Around the world, cities and towns are getting bigger, with people moving in search of economic opportunity.
In the years ahead, urban areas could have a role to play when it comes to strengthening food security.
Tracy Packer | Moment Mobile | Getty Images
Around the world, cities and towns are getting bigger, with people moving to built-up areas in greater numbers in search of economic opportunity and success.
This mass movement looks set to accelerate.In 2018, the United Nations said that 55% of the planet was living in “urban areas” and forecast that this would rise to 68% by the middle of the century.
Cities and towns are undoubted centers of finance, culture and politics, but will they also have a role to play when it comes to strengthening food security and feeding the planet? According to a recent study, published in the journal Nature Food, the answer could be yes.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield found that using only 10% of a city’s urban green spaces and gardens to grow food could provide 15% of the local population – which equates to 87,375 people in Sheffield – with five portions of fruit or vegetables per day.
“Urban areas are particularly well suited to growing horticultural crops – fruits and vegetables,” Jill Edmonson, from the university’s Institute for Sustainable Food, told CNBC.com via email.
“Urban horticulture could play a really important role in strengthening local food security as the majority of people live in cities and towns … providing access to fresh nutritious produce close to the source of demand,” she added.
Edmonson went on to explain that urban areas were “made up of a mosaic of smaller patches of greenspace” such as gardens, to larger ones like allotments.
“You can grow a variety of different fruit and vegetables in these spaces, at different scales – for example picking your favourite fruit, like strawberries, to grow in a small patch in your back garden, or a full variety of crops from onions and spuds to blueberries and asparagus in an allotment plot.”
The growing of crops such as wheat was not really viable in urban settings, Edmonson added, as these types of crops needed larger areas and processing before being used as food.
Not getting access to enough food is a serious situation which affects people around the world. The UN has described an estimated 821 million people on the planet as being “undernourished,” with one in nine not getting “enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.”
While the potential of growing food in urban areas seems to be significant, there are undoubted roadblocks, not least when it comes to logistics and changing perceptions.
Edmonson explained to CNBC that “realising the potential of urban horticulture” was complex and required the support of local and national policymakers “to overcome the scientific, practical, engineering, socio-cultural and economic challenges.”
“However, in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, there is a clear need to understand how we shorten supply chains and improve national resilience in our food supply.”
The U.K.’s supermarkets have seen demand for many products soar during the coronavirus pandemic, with empty shelves becoming a common sight across the country earlier in the year.
This has in turn led to discussions about food security and the resilience of global supply chains, which can be complex and dependent on many different factors to run smoothly.
Indeed, the U.K. is, like many countries, reliant on imports to help meet the needs of consumers. In 2018, “home production” of fruit and vegetables accounted for 16.7% and roughly 53% of the U.K.’s total supply respectively, according to government figures.
Growing food without soil
Other technologies such as hydroponics and aquaponics could also have a role to play in strengthening food security.
The Royal Horticultural Society has described hydroponics as, “the science of growing plants without using soil, by feeding them on mineral nutrient salts dissolved in water.” In the case of aquaponics, the waste of fish is used to fertilize crops.
Hydroponics is a flexible technique which does not require natural light to grow produce. Around the world, several businesses are looking to scale-up these kinds of systems.
The University of Sheffield’s Edmonson explained to CNBC that hydroponic and aquaponic systems had “clear potential in urban areas” because they could use underutilized “grey spaces” both on top and within buildings to produce food.
“For example, in Sheffield city centre we found that there was the equivalent of 0.5m2 (meters squared) of grey space, like flat rooftops, per person in the city,” she said.
“While this might sound small, hydroponic systems have the potential to produce high value crops, such as tomatoes, at very high yields, year round.”
Rooftop agriculture and vertical farms are touted as the way of the future. But one case study on commercial farms in New York City sheds doubt on urban agriculture’s actual success.By Emma BryceApril 5, 2019
Commercial urban agriculture in New York City has provided questionable environmental gains, and has not significantly improved urban food security. These are the findings of a recent case study of New York City which shows that, despite the fanfare over commercial urban farming, it will need a careful re-evaluation if it’s going to play a sustainable role in our future food systems.
