Arte TV: Peter Smeets about food production in cities

Scientist Peter Smeets of Alterra is being interviewed in the documentary "Wie wird die Stadt satt?" on Arte TV in Germany (25 Feb 2014).

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The documentary film Feeding Cities takes place in Berlin, Basel, Holland and India, and follows Peter Smeets, an agricultural scientist from Wageningen University. Smeets has a vision: he wants us to move most of our food production, vegetable production and livestock farming to large industrial areas around the city. His catchword is efficiency – whether he is talking about pig farming, slaughterhouses, dairy farms or colossal greenhouses. He has one conviction: “Most people don’t care where their food comes from, as long as it is good and cheap. They only start to get interested in how it is produced when something goes wrong.”

The Urban Gardeners in Berlin take a very different view of this matter. During a discussion that takes place in between the garden boxes and sunflowers on the former airport grounds of Tempelhof, and in the Princesses’ Garden in the trendy district of Kreuzberg, we discover what motivates these small-scale gardeners: contact with nature, social cooperation, and an alternative food supply.

Roman Gaus from Basel goes a step further – he wants to spread “urban farming” across the world, following the IKEA model. The urban farmer has a pilot installation on the roof of a factory building in Basel, where he produces fish and vegetables, and is already supplying five restaurants “with the freshest fish in the city.”

Peter Smeets smiles at these kinds of attempts: “it might work for a niche market, but if we’re talking about feeding the global population, the solution has to come from a global network.” Peter Smeets travels to India, a country where the “agroparks” he has imagined could become a reality. There is the space here to build gigantic industrial food parks, and a big need to further industrialise agriculture.

Smeets’ antagonist in the film is Felix zu Löwenstein. He is the author of the book Food Crash – We will eat organic food or we won’t eat anything at all, in which he argues that we do not have a problem in terms of production, but rather in terms of distribution. Many people living in rural areas do not have access to water, to financing and to education. As an environmental farmer himself, he views the increasing exodus from whole swathes of land in Europe and in developing countries with great concern. What will become of this land that is emptying itself? Without a change of attitude, above all in industrial nations, Löwenstein believes that the world will stumble into a global crisis of unknown proportions.

Is there no other option left to us than to accept people’s consumer behaviour and to try and respond to their ever-increasing needs as efficiently as possible? Or will this route inevitably lead us to a dead end?