Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 265–279 | Cite as

Re-conceptualizing urban agriculture: an exploration of farming along the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, India

  • Jessica Cook
  • Kate Oviatt
  • Deborah S. Main
  • Harpreet Kaur
  • John Brett


The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is increasing rapidly, with the vast majority of this growth in developing countries. As growing populations in urban areas demand greater food supplies, coupled with a rise in rural to urban migration and the need to create livelihood options, there has been an increase in urban agriculture worldwide. Urban agriculture is commonly discussed as a sustainable solution for dealing with gaps in the local food system, and proponents often highlight the many social, environmental, and economic benefits. We argue that the sustainability of urban agriculture should not be assumed. There is a need for research to take a bottom-up approach, exploring the influence that city-level conditions have on livelihood decisions by farmers and how this shapes the practice of urban agriculture. This paper uses a case study for an in-depth look at urban agriculture in Delhi, India to understand from the farmers’ perspective how urban agriculture is practiced and what factors influence farmers’ livelihood decisions. Using a team-based, multi-method Rapid Assessment Process, data were collected through preliminary key informant interviews, field observations, semi-structured interviews with urban farmers, and geographic information systems mapping. This research provides an in-depth description of market-oriented urban agriculture in a developing country, explores how farmers’ livelihood decisions are embedded in the urban context, and discusses the potential of urban agriculture as a sustainable city-system.


Urban agriculture Developing countries Local food system Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) 



Biochemical oxygen demand


Delhi Development Authority


Geographic information system


Rapid assessment process


The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is increasing dramatically; as of 2007, more people live in urban than rural areas (UNFPA 2007). It is predicted that by 2030 the worldwide population of urban dwellers will be nearly five billion (UNFPA 2007), with approximately 92 % residing in developing countries (UNICEF 2009). This trend towards urbanization has important economic, social, and political implications. Spurred by economic growth, cities can provide increased access to employment, education, healthcare, goods and services, and cultural and intellectual development. Conversely, rapid urbanization is often associated with a number of social and environmental challenges: cities may not have adequate infrastructure to keep up with expanding populations creating social problems related to poverty and unhealthy living conditions, and environmental problems such as air pollution and waste (Cohen 2006; UN 2012). As growing populations in urban areas demand greater food supplies, coupled with a rise in rural to urban migration and the need to create livelihood options, there has been an increase in urban agriculture worldwide (Bryld 2003; Van Veenhuizen 2006).

The World Commission on Environment and Development states that “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is the foundation for creating sustainable cities (1987, p. 41). While there is general agreement that urban agriculture has the potential to make positive environmental, social, and economic contributions to cities, we argue that the sustainability of urban agriculture should not be assumed. Rather, the practice of urban agriculture and its outcomes need to be understood as a livelihood pursuit by farmers who are embedded within a particular urban context. There is a need for research to take a bottom-up approach; to explore the influence that city-level conditions have on livelihood decisions of farmers and how those conditions shape the practice of urban agriculture. To that end, this paper uses a case study for an in-depth look at urban agriculture in Delhi, India to understand from the farmers’ perspective how urban agriculture is practiced and what factors influence farmers’ livelihood decisions. Identifying the facilitators and barriers urban farmers face is an important missing piece in the discussion promoting urban agriculture as a sustainable solution for cities.

Urban agriculture: broad concepts

Although there are many variations on what constitutes urban agriculture (Thornton 2008; RUAF 2011), most cited is Mougeot’s definition that urban agriculture “is an industry located within (intra-urban) or on the fringe (peri-urban) of a town, a city or a metropolis, which grows or raises, processes and distributes a diversity of food and non-food products, (re-)using largely human and material resources, products and services found in and around that urban area, and in turn supplying human and material resources, products and services largely to that urban area” (Mougeot 2000, p. 10). Intra-urban locations are within the older, settled, built-up parts of the city, whereas peri-urban locations are in closer contact to rural areas and often experience greater agricultural changes than their intra-urban counterparts. However, urban agriculture is not just about where agriculture occurs; rather, according to Van Veenhuizen, the distinguishing characteristic of urban agriculture is “that it is an integral part of the urban economic, social and ecological system: urban agriculture uses urban resources (land, labor, urban organic wastes, water), produces for urban citizens, is strongly influenced by urban conditions (policies, competition for land, urban markets and prices) and impacts the urban system (effects on urban food security and poverty, ecological and health impacts)” (2006, p. 2).

This conceptualization of urban agriculture highlights the importance of recognizing it as necessarily embedded in urban systems, which profoundly influence its form and function, and make it distinct from rural agriculture (De Bon et al. 2010). The result of being embedded in the urban system is that the impacts of urban agriculture will be variable and will depend on the emphasis (e.g., economic, ecological, livelihoods) or perspective from which the impacts are viewed. In this paper, we focus primarily on the perspective of urban farmers in Delhi, India.