The rise of commercial controlled-environment agriculture (CEA)–comprised of large scale rooftop farms, vertical, and indoor farms–is a bid to re-envision cities as places where we could produce food more sustainably in the future. Proponents see CEA as way to bring agriculture closer to urban populations, thereby increasing food security, and improving agriculture’s environmental footprint by reducing the emissions associated with the production and transport of food.
But the researchers on the new paper wanted to explore whether these theoretical benefits are occurring in reality.
They focused on New York City, where CEA has dramatically increased in the last decade. Looking at 10 farms that produce roof- and indoor-grown vegetables at commercial scales, they investigated how much food the farms are producing, who it’s reaching, and how much space is available to expand CEA into.
They found that the biggest of these 10 commercial farms is around a third of an acre in size. Most are on roofs spread across New York City, and some are inside buildings and shipping containers. Mainly, these farms are producing impressive amounts of leafy greens such as lettuce, and herbs; some also produce fish.
But while rooftop farms rely on natural sunlight to feed the crops, indoor farms use artificial lights. These farms potentially have a greater energy footprint even than conventional outdoors farms, the researchers say–challenging the assumption that urban farms are less impactful than conventional ones.
Some farms also embraced high-tech systems, such as wind, rain, temperature, and humidity detectors and indoor heating, to enhance growing conditions in environments that aren’t naturally suited to agriculture. These elevate the energy costs of the food produced, and may be giving CEA an unexpectedly high carbon footprint, the researchers say.
Furthermore, the predominantly grown foods–such as lettuce–aren’t of great nutritional value for the urban population, especially those threatened by food insecurity. Most produce from CEAs is sold at a premium, something that partly reflects the cost of the real estate used to grow the food. Consequently, that produce is typically grown for high-end food stores and restaurants, meaning it’s unlikely to reach low-income urban populations who need it most.
The researchers also think it’s unlikely that CEA–which currently occupies just 3.09 acres in New York City–could expand into the roughly 1,864 acres they estimate is still suitable for urban farming in New York City.
The rising cost of real estate might put these urban acres beyond the reach of new farming start ups, they think. These companies also face increasing competition from a growing number of farms springing up on the outskirts of cities–where land is cheaper and there’s space to produce more food, while also benefiting from urban proximity.
With its one-city focus, the research isn’t representative of what might be unfolding in other places around the world. Other cities may be having more success–for instance, Tokyo has gained global attention for its large scale vertical farming efforts. Yet as a case study, it does reveal useful lessons–especially for cities wanting to meet the original twin goals of urban agriculture: equitably increasing access to food, at a lower environmental cost.
The researchers note first of all that CEA is optimal in places where less supplemental heat and light is needed to grow food. More thought might also be given to the nutritional value and cost of foods grown, to generate benefits for all the city’s residents, not just high-income ones. The researchers question whether smaller, community-driven plots of urban agriculture–like community gardens, school, and prison farms–might actually do a better job of providing food to at-risk city residents, compared to commercial urban farms that inevitably have to focus on profits.
Based on the study of New York, the researchers caution: “CEA may be touted as an exciting set of technologies with great promise, but it is unlikely to offer a panacea for social problems or an unqualified urban agricultural revolution.”
It’s easy to be drawn in by the dystopian allure of vertical farms and underground greens nestled into our cities. But until we’ve streamlined its role, we should perhaps not overstate what commercial urban agriculture can do – or, instead be guided by cities where there are stronger signs of social and environmental success.
If you want to start an urban farm in California there are several things to consider. Just like starting any business there are many steps, and doing the right homework will save time and money in the end. Urban farming has many inherent challenges, like distribution, space and production capacity limitations, concerns with neighbors, and financing challenges. By considering the barriers up front, you’ll have fewer surprises as you get started.
Find Training. There is a great deal of knowledge and expertise involved with starting a farm. Consider finding a learning opportunity near you.
Create a Business Plan. It is important for farmers to grow and/or create products that can easily be marketed or are in demand. To do this, talk to restaurants, grocery stores, farmers’ market managers, local food producers, and community members to find out where there are gaps or marketing opportunities. Consider value-added products and the role they might play in your business. Learn about the process and costs. Create a business plan that includes marketing strategies and a budget.
Find Appropriate Land. If you are looking for space, check out your local utility agencies, parks and recreation departments, or research existing vacant lots. Consider local zoning codes and how they may apply to the type of urban farm you have in mind.
Test Soil. Some urban soil has elevated levels of heavy metals, such as lead, or other contaminants. Make sure to test your soil and remediate accordingly.
Learn the Basics of Production. Our research tells us that many beginning urban farmers struggle with the basics of producing crops or raising animals as they get established. Learn as much as you can about soil, planting, pest management and watering. If you plan to raise animals or bees, learn the details of how to care for them.
Interest is high in urban agriculture, with many not-for-profits, businesses, municipalities, and individuals launching urban agriculture ventures. These individuals and organizations engage in urban agriculture to achieve a range of lofty private and public goals: to improve their own health and economic situation, to improve food access in their communities, to create income and jobs, to beautify their communities, to educate about gardening and farming, to create a feeling of community, and to provide ecosystem services for their communities (Santo, Palmer, & Kim, 2016).
But what is urban agriculture? How is urban agriculture defined by government agencies and researchers? What does urban agriculture look like in real life? What production systems and business models do urban producers use?
What is the definition of “urban agriculture”?
Urban agriculture has been most concisely defined by Wagstaff and Wortman (2013) as “all forms of agricultural production (food and non-food products) occurring within or around cities.”
Government agencies and the peer-reviewed literature have reached consensus on this broad definition of urban agriculture, which includes all production in or near cities of plants or animals, whether for personal use or for sale, whether soil-based or hydroponic (Diekmann et al., 2016; FAO, 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer, Dimitri, & Pressman, 2014; USDA, 2016). Agricultural production near cities is further defined as “peri-urban agriculture” (Diekmann et al., 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer et al., 2014).
What is the definition of “urban”?
Because urban agriculture includes a broad variety of agricultural production systems unified solely by their location in and near urban areas, defining “urban” becomes necessary to defining “urban agriculture.”
Most definitions of urban and rural areas are based on measurements of population density and land use, but different branches and agencies of the United States government use slightly different thresholds and scales to delineate between urban and rural areas (John & Reynnalls, 2016). Both the USDA-Economic Research Service and the Office of Management and Budget define rural and urban at the county level (Cromartie & Parker, 2018; Donovan, 2015). This can be helpful in identifying counties where land prices and markets are likely to be influenced by nearby metropolitan areas (Heimlich & Anderson, 2001), and thus where agriculture might be considered “peri-urban.” However, for the purpose of defining urban agriculture, the US Census Bureau’s Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters are more useful (Ratcliffe, Burd, Holder, & Fields, 2016), because they are defined and mapped at a more fine-grained scale (Figure1).
Figure 1: Urbanized Areas in Maryland, as defined by the US Census Bureau. Map made by Neith Little, using open-access mapping software Grass GISand TIGERLINE shapefiles provided by the U.S. Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/geo/maps-data/
At the local level, zoning boards often differentiate between locations prioritized for urban development or for rural open space preservation. These zoning maps can also be helpful in defining urban agriculture (Figure 2).
Urban agriculture encompasses a broad spectrum of production methods and business models. Production systems can be broadly categorized as
Ground-based outdoor urban gardens and farms (Figure 3)
Hydroponic or aquaponic indoor production (Figure 4)
Rooftop gardens and farms (Figure 5)
Landscaping and nursery businesses
More detail about different urban agriculture production systems will be covered in Chapter 1: Urban production systems.
Figure 3: Outdoor urban agriculture can be done in raised beds or containers,in-ground in native or imported soil, and in high tunnels or hoop houses. Picture taken at Whitelock Community Farm, Baltimore, MD by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 4: Basil grown hydroponically in a modified shipping container at Urban Pastoral, in Baltimore, MD. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 5: Okra growing on a retro-fitted green roof at Up Top Acres, in Washington, DC. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Similarly, urban agriculture encompasses a spectrum of business structures:
Many personal and community urban gardens exist, but for-profit and not-for-profit urban farms also grow crops for sale or distribution. Whether they are organized as for-profit or not-for-profit businesses, most urban farms include benefiting their communities among their goals. Not-for-profit urban farms might focus primarily on producing healthy, affordable food for their community, or on employing community members who face barriers to employment, while for-profit urban farms often use a “Robin Hood” business model, selling high-value crops to chefs and at farmers markets in order to be able to subsidize selling produce at affordable prices to their neighbors. Urban agriculture can be economically important to the grower, whether by producing food for personal use, creating supplemental income through a “micro-enterprise”, or enabling urban residents to start businesses and become entrepreneurs.
Additionally, much grey area exists between gardening and farming. For example, “market gardening” is a term for a type of small-scale market-oriented production: growing a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits on small plots for direct marketing to local customers. And some community gardens are experimenting with Community Supported Agriculture subscription programs, whereby community members can access food either by the sweat-equity method of working in the garden, or by the market-based method of buying into the garden.
Those doing urban agriculture use a variety of words to describe themselves and the work they do, but usually government agencies and academics differentiate between gardening and farming by whether money changes hands. As soon as a product is sold for money, or a person is paid to do work, additional legal responsibilities begin to apply to an urban farm, related to regulations, taxes, and liability. More information about legal topics important to urban farmers will be covered in Chapter 4.
The rest of this guidebook will be written with urban farms in mind, with “urban farmer” defined as anyone who grows or raises agricultural products in an urban area, for sale, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.
Urban farms usually “direct-market” what they produce, that is they sell directly to their customer through farm-stands, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and direct sales to restaurants and institutional customers. Economies of scale, and proximity to customers, means that selling to wholesale distributors is less economically viable for small-scale urban farms than direct-marketing produce to urban customers. More information about markets and marketing of urban farm products to which urban farms sell their products will be covered in Chapter 3: Marketing challenges and opportunities.
Heimlich, R. E., & Anderson, W. D. (2001). Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond: Impacts on Agriculture and Rural Land. Agricultural Economic Report No. 803, (803), 1–88. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-5834.00132
Hendrickson, M. K., & Porth, M. (2012). Urban Agriculture—Best Practices and Possibilities. University of Missouri Extension, (June), 1–52.
Ratcliffe, M., Burd, C., Holder, K., & Fields, A. (2016). Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey and Geography Brief. US Census, (December), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.16410.64969
Wagstaff, R. K., & Wortman, S. E. (2013). Crop physiological response across the Chicago metropolitan region: Developing recommendations for urban and peri-urban farmers in the North Central US. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 30(x), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1017/S174217051300046X
Indeed, the market for indoor urban farms was valued at $2.3 billion in 2018, with investment in the sector reaching more than $400 million, up from just $60 million just three years earlier.
As more people flock to cities, urban farms purport to alleviate some major issues plaguing our food systems: reducing transportation miles; decreasing water use; and producing higher yields on smaller parcels of land. But as much as urban farming has increased in popularity, critics point out that it’s unlikely to revolutionize our food systems on a global scale. A major advantage of indoor farming is the ability to collect data that sheds valuable insight into how plants respond and react to a variety of stimuli, nutrients and environmental conditions.Put simply: we can’t feed the world with salad alone.
With the global population set to reach more than 9.7 billion people by 2030, we also need to focus on efficient and sustainable production of staple crops, such as wheat, soy, corn and rice. These high caloric-density foods make up the bulk of global diets, both for humans and livestock, and are unlikely candidates for indoor farming due to their high requirements for both energy and space.
That doesn’t mean we should not pursue urban farming — but we ultimately may find there is greater value in applying its lessons to improve agriculture as a whole, rather than in just producing microgreens in the urban core.
Shining a light on costs
For all the excitement over urban farms, many companies in the space are struggling to scale and turn a profit. That’s because indoor urban farming is a costly endeavor — in both economic and environmental terms.
This is largely due to the industry’s reliance on light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to mimic the sun. As far as artificial lighting has come in recent years, the sun still vastly outshines even the most efficient LEDs, and it does so for free. Additionally, artificial lights must draw power, and lots of it, from municipal grids which don’t always rely on renewable energy sources.
Lettuce grown in a traditional greenhouse, for example, takes about 250 kilowatt-hours per year for every square meter of growing space, compared to a whopping 3,500 kWh per year for lettuce grown in a purpose-built vertical farm. Add to that the energy costs of keeping urban farms perfectly climate-controlled and the overhead of leasing or buying real estate in some of the world’s most expensive markets and it all adds up to produce that is both created and sold at a premium.
At present, the only crops that come close to generating profits are leaves, such as salad greens, microgreens and herbs. Some water-heavy, calorie-light fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and strawberries may come soon. These crops make great garnishes but do little to provide the basis for a nutritionally complete diet. More often than not, they are sold to high-end restaurants or boutique grocery stores, serving a clientele that has the means to access nutritious foods year-round rather than those living in lower-income neighborhoods that are often the epicenters of urban food deserts.
The most valuable ‘indoor’ crop? Data
Don’t get me wrong. There is value — both nutritional and educational — in providing food sources in the urban center. Exposing urban-dwellers to the process of growing food emphasizes that vegetables don’t originate at the grocery store and helps connect people to the food system and its role in creating a healthy planet.
But to truly make an impact on feeding the world, the fruits of urban farms need to be accessible to a much broader demographic. As costs come down and technology improves, they have a role in augmenting fresh food without expensive transport costs. And, it may be that some of the most useful applications for indoor urban farming techniques happen far outside of our major cities.
There are nearly 4 billion acres of farmland across the world — far too much to convert to, or replace with, indoor farming. But applying some techniques and technologies developed through indoor farming to more traditional methods can help us update the world’s food systems to produce higher yields, reduce its environmental impact and grow cleaner, more nutritious, more affordable food.
A major advantage of indoor farming is the ability to collect vast reams of data that shed valuable insight into how plants respond and react to a variety of stimuli, nutrients and environmental conditions (my own company relies heavily on indoor growth chambers to help us refine our technologies to reduce synthetic pesticide loads). We ultimately may find there is greater value in applying the lessons of urban farming to improve agriculture as a whole, rather than in just producing microgreens.Lessons learned through indoor farming have already resulted in more efficient ways to deal with plant stress from pests, drought and disease by learning to spot signs of distress earlier and maximizing natural inputs, rather than relying on disruptive land use practices or chemicals when it’s too late.
As the world grapples with an increasingly unpredictable climate, this knowledge is key in optimizing mother nature to continue to provide consistent and nutritious foods. And, indoor urban farming in its current form may have beneficial applications in remote northern communities that have limited access to fresh foods for much of the year.
The future of farming is hybrid
To be clear, we do need to continue to grow food within our cities.
The United Nations predicts two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 — making it imperative that food sources are close by. But there are a multitude of ways we can do this: supporting raised-bed community gardens, encouraging individuals and businesses to grow vegetables instead of lawns, repurposing urban rooftops as growth spaces and greenhouses to harness the power of the sun.
As the cost of urban indoor farming decreases and more renewable energy sources come on board, foods grown in the urban core may yet become accessible to a wider demographic, including lower-income populations. We may even see a future where growth chambers in homes and buildings yield fresh produce for households year-round.
In the end, the evolution of urban farming is promising. But it is only one part of a global food puzzle — one that needs input on all sides to grow, and become genuinely sustainable and accessible to all.
Urban planners, architects, politicians and residents all agree that cities need more greenery. There are numerous approaches to this. Green façades, roof gardens and the targeted redevelopment of industrial wastelands, to which New York owes its Highline so popular with locals and tourists alike. But what if it’s not just about creating pockets of greenery amid pavement, steel and glass? Urban farming is going a step further, for it aims to bring food production into the city.
