compared with industral agriculture, but can they serve a useful purpose? Or is it a fart against a thunderstorm?

Kurt Ackermann: It’s not quite a fart against a thunderstorm; it’s a bit more than that. Urban agriculture can be helpful with some kinds of food in some communities at some scales. I know that’s not saying a lot, but the reality is that we need large scale agriculture, although it doesn’t have to be industrial monoculture.

It takes a lot of space to grow fresh produce to feed a lot of people. And the way that we do that is to have big farms that are reasonably far away from cities, because that’s where the land is, and we then bring the food into cities in different ways.

The staple grains are grown on a massive scale, as industrial monoculture for the most part. We harvest those and usually process them in some way – we mill the wheat or maize etc. That makes it shelf-stable and easier to transport, and we bring them into the cities to feed people. It’s become quite similar with animals too, where we ‘grow’ animals for food and ‘harvest’ or slaughter them, process them and bring them into the cities.

When we get to fresh produce we do some of that: sometimes we harvest and freeze, or we have canning factories adjacent. When we want the really fresh stuff, it’s got to come in by truck or train. And that’s where there can be some discussion about urban agriculture. Fresh vegetables and herbs – and to a lesser extent fresh fruit – are something that’s quite practical to talk about.

The benefit of growing fresh vegetables close to cities is that they tend to grow quite quickly, and we can enjoy more than one annual season. So we’re growing year-round, whereby if you grow soy beans or wheat you only have one annual harvest. We engage in market gardening or crop rotation and as such, one piece of ground can produce multiple harvests, and hence represent more value.

Fresh vegetables and herbs are affected by the length of time between harvest and consumption. The closer one can be to the leaf or the fruit or vegetable from the time of harvest, the more nutritious and usually more flavourful it’s going to be.

But, because we also tend to grow these things far away from cities at scale, they need to be able to travel into cities without getting damaged. So, what happens with tomatoes, for example, is that they’re harvested when they’re completely green. That means they can bounce around on the back of a truck without getting bruised. Then they’re brought into some kind of distribution centre in the city and exposed to ethylene gas which turns the outside a lovely red while the inside stays unripe and greenish white. It looks gorgeous on the shelf and we take that home and eat it and we call that a tomato. It doesn’t ripen, it doesn’t have the full flavour profile and it doesn’t have a lot of the nutrients it would have, but it allows an appealing tomato to be brought to the shelf.

And that’s where we can talk about the potential of urban agriculture: to make that loop shorter. We can grow primarily our leafy greens – things like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and to a certain extent, onions, potatoes, pumpkins. If it’s fresh market produce we’re talking about, then one can have an impact growing in an urban space.

If we’re talking about the overall food system, which includes dairy, food processing and so on, urban agriculture can’t really impact that. We can’t grow enough cows, sheep, goats etc. and feed them, deal with the waste and have the dairy infrastructure for processing and milking and storage in cities. The space is too valuable for other things, and those kinds of products can be transported reasonably efficiently with a reasonable amount of freshness.

Having our milk, yoghurt and butter coming from Darling (an hour from Cape Town), for example, doesn’t really affect the nutritional value of the foods. What matters is how those cows are fed and treated, what happens to their milk in the processing.

The reality is that, in terms of climate impact or carbon footprint, sometimes large-scale agriculture can be more carbon-efficient than small-scale local agriculture. It often surprises people to learn that just because it’s close and small doesn’t mean it’s efficient or isn’t harmful. One’s got to take a nuanced look at it. There are some general principles where one can say yes but it’s not an absolute when one talks about climate impact, or pollution.

PE: My wife and I get a lot of produce from our three square metre urban allotment, but we don’t get many calories. Those have to come from somewhere else.

KA: That’s correct. When we talk about urban agriculture in the work that we do, we often have to help people understand what the real impact of urban agriculture is not with regards to food security, which is negligible. However, there can be indirect impact, and there can be some direct impact on nutrition security … although there’s not really strong data that I’ve seen that supports that as a general statement.

But if one thinks of the food basket that a typical household in Cape Town would eat – and here I talk about a household that is in the 50th percentile of income – the basket doesn’t contain a lot of fresh produce. It’s a lot of processed food, it’s a lot of shelf-stable food, it’s bulk that fills bellies. And it’s often fortified, which has some of its own issues, in that its uptake by the body and effect on nutrition is not what one might expect from the list of its ingredients.

But if we have a household that’s eating that kind of food basket, and they’re growing three square metres from which they’re getting some spinach leaves, for example, the micronutrients in that spinach can have a meaningful nutritional benefit to that household. Even though it doesn’t fill bellies, growing some nutrition to add to the pot can be beneficial. Especially in a country like ours where 25% of infants are considered stunted.

Malnutrition is a massive problem in South Africa. We have a problem with obesity and diabetes, and with people who are malnourished but obese.

PE: Is there a kind of farming which is somewhere between small urban and large industrial agriculture? Would the Philippi Horticultural Area be a good example of that?