There is an expanding body of literature that discusses the potential of urban agriculture as a strategy for addressing a number of social, economic, and environmental issues facing cities. By fulfilling a variety of needs across multiple scales, urban agriculture has the potential to meet both short-term population needs by increasing food security and providing livelihood opportunities, and long-term system needs by helping to mitigate global climate change (Lesher 2006; Beddington et al. 2012). Urban agriculture can positively affect food security by addressing some of the factors that limit access and may improve the quality of food itself (RUAF 2011; Zezza and Tasciotti 2008; Cole et al. 2008). Urban agriculture also has many potential benefits beyond strictly providing a food source: it can have positive economic benefits for urban residents by increasing household earnings through increased livelihoods opportunities and by saving families money on food (Van Veenhuizen 2007; Mougeot 2005; Lee-Smith 2008). At the city-level, urban agriculture can have positive economic effects through the utilization of under-used land by converting otherwise idle or marginal land into economically productive spaces (Kaufman and Bailkey 2000). Urban agriculture also has many potential environmental benefits, including the creation of green space, reduction of dust and pollutants, and recycling of organic waste (Bryld 2003; de Zeeuw et al. 2011).

While the potential benefits of urban agriculture are multiple, there are also potential risks. A primary concern related to food production in urban areas is the possibility of crop contamination from pollutants; the quality of urban air, water, and soil can have detrimental effects on the healthfulness of urban produce (Agrawal et al. 2003; Van Veenhuizen 2006; Cole et al. 2008). Similarly, another concern is the potential that agriculture itself pollutes the urban environment through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (de Zeeuw et al. 2011). Excess application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation with wastewater, and growing in contaminated soil can also threaten the health of consumers (Gupta and Gangopadhyay 2013; Srinivasan and Reddy 2009; De Bon et al. 2010).

Thornton asserts that the “general sweeping statements of [urban agriculture’s] importance and potential to benefit the environment and household food security have been based on ‘fragmentary research’, as opposed to its actual impact ‘on the ground’” (2008, p. 245). To address this issue, he emphasizes the need for research that is localized, in-depth, and empirical. Furthermore, there are many approaches that fall under the umbrella of urban agriculture, including subsistence-based farming, farming for self-sufficiency, and commercial, market-oriented farming (Lee-Smith 2008; de Zeeuw et al. 2011). These different activities take place in a variety of spaces, including home gardens, community gardens, commercial gardens, and small farms (Van Veenhuizen 2007). The multiple approaches and activities that fall under urban agriculture may be comparable on some aspects, but are likely to have very different relationships with the urban environment. The distinction between small-scale subsistence backyard/community gardens and other less traditionally studied forms of urban agriculture has recently been highlighted in the literature. Less traditional, but not necessarily less prevalent forms of urban agriculture include open-space production of high-value products on undeveloped land that is public or private land located along roads, railway lines, streams, and river valleys, and in industrial areas and around airports (Drechsel and Dongus 2010; Simatele et al. 2012). Rather than speaking of “urban agriculture” in general, more research is necessary to understand the particularities of each of these forms in specific contexts. Agriculture practiced within city boundaries is clearly not limited to small-scale backyard gardens, but this form has been a focus of much of the research, which is why urban agriculture is often viewed at the household-level and limited to household-level impacts. However, if urban agriculture is going to be part of the dialog on city sustainability, we have to be inclusive of its various forms and embed it in city systems (Simatele et al. 2012; Darnhofer et al. 2010; Pearson et al. 2010). Thus, there is a need to understand household-level impacts of urban agriculture, and particularly market-oriented open space production, within the larger urban social, political and ecological context.

To begin to address some of these gaps, we conducted a pilot study with farmers in Delhi, India where the majority of urban agriculture is located along the undeveloped Yamuna River floodplain, is market-oriented, and is practiced on small farms generally managed by individual families. The primary research questions driving this research were: (1) What are the characteristics of urban agriculture in Delhi, India? (2) What are the benefits and barriers to urban agriculture? We specifically explored the urban context, the characteristics of urban farmers, farming locations, products grown, destination for sale or consumption, scale of production, and technologies employed. Beginning with the role of the farmer as an essential component of how urban agriculture functions, we discuss the choices that Delhi farmers make in terms of how they practice urban agriculture. We contextualize farmers’ choices by considering how factors of the urban environment shape the incentives and barriers that farmers face and explore how those factors influence behavior and decision-making. This research provides an in-depth description of market-oriented urban agriculture in a developing country, explores how farmers’ livelihood decisions are embedded in the urban context, and discusses the potential for urban agriculture to be a sustainable city-system.

The case of Delhi, India

Delhi is currently the fifth largest megacity in the world and has a population greater than 18 million (Brinkhoff 2011) (Fig. 1). The rate of growth in Delhi is more than double the national population growth rate (Agarwal et al. 2007), with the highest population density of all Indian cities (Central Bureau of Health Intelligence 2010). As a city experiencing rapid urbanization, Delhi offers a particularly relevant environment to study the integration of agricultural practices within a city-system (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1

Context map. Source based on world political boundaries map (EDINA 2014)

Fig. 2

Photo of urban agriculture along the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. This image shows a crop of radishes intercropped with marigolds. Photo taken by Jessica Cook

Delhi is bisected by the Yamuna River, the second holiest river in India. The Yamuna River originates from a glacier in the lower Himalayas, flows through the city of Delhi, and finally heads east to join with India’s holiest river, the Ganges. Upstream from Delhi, the water is of “reasonably good quality” (Parsai 2003). Once the river passes through the Wazirabad barrage (a flood and water diversion dam) on the north end of Delhi, most of its water is siphoned off for domestic water use, which is then discharged from wastewater treatment outlet drains throughout the length of the city (Central Pollution Control Board 2006). Not all of Delhi’s effluent is processed through wastewater treatment facilities, and it is estimated that Delhi contributes 80 % of the pollution in the Yamuna River, resulting in a black, dead river with a biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of 14–28 mg/l (Central Pollution Control Board 2006).1 It is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world (Prashar et al. 2012). Along the 22 km stretch of river that flows through Delhi we estimate approximately 4,500 acres of farmland supporting thousands of small-scale farmers. This area of the city has so far been undeveloped primarily because it is in the river’s floodplain, which floods July through September during the annual monsoon season.

