How urban soil farming could help feed more people

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization says much of our planet’s soil is under threat from activities such as farming and urban sprawl. But a number of projects in Canada and the U.S. are getting city-dwellers to think differently about soil - and even make their own.

United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of the Soils

Russell, a student at Bendale Technical Institute in Toronto, holds up handfuls of soil that he helped produce. (Katie German/FoodShare)

At a high school close to downtown Toronto, grade eleven student Deshanel Evans is getting back to the earth.

That is, he's making the stuff.

As a part-time job, Evans collects kitchen scraps from the school's culinary program and layers the carrot peelings and apple cores with leaves and other organic material in the bin. Evans then oversees the composting, turning the pile to aerate it and waiting as worms and bacteria transform the food scraps into nutrient-rich soil.

The Dirt on Soil is a one-hour holiday special that airs on local CBC Radio stations on Friday, April 3 at 5 p.m. ET and again on Monday, April 6 at noon.

"I feel good about my job," he said. "It's interesting to learn that the food we eat goes back into the soil and then we eat it again." Sometimes, Evans' friends even keep him company, because they like watching the transformation, he says.

This compost project — and the rooftop farm where the compost is used to grow vegetables — is part of a program called School Grown, a collaboration between the Toronto District School Board and a non-profit organization called FoodShare.

School Grown aims to use Eastdale's rooftop farm, as well as a market garden across town at Bendale Technical Institute, to help more people access fresh produce in the city while at the same time doing something positive for the urban environment — like making soil.

It's one of many efforts across Canada and the United States that are getting urbanites to think about soil — an issue that, up until recently, has largely been considered a rural concern.

Soil under threat

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), much of our planet's soil is under threat from human activities, including farming and urban sprawl.

Toronto grade 11 student Deshanel Evans has a part-time job turning food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. Here, he brandishes some kale grown in that soil. (Katie German/FoodShare)

Already, 33 per cent of the world's soil has been degraded by erosion and pollution, among other pressures. The FAO warns that this is of concern to all of us, because the soil in which most of our food is grown is a non-renewable resource.

Considering that 95 per cent of what we eat needs healthy soil to grow, scientists say we need to pay closer attention to what's happening to it.

"We are utterly dependent on soil for our food supply," said Martin Entz, a professor in the department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, who spoke with CBC as part of a national radio special called The Dirt on Soil, which will air across the country this holiday weekend.

Not only do our food crops grow from the earth, but in order to for farmers to produce meat and dairy, livestock require forage, and are also fed grains such as corn and soy.

"I don't think it is a stretch to say that because our soil is threatened around the world, our survival depends on a better recognition of the role of soil in our lives," said Entz.

This is why the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of the Soils.

Making soil in the city

Toronto's FoodShare is not alone in trying to make soil relevant to young city-dwellers, far from the farms that typically feed them.

In Milwaukee, the organization Growing Power is also working to make soil. As part of their urban agriculture program, they compost city food waste — including coffee grounds and by-products from breweries — and then use this soil to grow food.

"Last year, we collected 40 million pounds of carbon and nitrogen and turned that into thousands of yards of compost, because that is what is necessary to grow food in the city," said farmer Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power, who won a so-called "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in urban agriculture.

"In the city where 75 per cent of the land is asphalt and concrete, you have to be able to grow on asphalt and concrete," he said.

Today, the organization has 300 acres of production and over 25 acres of greenhouse production, producing food from that compost to make sure the people in the communities they serve have equal access to fresh, healthy foods, no matter their economic status.

And it all starts with the earth.

"It's a rural issue. It's a suburban issue. It's an issue wherever you grow food," said Allen. "It's all about the soil."

The Dirt on Soil is a one-hour holiday special that will air on local CBC Radio stations on Friday, April 3 at 5 p.m. ET and then again on Monday, April 6 at noon.


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