I was involved in urban agriculture before I heard of “urban agriculture.” In 2009, I worked on a farm and helped a community garden in Portland, OR. At that time, growing food within the city limits was not uncommon for a food-loving city like Portland. But now you can find community gardens, backyard homesteads, and even profitable farms in cities across the country. And cities are certainly eager to support urban agriculture for a number of reasons such as to educate children on nutrition, provide food to disadvantaged families, lay the foundation for healthy lifestyles, and help new farmers break into the business. So, now the term “urban agriculture” has special meaning and purpose as momentum builds around programs, funding, and infrastructure designed to facilitate food production within city limits. But, while growing food within city limits is exciting for urban dwellers, it also raises some unique food safety issues. As these projects continue to develop, it may be worthwhile to identify and consider some of the more important food safety issues associated with urban agriculture. It all starts with the soil Growing food in cities means growing food in places inherently plagued by pollution. So, while tilling up a vacant lot for a garden may sound like a no-brainer, urban growers may be surprised to find layers of deeply buried trash and random discarded items in that lot or even in their own backyards. And, while the solution to a polluted site may be as simple as digging up and throwing away trash, sometimes growers will need to take further steps to remedy the soil. For example, growers probably do not want to plant directly into soil where old rusty metals and fence posts with lead paint have been lingering for decades. In fact, a recent study by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future notes that gardeners can be exposed to soil contaminants in a number of ways such as ingestion, inhalation, skin contact, or consuming produce grown in contaminated soil. And soil ingestion is even riskier for children, who are more prone to putting their hands in their mouth and who are generally more sensitive to the effects of contaminants. Moreover, the Johns Hopkins study, which surveyed 70 gardeners from 15 community gardens in Baltimore, MD, found that many gardeners were naïve about how to safely grow food in potentially contaminated soil. That said, soil contamination should not by any means stop urban agriculture development. Information and guidance on soil safety is available from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a guide for redeveloping contaminated land for urban agriculture projects. Thus, food safety risks associated with urban soils can generally be remedied as long as urban farmers and gardeners are aware of the issues, use the information available, and work with cities to redevelop the land for safe food production. Caring for healthy animals As part of the urban agriculture movement, cities have begun to allow more backyard animals such as goats and chickens. But, not all city dwellers are happy about livestock on neighboring plots of land, and they generally raise concerns about unsightliness, noise, and potential property destruction. City dwellers may also be concerned about animal welfare and public health. To be clear, my opinion is that urban farmers and gardeners can absolutely keep livestock safely within the city limits. However, my experience has been that urban livestock keepers are also more likely to be novices. As a result, I have seen some unfortunate situations where people underestimate the amount of attention baby goats need or the dedication it takes to milk a goat every day. More often, I have seen the novice backyard chicken keepers who fail to give their chickens enough space, clean out manure, or to take care of anaerobic, overgrazed land. Some also underestimate the cost of feed and neglect to properly nourish their livestock. Of course, these are the worst-case scenarios. I point them out because unhealthy animals are more likely to cause foodborne illnesses. For example, a malnourished goat will shed more readily, which increases the likelihood of goat hair (which may have bacteria and feces on it) landing in the milk. In turn, if the owner consumes the milk, or shares it with his or her children, and a foodborne illness is contracted, then the goat becomes a public health risk. Many cities have regulations to keep these unfortunate husbandry practices in check. But some animal welfare advocates have suggested that urban agriculture ordinances have the potential to include more stringent animal welfare standards. So, at least from a food safety perspective, stronger animal welfare standards might make sense, not only for the sake of the animals, but also for public health. Spraying respectfully Like any neighbors, urban farmers and gardeners may find cause for disagreement. But, because urban food production is often nestled in close quarters to other landowners and leasers, urban food producers have a particular interest in what their neighbors are using to control pests, weeds, or fungal diseases. From a food safety perspective, urban growers who are weary of contamination from runoff or overspray by their neighbors might want to take precautions such as checking the community garden policies and discussing application times with neighbors. Also, growers should take heed of where children and animals play since both are sensitive to soil amendments and fertilizers.

  • Very sound advice, across the board.

    I would like to see more vacant lots turned over to urban gardens. At a minimum, it will improve the neighborhoods. It could also act as an impetus to clean up old polluted soil, remove old buildings full of asbestos and lead paint.

    And considering that many of the areas where these old buildings reside are in cities that, unlike current agricultural centers, do have good access to water—it could be a huge win.

    Only problem is, it takes community commitment, effective leadership, and money.

  • Testing the soil in a lab is critical for food safety. This service is often offered for free by various government agencies, but often requires some research to find out where to go in your area. However, this should be your very first step before you do anything else, as it will determine the necessary steps you must follow. Please do not skip this step.