At the time of this research project, the area along the Yamuna River was in a state of flux. In 1949, the Delhi Improvement Trust allotted more than 5,000 acres of land along the Yamuna to the Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Cooperative Society (the Society). The Society parceled out the land along the Yamuna to Society members by giving them the right to cultivate the land.2 In 1957, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was created in response to rapid population growth (Delhi Development Authority 2012). Tasked with ensuring that development in Delhi adheres to an approved plan, the DDA creates and approves development plans in accordance with a city-level Master Plan. In 1991, the DDA became the successor of the Delhi Improvement Trust and, consequently, the authority over the land along the Yamuna. The DDA’s current Master Plan for Delhi 2021 is to make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city, where all the people would be engaged in productive work with a better quality of life, living in a sustainable environment (Delhi Development Authority 2012). As the amount of land available for development in and around Delhi dwindles, the open fields of the Yamuna floodplain have attracted the attention of land developers.


We designed this research based on the Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) (Beebe 2001). RAP is a research approach designed for investigating complicated situations where the issues are not well defined and there is insufficient time and/or resources for long-term research. It relies on team interaction to collect and analyze data through an iterative process, and emphasizes triangulation, or the use of multiple methods to corroborate and strengthen findings. Within this framework, data collection methods included: preliminary key informant meetings, field observations, semi-structured interviews, and geographic information systems (GIS) mapping. Fieldwork was conducted over a 4-week period just prior to the arrival of the summer monsoon rains in 2011.

Key informant meetings

Preliminary key informant meetings provided a framework for developing open-ended interview questions to capture the farmers’ perspective. We met with experts and professionals in Delhi including government and non-government affiliated professionals, and researchers with relevant expertise. Discussions were informal and we asked informants to talk about urban agriculture with respect to their area of expertise. Topics ranged from environmental issues and impacts, food security, and poverty to the lack of space for backyard gardens and use of herbs and flowers in ritual practices. Many of the conversations echoed the literature on urban agriculture as a source of food security and livelihoods, as well as concern that farming along the Yamuna River posed a threat to the environment due to chemical fertilizer and pesticide runoff into the Yamuna. The conversations provided a broad overview of potential benefits and barriers that urban farmers in Delhi face and were used to prompt deeper discussion during farmer interviews.

Semi-structured interviews

The research objectives of describing urban agriculture practices and exploring benefits and barriers guided the development of a core list of open-ended interview questions, which we were able to revise iteratively to reflect themes and verify new information as it emerged. This method of semi-structured interviewing allowed the team to collect data about agricultural practices that were consistent across all interviews while allowing flexibility for new topics to emerge (Schensul and LeCompte 1999). Interviews were recorded through extensive note taking, reviewed by the team at the end of each field day and then typed up as field notes.

The research team asked each farmer to talk about his or her farming practices in order to develop a detailed description of urban agriculture practices in the area. Farmers were prompted to talk about physical characteristics of their land including the farm size, types of crops grown, and susceptibility to annual flooding; farming practices; land tenure; and post-harvest activities including self-consumption, selling at a market, or selling to a third party. To understand benefits and barriers to agriculture in an urban context, the team asked farmers to talk about why the Yamuna River was a good location for farming, and then asked about any disadvantages to farming at their current location. After the first few interviews, themes emerged quickly and were used in subsequent interviews to probe deeper.

Field observation

Field observation of urban agricultural areas occurred at different times of day and involved documenting who was present on the farm site (male/female, young/old), farming activities, types of crops, and other agricultural-related site characteristics. Observational data collection occurred both concurrently and independent of interviews, and provided a deeper understanding of farming practices and interactions. This method of direct observation complements the interviews on urban agriculture (Singleton and Straits 2005).

GIS mapping

The team used an iPad 2 with 3G connected to the Internet through a local cellular service provider to record the location of each farmed plot of land during interviews. A point location of the interview site was recorded using Google maps if the interview took place on or adjacent to the farmed plot. If the interview occurred in another location, the team asked the farmer where his or her plot was located, and the location was recorded on Google maps. Mapping plot locations allowed the data from each interview to be linked geographically with GIS software (ESRI ArcMap 10) after it was coded. A simple point location of farm plots was recorded because the research team did not want to further burden farmers with lengthy marking out of farm plot boundaries at the end of the interview. GIS data were used to identify patterns of interview responses visually and to describe the overall geographic context of urban agricultural practices.