An urban farm located on the Rooftop of Raffles City shopping mall in Singapore. Harvests here are supplied to restaurants in the city. (Photo credits: Edible Garden City. Cover image: BrasilNut1/Shutterstock.com)
The world’s population is growing, and 9.5 billion people are forecast for the year 2050. And this puts the planet under pressure in several ways. To secure the subsistence minimum in terms of calorie supply in the future alone, 850 million hectares of additional farmland will be needed – and will simply not be available. And this diverts attention to alternative spaces, such as those seemingly unsuitable ones in our cities. Anyone who lives here and has an appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables can go to the weekly market, to the greengrocer on the corner or to the supermarket. But what about harvesting lettuces, tomatoes or radishes straight from the field? Usually unthinkable for city dwellers. But there are both large-scale ideas and small-scale initiatives with the aim of changing that.
Because there are many benefits associated with the integration of food production into the city. Behind it is the concept of regional supply: The city feeds itself – at least in part. This shortens distances and lowers the CO2 emissions caused by transport. It also has a positive impact on microclimate and biodiversity. Urban farming can also achieve social benefits: Collectively tending the neighborhood vegetable garden brings people closer together while taking responsibility for their city and public space at the same time. And, not least, our appreciation of food and its quality changes when we integrate production into our immediate surroundings.
Photo credits: JBryson/Shutterstock.com
An idea that takes root…
The Incredible Edible Network in Britain supports communities in planning and implementing their urban farming strategies. It all started about ten years ago, when Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear started creating “guerrilla gardening” beds in their home town of Todmorden. They wanted to counter the challenge of climate change locally, make their city more sustainable and, last but not least, promote the regional economy. Today, more than 100 groups are networked via Incredible Edible, the idea has taken root worldwide, and little Todmorden has become a model with its school gardens, a nursery and various programs to support local agriculture. What is special about the movement is its bottom-up approach, as the network acts on its own initiative outside the administration. The simple rule for participation is “If you eat, you’re in”.
…and bears fruit
That all this is more than an idealistic idea is demonstrated by an evaluation by the Manchester Metropolitan University and University of Central Lancashire. Nearly the entire 15,000 population of Todmorden is aware of the Incredible Edible campaign, about half of them occasionally help themselves from the beds. Public space is perceived more positively, since the beds can be found virtually everywhere in the throughout the town – whether outside the train station, the police station or the nursing home. The sense of togetherness has increased, as has civic pride. And even if you look at the bare figures, the effect of the Urban Farming Initiative is considerable. Veritable “vegetable tourism” has developed, bringing Todmorden many new visitors and hence revenue. Local producers report increases in turnover in connection with the use of the Todmorden logo. The scientists have verified this and presented the added value using the social return approach. On the investment side is about 150,000 pounds for 2016, most of it voluntary work. The return on investment is five and a half times higher. The profit results primarily from the higher demand for regional food and from the increased number of visitors. Incredible Edible is a venture that is paying off for Todmorden in many ways.
On the 7th floor of Funan shopping mall in Singapore sits a 5,000 sq ft urban farm managed by Edible Garden City. It is one of the few urban farms in Singapore open to the public. (Photo credits: Edible Garden City)
The concept of urban farming is also bearing fruit elsewhere. The “edible city” of Andernach consistently fills its public beds with useful plants – picking is expressly permitted. The Canadian city of Toronto is expanding the idea to include educational programs for children, tips for growing vegetables in private gardens, and ways to prevent food wastage. Urban agriculture in Cuba is writing a real success story, even though the idea was originally born out of necessity there. The collapse of the former Soviet Union left the Cuban economy in tatters. So smallholders were encouraged to reopen the previously banned farmers’ markets. The aim was to produce directly where demand was greatest. Today, two thirds of the vegetables consumed in Havana are cultivated by small cooperatives, some of whose beds in the city are in the middle of residential developments.
