Urban & organic farming: Crops in pots and a sabzi mandi in your own backyard

Published: October 7, 2013
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Fresh vegetables grown in urban spaces offer multiple benefits: Food security, easy access which reduces costs, means you get the freshest produce. PHOTOS COURTESY: CROPS IN POTS

Fresh vegetables grown in urban spaces offer multiple benefits: Food security, easy access which reduces costs, means you get the freshest produce. PHOTOS COURTESY: CROPS IN POTS

KARACHI: Urban farming is becoming popular in cities across the world. It offers multiple benefits: Food security, easy access which reduces costs, means you get the freshest produce. Add to these the environmental benefits. Urban farms add to the greenery of a city, acting as drainage basins and reducing harmful run-off, increasing shade, and also acting as a buffer against climate change as they reduce the impact of the heat island effect.

New and exciting innovations are taking place where there is a shortage of land. So people are developing ‘rooftop farms and gardens’. Such projects also give you a place to relax and help reduce the energy consumption of a building. The idea has been so successful that some planners and architects are experimenting with vertical farms!

According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, organic agriculture is a “production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecosystems> and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity> and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.”

Organic farming is based on methods which do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides that kill beneficial insects. Instead it relies on natural pesticides and crop rotation as a pest control method. Organic farmers prefer to use compost as fertiliser which is made from organic solid waste such as vegetable peelings, leaves etc.

Organic farmers also encourage the use of ‘heirloom seeds’, which have been used over centuries. These seeds, in turn, yield more seeds in the vegetable growth process and a farmer or someone involved in home-based organic farming can even develop a ‘seed bank’ and not be dependent on buying ‘hybrid seeds’. Hybrids or genetically modified seeds cannot be saved from the parent plant. Organic farming, producing healthier vegetables, can be used at a large agricultural scale while also find a space in ‘kitchen gardens’ and for educational purposes.

One such initiative has been undertaken in Karachi by the husband and wife team of Yasir Husain and Zahra Ali. They have called it ‘Crops in Pots’, which Zahra Ali started as a blog in 2008. It has grown into a community of 1,500 members who exchange inspiration, ideas and knowledge about organic urban farming. The basic idea is to connect urban organic gardeners and farmers with the general public and to start a conversation about the importance of heirloom seeds and organic farming in cities and also create green spaces from where people can get free food and fight food insecurity.

They have developed a comprehensive ‘Green School Programme’ in which the focal point is the ‘learning garden’. Prior to this, at Dawood Public School, Zahra designed a Green Curriculum for students of grades 1 to 8 based on concepts of environment and organic gardening.

The scope of work of Crops in Pots has now expanded to include a seed and plant exchange, workshops and training for teachers, students and groups, guerrilla gardening and participating in environmental festivals such as Hamara Mahol. Crops in Pots is now in the process of making a small seed bank from organic heirloom vegetables and herb plants. An added benefit is that compost can be produced from household organic solid waste, thus reducing the amount of garbage that needs to be thrown away.

Green spaces or the vegetation cover in Karachi are already limited. According to the findings of a recent study funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – Comprehensive Plan for Forestation, Aesthetic Plantation and Landscaping for Karachi, 2008 – the total vegetation cover in Karachi as estimated through satellite images is 62,643 acres which works out as 7% of the total land area of 907,001 acres. A greater cause for alarm is however, the rate at which these already minimal green spaces are disappearing. Can urban farming not provide an answer to improving this sorry state of affairs? It is something that can even be developed as a ‘citizens’ movement’. Crops in Pots has made a beginning. Let’s hope that this will be a beginning for a citywide citizens’ movement to make this city a green and healthy one. 

The writer is an urban planner and runs a non-profit organization based in Karachi city focusing on urban sustainability issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2013.

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