Research site and participant sampling

Interview sites spanned the length of the Yamuna River within Delhi city boundaries and included a few sites in the peri-urban areas bordering Delhi to the north and to the south. The resulting transect encompasses a distance of approximately 25 miles (40 km) (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Location of interviews with farmers. Thirty-five interviews were completed across eight sites. Source Based on Aerial Imagery basemap (Esri 2014)

Given the short time frame and exploratory nature of this research, the team used a flexible sampling design that included both convenience and snowball sampling methods. Using this approach, we were able to conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 35 farming families across eight sites (Figs. 3, 4)—a quick and inexpensive way to maximize the sample size, while also allowing us to conduct multiple interviews within proximal farming locations. Field sites were selected based on recommendations from key informant interviews and to represent a transect along the entire length of the Yamuna River as it flows through Delhi. At the end of each interview, farmers were asked for a recommendation for the next farmer(s) to approach. If no recommendation was given, or if the farmers did not want to be interviewed, the team moved on to an adjacent farm.
Fig. 4

Example of one research area (red boundary) with four interview sites (yellow stars). Source Based on Aerial Imagery basemap (Esri 2014). (Color figure online)

Data analysis

Data analysis began as an iterative process concurrent with data collection to modify and strengthen data collection methods followed by a more formal post-data collection analysis. We initially used the research objectives and interview questions to create an outline of topics and sub-topics. Then we populated the outline with the notes from each interview and added relevant observations. The outline functioned to organize and clean interview data and observations in preparation for coding. Each outline was then coded and analyzed in ATLAS.ti using a team approach to increase reliability and validity. Each team member separately developed an a priori coding list, based on research objectives and salient concepts identified in the literature review, and then met to review, edit, and combine lists. One team member used the a priori codes to complete a first round of coding of the outline-formatted interview/observation notes, and added emergent codes. The second team member reviewed the coded notes and began a back and forth dialog of coding and analysis. The iterative process between team members continued as patterns emerged and themes were identified, verified, and summarized. Data that were easily categorized were exported into Microsoft Excel and plotted in ArcMap (e.g., types of crops grown, length of tenure), allowing us to view and describe some of the data geographically. Because this research was a pilot study, GIS data were limited to simple visualizations of clustering of characteristics, benefits, and barriers.


Yamuna river agricultural characteristics

The first goal of this pilot study was to summarize the characteristics of urban agriculture in Delhi, India. We estimate there are approximately 2,500 small-scale farms on the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi based on the average size of farm plots among interviewed farmers, observation of other farms, and the total area farmed along the Yamuna River. The typical household size of participating Delhi farmers was six to ten people, with both men and women actively participating in farming. Farm plot sizes varied somewhat, but the average size of land farmed was 11 bigha, which is slightly less than two acres.3 Most families lived on the land they farmed, although some owned a house or property elsewhere in the city or a nearby village. Dwellings on the farms ranged from temporary reed structures to sturdy mud houses.

Delhi farmers produced a wide variety of goods; vegetable crops were most common, but two sites grew roses, and one site had landscape nurseries. Commonly grown crops included gourds (e.g., bottle and bitter gourd), eggplant, okra, corn, pumpkins, cucumber, chilies, black-eyed peas, spinach and other leafy vegetables, cauliflower, mustard seed, wheat, rice, tomatoes, melons, watermelon, carrots, and radishes. A few farmers also had fruit trees, such as jamun or guava, although these were not reported as a primary crop. In addition to food crops, many farmers grew some type of flower, either roses or marigolds, both important in wedding ceremonies across many of the religions in India, and thus in high demand particularly during the months of November through February when many marriages occur. Some farms supported animals such as a cow and calf or a few goats for personal milk consumption.

Delhi farmers are able to grow nearly year-round. In October and November they plant hardy winter crops including cauliflower and dark leafy greens. Quick growing summer crops, such as chilies and radishes, are planted around March. And, some farmers plant rice during the monsoon months of July, August, and September. Crop productivity was high enough to support most farmers and their families year-round, even during the monsoon season; few farmers looked for other means of employment between growing seasons.

Of the 35 farm families interviewed, only one reported growing crops primarily for personal consumption. Most indicated that they consumed only a small amount of the food they grew and bought most of the rest. Produce was commonly sold through several distribution options, with three primary channels: direct to consumer, to a vendor, and to a wholesale market. The majority of the interviewed farmers sold their produce to wholesale markets, the most popular being Chandni Chowk and Azadpur Sabzi (Fig. 5). Farmers who grew roses or marigolds often took their harvest to Chandni Chowk, known for selling Hindu ceremonial items. Many farmers also sold their produce at local markets, while some sold to a vendor or distributor who then sold to the consumer. Most farmers utilized at least two distribution options, but a few reported using up to three and/or selling at more than one market.
Fig. 5

Location of markets where farmers reported selling produce. Source Based on street basemap (Esri 2014)

Most of the farmers hired temporary laborers to help at high labor times of the agricultural cycle, and a few farmers reported having hired permanent labor. With few exceptions, smaller farms (1–10 bigha; 0.2–1.7 acres) typically hired 2–4 laborers, while larger farms (10–25 bigha; 1.7–4.2 acres) hired 7–10. Hired labor assisted in all stages of farming, from planting and tilling to weeding and harvesting; they were used most frequently during sowing season. In most cases, hired labor assisted the farmer but in a few cases farmers did not do any of the farm work themselves, and instead supervised the hired labor. While data on the amount spent on labor in a year were not available for all farms, a few farmers did report that they spent approximately Rs.4,000–5,000 on labor annually ($90–110 at the time of this research).

