The era of cheap food is over. Over the next decade, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, butter prices, for example, will be up 60 percent and vegetable oils 80 percent just 10 years from now. We're running up against the ecological and economic limits of industrial agriculture. But there's hope. And it springs from the heart of the city -- including San Francisco.
An April report from a panel of scientists pointed the way. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a 3-year scientific collaboration, was cursed with a clumsy name, but endowed with more than 400 of the world's brightest scientists and led by Robert Watson, the man who helmed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These scientists set out to understand how we'll feed a planet that by 2050 will have 9 billion people. They agreed that today's fossil fuel and water-hungry agriculture won't be able to feed the world. Instead, they called for a more sophisticated, organic, democratic and local agriculture.
These calls already have been heeded in San Francisco. For years, urban gardeners have been sowing the seeds of change with gardening projects in the city. Those seeds need to be nurtured, and there's a chance to do just that with an upcoming project: a victory garden on the lawn outside City Hall. Victory, in this case, is learning to grow food close to those who will eat it. Hatched by a number of groups, including Garden for the Environment, SF Victory Gardens and Slow Food Nation, this project will not only create a fruit-and-vegetable garden in Civic Center Plaza, it'll create an archipelago of urban agriculture throughout the city, mostly in families' back yards.
But the victory garden deserves to be part of a longer-term vision for feeding the city. Which is why it's so profoundly disappointing that at the same time as the land is being prepared at the Civic Center Plaza to promote sustainable agriculture, the land on U.N. Plaza is being taken over to prevent sustainable agriculture.
Next to the proposed victory garden is the Heart of the City Market. Started by Quakers and farmers in the 1980s to serve low-income families, this farmers market is a community hub and one of the few places near the Tenderloin to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It's run on a shoestring by a nonprofit whose board members are elected by the farmers who sell their produce at the market. And it is about to be taken over by City Hall's Real Estate Division.
The planned Slow Food Nation harvest event in August, around which this victory garden is centered, has as its motto that food should be good, clean and fair. The Heart of the City market is the kind of community initiative that makes available affordable good, clean food for working families, and supports democratic and sustainable food.
There have been great successes for urban vegetable gardens elsewhere. Toronto, for instance, has for decades had a Food Policy Council, a space within the municipal government that works to create community gardens, and even educational schemes for at-risk youth. But there have been failures too. In Los Angeles, the South Central Farm built a community of 350 families, a refuge for children at risk from gangs, and a haven of hundreds of species of plants. It was destroyed when the Los Angeles City Council ceded its rights to a developer.
Whether the San Francisco victory garden is a stunt, or a step toward the Bay Area becoming a model for sustainable urban agriculture, is something that depends on the willingness of City Hall. If we are to have sustainability, we'll need a greater commitment to democracy and equality. That's the commitment at the Heart of the City Market. We won't, after all, feed the world with political window dressing.
Raj Patel is the author of "Stuffed and Starved" (Melville House, 2008).
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle