(Translated by Afton Halloran from the original comment in Politiken, Denmark’s largest newspaper)
By Afton Halloran, Agricultural Development MSc student, Ole Fryd, Assistant Professor, Forest and Landscape, and Jakob Magid, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, University of Copenhagen
Copenhagen’s urban gardens and urban agriculture projects have achieved a steady increase in popularity in both the media and at the grassroots level. The projects are situated in places like Prags Boulevard, Otto Krabbe’s Square and in Ørestad. There is a great interest in the way that these projects create social relationships, build capacity and strengthen communities in urban areas. They also help to create green spaces in the city and provide children and adults with experiencing the origin of their food from a close range.
But, when we compare with other places in Europe and North America it is clear that there is untapped potential to grow vegetables in a large scale within Copenhagen. This potential is difficult to realize with the authorities’ current interpretation of the regulations.
Precautionary Principle, Justified?
Current laws are based on a precautionary principle, which assumes the existence of an environmental risk until proved otherwise. Specifically, this precautionary principle assumes that it is dangerous to eat foods that are produced within urban areas, as all urban soil is deemed contaminated. These assumptions are highly questionable – firs, because contamination in soil does not always transfer to the edible components of plants, and second because the amount of food that individuals can produce currently in the city represents a tiny fraction of total food intake.
In areas where there has been industry and small businesses, the risk is elevated for levels of heavy metals and organic contaminants. We know that only very low levels of these substances are transferred from soil to plant parts above ground. We can control the transfer of heavy metals to plant roots by creating a soil environment where the pH is neutral, which can be achieved by liming. And organic compounds in the soil, such as pesticides, are only a problem if they have just been added. Overall, the total pollution that urban agriculture can absorb from the ground is minimal – especially when compared to the pollution that comes from the air from traffic and from dust.
Across the world we grow a good portion of our vegetables near major roads, airports and other transport infrastructure. Before the food product reaches the consumer, it may be exposed to different types of airborne contamination. The question is whether there really is any real difference between the amounts of pollution found in lettuce grown in our cities, and those that you can buy in stores. What are the risks of eating a small percentage locally grown vegetables from the city compared to what we otherwise eat? What are the risks of eating vegetables that have been exposed to air pollution, compared with the pollution we ingest daily through breathing the air in cities? The authorities have simply not addressed this.
A Reasonable Risk
Evidence suggests that we city dwellers breathe much more dirt and filth than we consume in our food itself. And the bulk of the pollution we are getting into the food comes from the air, not from soil. Is it reasonable to adopt such a rigid interpretation of current regulations and prohibit cultivation in the city because it is assumed that the soil is toxic? Unlike traffic pollution, no cases of illness due to contact with the soil have been reported in Copenhagen.
Isn’t it reasonable to run a negligible risk in order to achieve the satisfaction and quality of life that urban agriculture provides? We think yes!
Instead of using the precautionary principle to address urban soil contamination, we should rather use more common sense in our decision-making supported by robust holistic risk assessments. We should focus on addressing issues of site suitability rather than using blanket policies. It requires some work to consider the urban soil on a case-by-case basis, but it is a practice that has already been happened in Copenhagen over the past years. Civil society organizations and urban farmers have been saying: Don’t raise your voice too high if you don’t want to be hindered by the rules and regulations that govern such projects. But should projects as such be half hidden to avoid being affected by the current laws? Isn’t it better to deal constructively with the obstacles to the implementation of urban agriculture and make it more accessible for everyone?
At present community members are encountering too many barriers and their enthusiasm can easily fade. Copenhagen has a very high standard when it comes to quality of life and urban environment. But with regard to urban agriculture, it paradoxically seems that the standards are so high that they block environmental initiatives from being implemented.
Why is Copenhagen lagging behind when so many cities around the world are realizing the importance of urban agriculture? If we want urban agriculture, then we must dare to think and act in new and innovative ways. We must have a balanced dialogue on the benefits and risks. Otherwise, ‘business as usual’ will continue to inhibit the development of both our environment and our society.