These findings are consistent with Mougeot’s (2000) definition of urban agriculture as using urban resources and producing for urban citizens, and describe a type of urban agriculture that represents market-oriented open space production—specifically, family-type commercial farms. Moustier and Danso’s (2006) urban agriculture socio-economic profile describes family-type commercial farmers as located on urban and peri-urban land, practiced by both males and females, selling exclusively to an urban market in order to gain income for subsistence, growing leafy vegetables and temperate vegetables on a plots <1,000 m2, and harvesting 2–3 crops per year. The next section provides examples of how this particular type of agriculture is embedded within the urban context of Delhi.

Benefits and barriers to practicing agriculture

The second goal of this pilot study was to identify benefits and barriers to urban agriculture. Our research revealed a complex range of social, environmental, and economic impacts from practicing agriculture in an urban context. We have organized findings by issue and describe benefits and barriers topically.

Fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation

Cities provide an opportunity for access to organic waste for fertilizer and pest management control programs; however, in many cases, the literature reports that urban farmers often rely on chemical fertilizers and potentially toxic levels of pesticides, which have the potential to pollute the environment (De Bon et al. 2010; de Zeeuw et al. 2011). We found that Delhi farmers used a range of methods to amend soil fertility and control pests including some organic methods. However, nearly all of the farm families interviewed did use chemical fertilizers, averaging two to four bags (50 kg/bag) per bigha, with a minimum of one bag and a maximum of six bags reported. Farmers often mentioned organic fertilizer during interviews, but fewer than a third used it. And, of those that reported using it, most used only a small amount to supplement the chemical fertilizer; no farmer relied solely on organic fertilizer. Attitudes toward fertilizer use varied. Many people reported that organic fertilizer was superior while others claimed farming would be nearly impossible without chemicals. Notably, one farmer reported using two carts of cow dung annually, while his neighbor said only chemical fertilizers were available to him. In addition, many farmers reported using pesticides. As with fertilizers, use of pesticides varied among farmers. Interestingly, one farmer who said she almost never sprayed farmed a plot adjacent to a family that sprayed every week.

Discussions regarding inputs revealed that farmers had relatively little knowledge of alternative farming practices, such as natural methods for fertilization (besides cow dung) and pest control, crop rotation, or leaving fields fallow, and were largely reliant on chemical inputs for boosting productivity. Many said that it was the only way they knew how to farm. Despite this, many farmers indicated that they were very interested in learning new farming methods and said that if there were an opportunity for them to engage in education around the topic that they would participate.

In addition to fertile soil, crops require water. Water is a critical issue for many cities, and agriculture is a significant consumer of water. The Yamuna River floodplain in Delhi not only provides a large undeveloped open space for agriculture, but also provides highly desirable access to an irrigation source—but not directly from the river itself. The most common source for irrigation was a 30–60 foot tube well with diesel pump or manual handle. Some farmers irrigated on a regular schedule (e.g., weekly), whereas others reported that they only watered crops when they became dry. Despite their proximity to the Yamuna River, none of the farmers interviewed irrigated with water directly from the river. When asked about the river water, they responded that it was dirty or made them sick—one farmer noted that she had one shallow well (30 feet) for irrigation and one deeper well (60 feet) for consumption because the shallow well could make her and her family sick. A few farmers explained that the river water was not good, and that if it flooded the land and stood for very long, then after it receded the cows would not even eat the crops. The quality of the Yamuna River water in Delhi is reported as highly contaminated (Central Pollution Control Board 2006) so it was not surprising that farmers did not irrigate directly from the river; however, there is nothing published on the quality of the surrounding groundwater. There could be an issue of crop contamination due to poor water quality despite farmers’ efforts to use clean groundwater.

Fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation practices illustrate potential sources for both contamination of crops and the environment, which are two concerns related to urban agriculture (de Zeeuw et al. 2011; Agrawal et al. 2003). Farmers saw a link between water quality, soil fertility, and crop health, but responded in different ways likely due to admittedly limited knowledge. For example, whereas one farmer increased fertilizer use each year, another reduced it. We found a similar pattern with pesticide use. The trend toward increased use of fertilizer and pesticide application is cited frequently in the literature with recommendations for research and outreach to train farmers in organic practices and better pest management (De Bon et al. 2010). In addition to education and outreach our findings suggest that access to organic inputs may also be a critical missing step in enabling farmers to practice more sustainable methods.

Migration and benefits to urban farming

While some authors find urban agriculture a fringe activity that fills temporary household needs (De Bon et al. 2010), the length of tenure of urban farmers in Delhi suggests that it is a relatively stable livelihood. Roughly one quarter of interviewed farmers had moved to Delhi within the last 10 years, but others had lived in Delhi longer; the average tenure overall among the farming families was 38 years. The stability of agriculture along the Yamuna is consistent with Mougeot’s (2000) description of intra-urban locations as being within the older, settled, built-up parts of the city that experience less agricultural change.

