Farms Flee the Cities

The Berruriers are the only farmers in France who still grow the chou de Pontoise, asperge d’Argenteuil, and pissenlit de Montmagny—types of cabbage, asparagus, and dandelions, typical of Parisian terroir, that were widely grown in and around Paris until the 1980s. Despite the involvement of Raymond, Jean, and Laurent, the three generations of Berruriers, they are all condemned to disappear. Laurent, the grandson, has no children.

Paris used to be a city of food artisans and its suburbs a mélange of lush market gardens thanks to the Seine’s alluvia. The globalization of the food system symbolized by, among other things, the international wholesale market of Rungis built outside Paris in the late ’60s, brought in standardized products at a much lower price. Add to that real estate speculation and the absence of proper agricultural land management and soon farms were pushed farther and farther from the city and converted to better-yielding crops.

Beyond the loss of patrimony, the disconnect from food production puts the capital in a precarious food security situation. With a food system relying on unsustainable oil-fed transportation, not only Paris but also most cities throughout the world are at risk. If the transport system were to fail, food would run out on supermarket shelves within a few days.

It is not surprising then that Slow Food dedicated three workshops at its recent Salone del Gusto food festival in Turin to “Feeding the Cities.” In addition to tasting a few products from the terroirs of Berlin, Milan, and Paris, participants learned about urban farms and food security initiatives in these cities, a first step to understanding the complexity of the issues and the need to bring together a variety of stakeholders to tackle these problems.

Farmers and producers were at the center of the Berlin workshop, from cheese to blood sausage, beer to smoked fish, pickles to wine, all produced in or around the city. Though lacking large-scale organization, the individual initiatives discussed were reminders that within a healthier food system, behind the products we eat are people.

Chefs are another essential link in the chain, and the Paris workshop explored this aspect of the issue through the lens of a specific project. In the spring of 2009, Michelin three-star chef Yannick Alléno launched Terroir Parisien, a menu using almost exclusively products still grown within the Parisian region. With a price of 78 euros, this menu is available only to the privileged. But Alléno’s position allows him to voice his concerns about biodiversity to influential people such as Bruno Le Maire, the French Minister of Agriculture.

In Italy, Slow Food’s birthplace, activists were instrumental in the most structured project shared during the workshops. When two years ago Milan was chosen to host the Expo 2015 with the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” it brought Slow Food to consider how to legitimately talk about feeding the planet given that Milan cannot feed itself despite the 47,000 hectares of fertile land wrapped around the south of the city. Parco Agricolo Sud Milano is cultivated intensively, with little diversification, and it is presently threatened by real estate development. The demand for local produce in Milan exceeds the supply, and many consumers who want to buy their produce from CSAs have to buy from as far away as Trentino-Alto Adige, a province more than 100 kilometers from Milan.

Nutrire Milano, or Feed Milan—a partnership between Slow Food, the Politecnico di Milano, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences—was designed and launched a year ago to restore a short food chain, develop more sustainable agriculture, and reinstate the relationship between the town and the countryside. Besides its recently opened farmers’ market, the project aims to revive two traditions that once existed in the area: bread, from cereal-growing to milling to baking, and orti (or vegetable gardens) in the town’s periphery.

Still, the picture would have been more complete had the workshops included non-European cities. A focus on initiatives in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, to mention just a few, would have highlighted other key players in the process: politicians and other institutions.

In Japan, the egalitarian land control system implemented after World War II, and zoning policies added since the late ’60s to take into account the reality of urbanization, have controlled the conversion of farmland to urban land. In 2003, urban farmland still accounted for 24 percent of the national total, and 29 percent of national agricultural output. To a lesser extent, it is also inspiring to hear about U.S. initiatives, from the replacement of ornamental flowers with vegetables and fruit in municipal gardens, to the urban agriculture projects started by the public schools and urban service corps in Baltimore.

Cities can’t go on being disconnected from food production, trapped in a globalized food system that is dependent on fuel, generating waste and not producing anything. If we are serious about tackling the issue of their self-sufficiency, solutions have to be the fruit of concerted work by producers, chefs, activists, academics, and politicians, all of them gathered around the ones for whom this work has to be done: the consumers.

Article first published in the Atlantic.

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