Patrick Baur: “Purity vs. Plurality at the Intersection of Food Safety and Urban Agriculture”


Urban food provisioning systems hold the promise to engender community practices of care that weave people and environments together in complex networks that recognize a plurality of functions and values for urban agriculture. I explore how embracing plurality may pose an alternative modality to and source of resistance against purity politics in food systems, focusing specifically on the advance of the food safety regime into urban agriculture. As this regulatory regime has colonized conventional food systems, it has demonstrated ecologically, economically, and socially unsustainable tendencies. Yet an alternative to the food safety regime’s powerful moral imperative to protect public health from all forms of “contagion” has remained elusive. In interviews with 24 urban farmers and community gardeners in 9 US cities, however, I encountered a diverse array of perspectives on safety. I find that many urban agriculturalists frame safety as a multi-faceted construct encompassing other dimensions of protection: personal security, preservation of environmental integrity, shelter from discriminatory violence, and security of land tenure. Some further situate safety as just one beneficial function among many that urban food provisioning systems should perform in order to properly care for human and environmental well-being. Against this pluralist perspective that recognizes a pragmatic need to balance diverse priorities, the food safety regime seems to be engaged in a well-meaning but potentially damaging colonization of urban agriculture and gardening. At stake is a narrowing and siloing of emergent social-ecological relations of care and a corresponding loss of not just multifunctionality but the potential for general community revitalization built upon novel and vibrant local foodways.