KA: Exactly. Philippi is an interesting example of ‘smallholder agriculture’. It’s really unusual, this real agricultural sector of 3000 hectares within the boundaries of a municipality, but very much a rural landscape. There you have farms ranging from 1 hectare to a few tens of hectares at most. And you have that happy medium between highly inefficient small-scale agriculture and highly efficient industrial agriculture that has its own problems.

The issue with smallholder farms of that scale can be that they need mechanisation – they’re big enough to need tractors and other machinery to move things around, but their tractors may be inefficient, they may be secondhand, they may pump a lot of waste into the atmosphere, they may leak a lot of oil which poisons the soil. These aren’t wealthy farmers and they aren’t always able to get credit that allows them to buy the newest tractor or other equipment, so they’re often making-do.

But there are benefits to what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘agrarian pattern’ of farming. If one thinks about the Amish or other types of smallholder farming in Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, you have these communities that aren’t in deeply rural areas, they may be in villages, but they’re farming family farms. That scale of farming means that the farmers can know every inch of their land; they are likely looking after it as something that will be left to their children, and they tend to have deeper roots in their community. The farming is an extension of a relationship to the land and an ecosystem and community that doesn’t exist when one has corporatised industrial monoculture on a scale of thousands of hectares.

There you have one farmer living on that farm but they have masses of combine harvesters and other mechanisation that’s processing thousands and thousands of hectares. The social dynamics of that, and the relationship the farmer has to the land, are fundamentally different.

PE: I know that producing food on our inner city allotment is not cheap. But I’ve been thinking about it more, and it strikes me that the cost of food we produce is probably more representative of its value because we pay for all of the things that are left out of the price of food produced by industrial agriculture. When you buy food produced that way you’re not paying for the transport because it’s subsidised; you’re not paying for the packaging and the pollution produced by all of those; you’re not paying for the lost topsoil inherent to the process. I wonder if industrially produced food was priced to include all of those things, it would come out at a similar price to what we produce.

KA: It’s a really important question, because there are so many things in the world under the current dominant paradigm that don’t account for these ‘externalities’. All kinds of economic and industrial sectors have these questions where we don’t understand the real cost. One can extend that question to also include the health cost of highly processed foods. So, a 20g packet of Nik Naks may cost R2,20 but maybe it incurs a cost of R12,70 to our public health care system.

If we accounted for not just the production and distribution costs but also the health impacts, and the quality of life and the lost potential of a stunted child, then we’re talking about something that is fundamentally different with regard to costs. My own opinion is that we’re getting around to this kind of thinking because we have to. There have been some examples of places like Costa Rica that have costed the value of their ecosystems and ecosystem services. And there’s a whole system of taxation based on a different calculus. We’ve seen examples of where that works, but whether that works in the same way everywhere, one doesn’t know.

This notion of cradle to cradle manufacturing, whereby the manufacturers of an item are responsible for all of its contents for all of its life cycle, is creeping more and more into policy planning. And it’s got to be the same with food. I think we’re a way off being there but it’s part of a broader sociocultural change that’s happening in response to the climate crisis and other related issues.

However, while I do think that an urban allotment is a incredibly inefficient way of growing food, efficiency isn’t the only measure. So, the fact that one is serving a salad that one has grown and harvested and prepared and shared with people that one cares about … there is massive value in that overall experience that can’t be matched by just going to the shops and getting stuff off the shelf and putting it on the table.

When we talk about value, are we talking about the financial value or are we talking about those other elements? What is the value of the quality of life in one’s household, among one’s friends, in social circles etc? That kind of wellbeing, in urban spaces especially, also has tremendous value.

I do think there’s a lot of value in allotment food gardening or household food gardening. It raises awareness, understanding, appreciation and respect for what it takes to get food to a grocery store or a farmer’s market. There is value to to that experience of being more than just a consumer in our food system.

PE: I’ve been thinking of it this way recently: we take all of our food waste to the the OZCF (Oranjezicht City Farm), and it’s made me realise that if you consume completely from the supermarket and don’t compost your food waste, you get excluded from the full carbon cycle. But if you can put your waste back into the food you grow, you’re allowed back in: food becomes waste becomes food.

KA: Yes. Participating in a food garden in some way makes that materially evident. Even if you’re not involved because you care about those things, you can’t get away from having to confront it and deal with it, and that’s another real benefit. Household organic waste is the most difficult to divert fom landfill because it’s messy, and because people don’t want to do it and they don’t want to deal with it.

We ignore it because we pay R124 for a wheelie bin every week, and that’s just how it works. But when you’ve got to separate your waste and cart it up the road, we don’t like it. By getting involved we’re forced to confront that and it’s a fact of life. From 2022, the City of Cape Town will be requiring people to divert half of their household organic waste from landfill, and 100% by 2027.

There are a lot of pilot projects being looked at regarding what we’re going to do with all this waste, and our composting with Bokashi programme at the OZCF is one of the projects that’s being studied. (A pilot programme has already begun – Ed)

We’re going to need to grow a lot of black fly larvae for feed for chickens and other things, and insect protein and bio-digestors for cooking gas, and other ways of processing our organic waste. And that’s fine because until now living our lives as privileged participants in the global, western patterns means that we can just put it in a bin and someone else takes our waste away; we ‘throw it away’.

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