As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for food. There will be 10 billion people on Earth by the year 2056, most of them living in cities. Will the food industry keep up and feed us all? Could urban farming be part of the solution?
Urban Farming in Times of Crisis
During World War II, the American economy was strained to its limits. Fresh produce was hard to find in urban markets. In order to make up for it, the government encouraged its citizens to plant “Victory Gardens”. Roughly 20 million Americans took up the patriotic challenge to meet their own fruit and vegetable needs. They utilized vacant lots, rooftops and backyards. When the war ended, however, the governmental incentive died away and many gardens did not grow again. At least, not until recently.
Why Urban Agriculture Works
All over the world, the urban farming trend is catching on. Why shouldn’t it? Growing food in the city has many advantages over traditional agriculture. The miles fresh produce has to travel, from the farm to the consumer, are cut down drastically. This results in fresher, more nutritious food, as well as in savings in transportation. Urban farmers are not threatened by insects and wildlife as much as their rural counterparts and can easily obtain organic waste for compost basically for free. Furthermore, thanks to advancement in lighting technology and hydroponics (growing plants on liquid solutions instead of soil), they can plant crops more densely and obtain bigger yields. Smaller lots are easier to manage, too, with less space to cover and a possibility to address potential problems faster.
Anyone Can Become an Urban Farmer
Urban agriculture comes in all forms and shapes. Even a few pots on a sunny balcony can make a difference. Not enough space in your backyard? Not a problem, you can always grow vertically. More and more cities make it easier for their residents to utilize empty lots and turn them into tiny food factories. Only recently, Paris passed a new law allowing everyone to plant a garden anywhere within the city limits, hoping to create 100 hectares of new green space. Detroit is yet another example of the urban farming revolution, with over 1400 gardens and farms located in the depopulated city, often on abandoned lots. Many of them are community gardens. Aside from providing its members with fresh produce, they transform low-income communities into places of work, learning, and social integration.
Many urban farming enthusiasts have developed their operations into full-scale commercial enterprises. They grow produce in tiny greenhouses, lawns-turned-gardens, rooftops and empty industrial spaces. Their produce ends up in local restaurants, shops, and farmers’ markets, where people tired of mass-produced food turn to their local organic equivalents. The relatively small size of urban farms makes it easier to experiment with diversifying crops to achieve the highest return on investment possible. Yet the food production itself is not always enough to make these businesses profitable. Those that thrive seek other sources of revenue, organizing workshops, tours and courses, as well as publishing books and magazines.
Could City Farmers Make a Difference?
As much as the go-local trend helps to promote urban farming, it might not be enough to keep the industry growing. Conventional farms still hold the upper hand, especially when it comes to the know-how, economies of scale and trained workforce. Nevertheless, the imprint of urban agriculture on the global food production is not insignificant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are around 200 million urban farmers in the world. They supply food to roughly 700 million people (12 % of the population). If these numbers are to grow, however, city farmers have to embrace technological innovations and take advantage of their greatest asset – location. Farming in the city means being inside the market and close to the customers. It makes it easier to establish what their needs are and how to adapt the business accordingly. Doing so makes success much more likely.
Below are several examples of commercial urban farms from across the world that have made it work.
Sky Greens, Singapore
Singapore’s first vertical farm, Sky Greens began its commercial operation in 2012. Thanks to their emphasis on lowering carbon emissions and green urban solutions, they won the support and recognition from the government, as well as several major awards, including the INDEX: Award 2015. Aside from delivering locally grown greens daily to Singaporean retailers, they are committed to developing and excelling both food storage and waste recycling technologies.
Brooklyn Grange, New York City
Brooklyn Grange started in 2010 by adapting a rooftop of a dilapidated building on Northern Boulevard into a farm. Currently, it boasts of being the biggest rooftop soil farm in the world, with over 50,000 lbs of organic food produced annually from over two acres of rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens. Not only do they grow fresh produce, they also host venues, run educational programs, provide urban farming solutions and team up with non-profit organizations to benefit local communities.
Green City Acres, Kelowna, Canada
Operating on rented city lots and using bio-intensive farming methods, Green City Acres grows vegetables for local restaurants, community-supported agriculture entities and farmers’ markets. They operate on an acre of land and pay for the right to use it with fresh produce. What they grow, they distribute mainly on bicycles in order to reduce gas consumption. They do not only farm crops, but also organize speaking events and courses. The founder of Green City Acres, Curtis Stone, is also the author of The Urban Farmer: growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land.
GrowUp Urban Farms, London
This startup began as a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, with the aim to change the way food is produced and distributed in urban areas. Their upcycled GrowUp box – a combination of a shipping container with fish tanks on the bottom and a greenhouse on top – currently operates as a demonstration farm in Stratford. The waste from the fish tanks is filtered and used to nourish plants in the greenhouse above. They use the same technology on a larger scale in their Unit 84, an industrial warehouse in Beckton. Their 6,000 square feet of growing space yields over 20,000 kg of greens and 4,000 kg of fish every year.