From outdoor to indoor
The ideas for urban farming, however, go far beyond the creation of public fields and beds. For example, what about areas that have limited climatic suitability for outdoor cultivation? And are not vacant spaces scarce and expensive, especially in cities? One solution is Vertical Farming developed by Dickson Despommier at Columbia University. The Berlin start-up Infarm also works on this principle. In vertically arranged and modularly stackable indoor farms, crops can be grown and harvested virtually anywhere and all year round. The bed boxes can be installed directly in restaurants and supermarkets. Each box forms its own ecosystem tailored to the respective plant, taking account of temperature, nutrients and light spectrum. Continuous monitoring and remote control of the parameters ensures that plants’ needs are optimally met. The range currently includes pak choi, kale, lettuce and a broad spectrum of herbs. According to the supplier, indoor cultivation requires no pesticides at all and uses 75% less fertiliser and even 95% less water than conventional farmland. The savings in terms of space are even more obvious – only 0.5% of the land is needed for the same yield.
It is quite possible that a combination of all these approaches will help to turn our cities into pantries in the long run.
Photo credits: Edible Garden City
Photo credits: VTT_Studio/Shutterstock.com
In more and more cities around the globe, urban farming strategies are bringing agriculture back into the city – and bringing us all closer to what lands on our plates every day. The start-up Edible Garden City in Singapore has created over 200 gardens in recent years. Sarah Rodriguez, Marketing & PR Manager, talks to us about the challenges along the way and how good ideas can grow.
CORPUS: Can you tell us how Edible Garden City was founded? How did the concept of urban farming take root in Singapore?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: Co-founder Mr Bjorn Low and his wife worked for over four years on organic farms around the world as part of an international volunteer network. Inspired to bring the concept of urban and sustainable farming back to Singapore, Bjorn and two partners founded Edible Garden City in 2012.
CORPUS: Singapore is a land-scarce city. How did you overcome the challenges of finding suitable spaces and infrastructure for urban farming?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: When we first started it was really difficult to get farmland as many areas were earmarked for other uses. We had a breakthrough when some of the restaurant owners showed interest in getting a supply of fresh herbs and vegetables and approached Edible Garden City to build productive gardens on their plots of land, and within their restaurant premises.
So far, through our Foodscaping Unit, Edible Garden City has helped to create more than 200 gardens in schools, shopping malls, homes and commercial buildings.
We have also developed an education department where the public can experience gardening in workshops. We also visit schools to show kids ways of starting a garden. We found that it has helped children to learn how food is grown and over time they become more open to eating a variety of foods and wasting less.
Edible Garden City’s Citizen Farm aims to feed the community with sustainable, safe, and locally-grown fresh food. Our model features an array of different farming systems which grow the best quality produce with the least amount of waste. Unlike traditional farms, our agricultural by-products are composted and upcycled into fertilizer, which goes back into nourishing the soil and plants.
Together with two other farms located in Funan mall and Raffles City, we supply fresh produce harvested within a day to over 70 restaurants weekly.
The bulk of the leafy greens grown on the urban farm are grown in decommissioned shipping containers, using an indoor hydroponics set up. (Photo credits: Edible Garden City)
CORPUS: What are your insights and experiences with regard to trends in urban farming across Asia?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: For Edible Garden City, we will be focusing on the therapeutic benefits of gardening. Research has found that gardening can help to lower stress levels, and we are looking at ways to lower the barriers to gardening and making it accessible to everyone.
In Hong Kong SAR, where the city area is densely populated, a company called Rooftop Republic has made use of rooftop spaces for urban farming and invited companies and communities to join in the farming activities under Corporate Social Responsibility projects.
CORPUS: What is the future of urban farming and what needs to be done to make it even more successful?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: We urge architects and developers to consider incorporating urban farming right from the start in their blueprints when they are designing public spaces and commercial buildings. Many of the urban farms we’ve built were retrofitted after the completion of construction.
For example, for our newest project – the Edible Garden located in Funan mall – we were able to bring in climate control systems and other new ideas, as these were incorporated into the design by the developer.
For urban farming to be even more successful, I think education is important. We need to bring this concept of sustainable farming into schools and teach the importance and benefits of home-growing and food security to kids.