Among the more recent migrants we spoke with (greater than 10 years; n = 9), many articulated the benefits and barriers of farming in Delhi compared to their homeland, with the most cited benefit that they earned more money in Delhi. Many said that in their homeland they only had one growing season; they would have to make the money earned from a single season last the year. In contrast, farmers in Delhi are able to plant nearly year-round, resulting in a fairly steady stream of income. The ability to plant year-round was also linked to what they farmed. Many migrants had grown cereal crops but transitioned to vegetable crops in Delhi because of the small plot size (too small to grow a quantity of cereal crops to be profitable) and high market demand as a result of the large population of Delhi (“there is always a market for every type of crop”). One farmer remarked that in his rural town he grew only rice and wheat because no one would buy vegetables. The combination of multiple growing seasons and access to a guaranteed market increased Delhi farmers’ profits and made urban farming a more lucrative livelihood compared to rural farming. This description of earning potential illustrates how urban agriculture in Delhi contributes to livelihood opportunities and is also embedded in the urban economic context. In addition to earning more as farmers in Delhi, recent migrants also cited better access to resources such as irrigation, seeds, and fertilizers as a benefit to farming in Delhi in contrast to their rural homelands. More than half of the rural population in India is involved in agriculture, and many migrants to Delhi from surrounding rural areas may continue to rely on agriculture for income especially if it is more profitable due to urban markets. This trend is not uncommon and is reflected by African rural–urban migration patterns among those practicing agriculture (De Bon et al. 2010)

Another important benefit, not cited in the literature, that many farmers said they appreciated about Delhi was that it offered opportunities for themselves and their children beyond farming. Farmers said that their children had increased educational opportunities and better marriage options, and that they and their children had better access to other forms of employment. While not farming related, this was a clear benefit in the eyes of the farmers and a motivator for them to live in Delhi.

Farmers articulated benefits to farming in Delhi and opportunities found in a large urban context; however, discussions with farmers who had migrated to Delhi in the previous 10 years from a rural village indicated that there were also drawbacks. Two farmers said that the soil was better where they had migrated from and that they had to use more fertilizers in Delhi. Another farmer said that the heat was very intense in Delhi, which made it difficult for them to work and had caused them to become ill. Despite these drawbacks, there was an overwhelming attitude that their lives had improved as a result of migrating to Delhi.

Lack of landownership is an issue

The majority of farming families had been practicing agriculture along the Yamuna River for more than 20 years, and many farmed cross-generational plots. However, we found that few people working the land actually owned it; some paid rent to a private landowner, while others occupied government land and may or may not have paid rent. Farmers consistently reported that the DDA was no longer renewing land tenure agreements and was reclaiming control of the land along the Yamuna River in response to the economic boom and development expansion. Construction of highway flyovers, metro train expansion, commercial and residential buildings, religious and sporting facilities, and even a few manicured public parks, had replaced farmland in order to meet the growing needs of the burgeoning population.

During our interviews, there was a great deal of confusion among farmers about who owned the land; some believed it was still the Society, others the DDA, and a few claimed they themselves owned it. Most farmers who had already lost some land to development stated that they had not been reimbursed for their losses. The few farmers that said they had been reimbursed claimed that it was for a fraction of the actual losses they suffered—one family said they were only paid for the amount of the crops that they lost and not for the actual value of the land. In addition to the loss of land, many farmers reported that the government repeatedly razed their homes stating that the land is leased solely for farming purposes and not intended for habitation.

Lack of property rights and questionable legality of land use is often cited in the literature and makes studying urban agriculture challenging in an environment where practitioners are wary of outsiders asking them questions (De Bon et al. 2010). Within the first few interviews it was clear that for the majority of farmers, the uncertainty surrounding the security of their tenure was one of the most concerning issues. Farmers who lived south of the Wazirabad barrage (located upstream and north of the city, and thus including the majority of interviewed farmers) expressed the most worry. One farmer who lived north of the Wazirabad barrage said that development on his land was unlikely because of the annual flooding. South of the Wazirabad barrage, however, water levels are controlled, making development more likely feasible. From the farmers’ perspective, there was a great deal of confusion over land tenure. Research on land tenure suggests that it has a direct impact on how invested farmers are in their land (Van Veenhuizen 2006). Despite the stability of the Delhi farm population resulting from length of tenure, instability of land ownership may put pressure on farmers to maximize production of their current crop through increased application of fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation with the idea that it may be their last crop.

Other benefits and barriers to farming in Delhi

Living in a megacity means that there are resources available to farmers that would be scarce, difficult to access, or non-existent in a rural context. On the other hand, an urban-situated agricultural livelihood means that farmers also face unique challenges and vulnerabilities. Migrant farmers were particularly aware of the differences between rural and urban agriculture, but even farmers who had always farmed along the Yamuna River noted at least one benefit and one barrier to farming in the urban environment of Delhi.

In addition to having better access to farming inputs (chemical fertilizers, seeds, irrigation, etc.), farmers also valued having access to an abundant and low-cost temporary labor force and access to loans to purchase farming inputs. Access to loans was considered beneficial because farmers could maximize the productivity of their small plots. Although, if yields were low, crops damaged or destroyed, or if the selling prices were low, paying back loans became an issue—exacerbated by the fact that many farmers took informal loans and debt collection was also of an informal nature. Financial support for farmers is limited and there is scarce research on the credit and investment interventions that could benefit urban producers and strengthen their contribution to urban economies (Van Veenhuizen 2006).

Flooding, although not unique to an urban context, was a chronic threat exacerbated by regional water management through the use of the barrages. The annual monsoon rains bring floods, but water from behind the barrages is released periodically. It was unclear if farmers were given notice of scheduled flooding, although they did say that the government provided tents for relocating to higher ground when the land flooded. Flooding was more than an environmental inconvenience; the extreme organic and chemical pollution of the Yamuna River created a health risk for farmers and their animals. Many farmers reported that the continuous flooding of their land was leading to soil degradation—although a few noted that the land seemed to be increasing in fertility, which, as already suggested, may have more to do with the increase in their use of chemical fertilizers than the river water itself. In traditional agriculture, annual floods are an essential element in maintaining soil fertility because of the deposit of new soil as floodwaters recede, but we found farmers concerned, and even fearful in some cases, of the pollution the Yamuna River, which was the direct result of the urban infrastructure.

Farmers also mentioned issues of theft and vulnerabilities due to market fluctuation. Theft was generally not a problem for farmers, but there was always a potential for theft. One family had their well pump handle stolen and could not afford to purchase a replacement. Consequently, their crops were seriously wilted and would soon die if it did not rain. Another farmer noted that people become desperate when they cannot find work to feed their families. He said, pointing to the newly constructed highway overpass a few hundred yards from his farm plot, that as the city developed and more people were displaced, they came closer to his crops and he risked having some stolen. Another vulnerability came from a less specific source: the media. One of the farm sites had recently been the topic of a news report stating that the farmers injected crops with a solution to make them appear fuller and unblemished. The result was a steep drop in market prices. Farmers had to sell their crops at significant losses if they could even find a market willing to buy their vegetables.


A key finding in this research is that, contrary to commonly held beliefs that farming is a rural activity, many of our participants identified a number of very real advantages to being located in an urban area. Practicing agriculture in the city provides a reliable livelihood strategy for market-oriented, commercial farming by families in Delhi. They had multiple market venues to sell their crops, which provide a reliable source of income year-round. They also had increased access to resources to facilitate their farming, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and loans. Importantly, the farmers we interviewed had a strong desire to improve their quality of life and educate their children, and believed they had better opportunities to achieve those goals in the city. Despite some of the challenges to practicing agriculture in an urban context (e.g., development pressure, limited access to organic fertilizers), many of the farmers we interviewed were surviving, even thriving, as urban farmers precisely because of the benefits provided by an urban center. These findings underscore the importance of understanding how the practice of urban agriculture is embedded within the city environment and how this context shapes the incentives that farmers have and the choices they make.

One important question that emerges from this research in attempting to scale up beyond the household is: how much do they produce? We did not collect production data but were able to develop a rough estimate based on FAO and Indian data.4 For example, a family with one hectare of land could produce 11,000–19,000 kg of tomatoes per growing season. If all of the estimated 2,500 Yamuna River farms grew one crop of tomatoes in a year the total production would be between 27,500 and 47,500 metric tons of tomatoes/year. While this is a relatively small contribution to the food supply of a city the size of Delhi, it nevertheless demonstrates the way in which agriculture has been integrated into the urban system, producing quantities of food and livelihoods on what has been generally considered wasteland. With the year-round farming potential of the Yamuna floodplain, farmers produce a diverse mix of crops over multiple growing seasons, thus providing reliable livelihoods for farmers and contributing produce to local neighborhood markets.

In terms of urban agriculture’s potential as a sustainable city-system, an on-the-ground practitioner’s (i.e., farmer’s) perspective reveals that the sustainability of urban agriculture is complex and problematic, although perhaps attainable. While this research does not speak to sustainability indicators such as reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, efficient use of land and water resources, or maintenance of ecosystem services, our focus on farmers’ perceptions of the challenges they face and how these influence the way in which they practice agriculture speaks to the viability of urban agriculture as a part of the larger urban landscape. Based on discussions with Delhi farmers, our research identifies two primary barriers to making urban agriculture in Delhi more sustainable; (1) a lack of farmers’ knowledge, skills, and resources to implement sustainable practices; and, (2) unsupportive government policies and practices related to urban farming.

The first primary barrier to the sustainability of urban agriculture in Delhi was a general lack of knowledge, skills, and resources among farmers regarding sustainable agriculture. If farmers do not know other farming methods or have access to more sustainable inputs, as was the case with organic fertilizer, then they cannot implement more sustainable practices. Furthermore, farmers migrating from rural areas bring knowledge and skills that may need to evolve to urban agricultural conditions. Engaging with farmers and providing them both education about alternative methods and access to more desirable inputs is essential if farming in Delhi is to be made more sustainable. And education goes beyond actual farm techniques. In a cash-based economy, access to loans was a huge financial benefit, but could also create a cycle of indebtedness not easily managed by those with limited financial knowledge and resources. Educating farmers on better business practices and managing finances could improve the sustainability of their livelihoods in the long term.

The second primary barrier to sustainability from the farmers’ perspective was the incongruity between the farming activities occurring along the river and the city’s policies and practices regarding land use and farming. The experience of having land taken away for development purposes, the inadequate compensation of farmers for their losses, and the razing of homes creates a culture of fear among farmers and an attitude that there is a general lack of support for urban farming by the city. These perceptions have real effects on how farmers practice urban agriculture; if farmers believe there is potential for the city to appropriate their land, they have little incentive to invest in more sustainable, long-term practices and are more likely to engage in short-term strategies. The aim of this pilot project was to capture the urban farmers’ perspective as embedded in the urban context. Future research could focus on Delhi planning and development practitioners and policies to gain an institutional perspective on urban agriculture.

While urban agriculture has the potential to contribute to the overall sustainability of a city, it should not be assumed. Although much of the literature views urban agriculture as an important direction for the sustainability of cities, this research challenges the normative association between urban agriculture and sustainability. Urban agriculture is distinguished from rural agriculture because it is integrated in the urban economic, social, and ecological systems. It is unrealistic to consider the practicalities and practice of urban agriculture independent from urban resources such as land and water availability, local market demand and pricing, or various other urban conditions or policies. If the systems that urban agriculture is embedded in are not sustainable, it is unlikely that urban agriculture is going to be sustainable. Given that urban agriculture is primarily a livelihood pursuit by farmers, not necessarily an effort in sustainability or city-level food production, we must first identify the incentives and barriers faced by farmers, as these factors will be primary drivers for behavior and decision-making among farmers. Without understanding the motivations of farmers as they weigh benefits and barriers in pursuit of viable livelihoods, it is difficult to frame the argument for urban agriculture as a sustainable city-system. We argue that future research should critically evaluate the potential of urban agriculture as a sustainable activity by taking a livelihoods perspective in considering how the city context shapes farmers’ decisions.


Urbanization is a key driver of present-day social, economic, and ecological processes; the majority of people now live in urban areas and cities draw heavily on the resources from surrounding rural areas (Ramaswami et al. 2012). As urban populations continue to increase, increasing the sustainability of cities will be important for addressing myriad issues, from individual-level problems (food insecurity and poverty) to city-level issues (pollution levels) to global issues (climate change).

This research has explored urban agriculture’s potential as a sustainable city-system using a case study of urban farmers’ perspectives on the benefits and barriers to practicing agriculture in an urban context. Our findings indicate that the practice of urban agriculture is intimately linked to city-level factors, which shape both the incentives and barriers that farmers face. To understand how urban agriculture is practiced, we must consider the livelihood decisions that farmers make and how these are influenced by the larger urban context within which they are embedded. Discussions with farmers revealed that there are a number of significant benefits to farming in an urban area. Our research also indicates that the urban context creates some challenges for farmers, which may limit farmers’ capacity to improve their farming practices. In this case, short-term livelihood factors, including immediate economic return on yields and planned land use changes, presented more pressure on Delhi farmers’ agricultural strategies than long-term prospects of sustainability.

We conclude that while urban agriculture has the potential to be a sustainable system, it is not by default sustainable. Based on the urban Delhi farmers’ perspective, we suggest that if urban agriculture in Delhi is going to contribute to the sustainability of the city, the city needs to create a more positive environment by providing livelihood incentives that encourage farmers to improve their practices. Given what we learned about the barriers identified in our research, the primary avenues for increasing the sustainability of urban agriculture in Delhi from the farmers’ perspective are (1) secure land tenure for farmers, (2) educating farmers about alternative agricultural practices, and (3) increasing farmers’ access to alternative resources. We believe that by increasing the capacity of urban farmers, urban agriculture can be a system that contributes positively to the sustainability of the city.

This description of Delhi farmers illustrates the complexity of urban agriculture in a growing, developing country, and highlights the need to down-scale research to focus on understanding, from the bottom-up, how urban agriculture functions as a livelihood strategy embedded in the urban context. Identifying the facilitators and barriers urban farmers face is key to understanding farmers’ ability to practice agriculture sustainably. This is necessary to move forward the discussion promoting urban agriculture as a sustainable solution for cities.


  1. 1.

    As a reference, a pristine river has a BOD of approximately 1 mg/l, and a moderately polluted river would range from 2 to 8 mg/l (Sawyer et al. 2003).

  2. 2.

    There is limited documentation on the Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Cooperative Society. The background provided in this paper is based on reviews of court rulings over land disputes between the DDA and various Yamuna tenants.

  3. 3.

    One bigha is approximately 1/6 acre and is the commonly used unit of land measurement.

  4. 4.

    Estimates are based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2014) and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (Vanitha et al. 2013). We acknowledge the limitations in the data used for this estimate, which is based on small samples and data aggregated across a range of ecological zones. The production range is drawn from the two states (Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) on either side of the New Delhi Capital District for the year we were in the field (2011).



This research was supported by grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jessica Cook
    • 1
  • Kate Oviatt
    • 1
  • Deborah S. Main
    • 1
  • Harpreet Kaur
    • 2
  • John Brett
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Health and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of Colorado DenverDenverUSA
  2. 2.School of Environmental SciencesJawaharlal Nehru UniversityDelhiIndia
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Colorado DenverDenverUSA

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