The Rise of Urban Farming

Urban farming is big news. You may not have heard too much about it but according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), urban agriculture is something that is practised by 800 million people worldwide, over one-tenth of the global population. So what exactly is it and how is it changing how we produce and distribute food?

WHAT IS URBAN FARMING?

Urban farming, or urban agriculture, can be described as the growing of plants and raising of animals in and around towns, cities and urban environments. Until recently, farming has been an exclusively rural activity. But the development of technology, together with a pressing need to find more sustainable ways of production and consumption, has led to the adaptation of farming techniques in more built up environments.

There are several different types of urban farms of varying scales that exist in different parts of the world, including commercial city farms, community gardens, community orchards, indoor vertical farms, hydroponic greenhouses, rooftop gardens, urban aquaponic farms (or fish farms), urban beehives and small-scale homestead farms. They produce a range of goods for local consumption or retail, such as grains, vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, fish, herbs, honey and dairy products.

Urban farms can be small, medium or large-scale commercial enterprises, cooperatives run by community groups or residents, or even individual set ups. The farms have proliferated in both developed and developing countries in recent years, serving slightly different purposes in general in each. Farms in wealthier industrialised nations have largely been in response to the challenge to find more sustainable methods of agricultural production, along with moves towards more localized economies. In poorer countries, they have come about through multi-stakeholder efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger levels.

WHY HAS URBAN FARMING BECOME POPULAR?

Urban farming has grown in popularity over the last 10-15 years. In the developing world, it has largely been driven by the rapid urbanization of developing regions. The urban population across the developing world has grown by around 500 million in the last decade and it is predicted that, by 2025, more than half of the developing world will live in urban areas. The main drivers of urban growth in these countries are high birth rates and an influx of rural people trying to escape poverty. Unlike countries where urbanization has been driven by industrialization, in low income areas it is often accompanied by high levels of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity. Urban farming has been seen as a way to combat all three of these problems.

In richer nations, the growth of urban agriculture has been in tandem with a return to localism, the growth of localized businesses, social entrepreneurialism and ethically-minded start ups. Social good and environmental sustainability are high on the agenda with new businesses, with one study finding that 90% of today’s CEOs and 88% of business students believe that sustainability is an important part of commercial success. Finding new and improved agricultural methods is an important area of sustainability. Studies have found that agriculture uses 38% of the world’s land area and is responsible for over 70% of global freshwater consumption. With more people concentrated in urban areas, farms can be more productive without using up the same level of resources. Warmer urban conditions are also conducive to the growing of crops.

Not all urban farming practices, however, are for a commercial profit. There are many such as community gardens and community orchards that are run by charities, community groups or resident cooperatives and exist for more social purposes such as sharing food, providing for poorer sections of the community, or bringing parts of the community together.

WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS OF URBAN FARMING?

Impact on businesses and the economy

Urban farming can have many positive effects on the local economy. As well as presenting green-fingered entrepreneurs with opportunities to start new local businesses, it also creates job opportunities for local people. Furthermore, farms can often provide local shops, supermarkets and restaurants with cheaper and fresher produce which has knock-on positive effects. One study has estimated that urban farms have the potential to provide around 10% of global vegetable crops, which could translate into big savings for local economies worldwide. Start up costs, however, are still high. Those involved in urban farming typically work longer than average hours, lose more food than rural farmers due to urban pests, and struggle to find skilled and experienced staff.

Impact on the environment

Urban farming has been championed as a way of improving agricultural environmental sustainability, but in truth it can have both positive and negative effects and it comes down to the way that farms operate and are regulated. Farms can provide a more efficient way of meeting local demand. If operated sustainably, they can reduce both the agricultural energy footprint (through eliminating the need to store and transport imported products) and the water footprint (through sustainable irrigation and water recycling). They can also transform wasteland into productive green space and stop it from becoming polluted. Vertical farms, which are set up inside multi-storey buildings and warehouses, also have the benefit of saving on space.

But studies have shown that urban farms can also increase energy and water use. Indoor farms, such as vertical farms, use energy-intensive artificial lighting and climate control systems. Many farms use the municipal water supply rather than a recycled water system for irrigation. There are also distinct health and safety risks with urban farming. Urban land can be contaminated with pollutants, while wastewater, if not treated properly, can contain human pathogens. This can compromise food safety if strict regulations are not in place.

Impact on communities

There are a number of positive social impacts associated with urban farming, such as:

  • improving food security and reducing poverty among the poorest by providing cheaper and more easily available food;

  • health benefits of providing affordable nutritious fruit, vegetables and organically produced meat;

  • greater social inclusion by providing local job opportunities and, in the case of community projects, bringing communities together;

  • educational opportunities for children, e.g. school trips to city farms and community gardens where pupils can learn more about where food comes from

However, urban farming has attracted some criticism in places such as Europe for becoming monopolized by the middle-classes and excluding lower income groups.

WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS IN URBAN FARMING?

Europe

Urban farming in Europe is not a new phenomenon. In fact, several countries encouraged the production of food in urban environments during both the First and Second World Wars in the 20th century. Today, start up urban agriculture enterprises are cropping up across the continent. At governmental level, individual governments have had limited involvement but the EU-funded Urban Agriculture Europe, a network of over 120 researchers, have been looking into ways in which urban farming can play a key role in future EU agricultural policy. Berlin-based start up InFarm has become the European urban farming leader with over 100 indoor and outdoor city farms in Germany, France and Switzerland. Among the largest urban farms in Europe are Space&Matter in the Netherlands, the Jones Food Company vertical farm in the UK, and the BIGH rooftop farm in Belgium.

Americas

There has been a growth in urban farming across the American continent in recent decades. In the US, policies and initiatives vary between states but projects ranging from vertical hydroponic enterprises to community gardens flourish across the country. A 2012 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified over 300 urban farms in the US. This includes one of the world’s largest urban farms located across nearly two acres in Chicago. In Canada, there has been more state-level involvement. Toronto in particular has been proactive, setting up a Food Policy Council which has drawn up a GrowTO Urban Agriculture Action Plan. In south and central America, where poverty and food insecurity are big issues in several countries, the UNFAO has been involved in kick-starting urban micro-gardens projects in countries including Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Asia

Several Asian countries have invested significant amounts in urban farming technologies as a way of dealing with population growth and combating food insecurity. China, which has industrialized at a rapid pace in recent decades, has become a world leader in indoor vertical farming thanks to state investment. Similarly, Thailand has a community-supported agriculture initiative, led by the Thailand Environment Institute, that has helped create rooftop farms and indoor vertical farms across Bangkok. In India, another country that has urbanized at a pace, urban farming is now being seen as a sustainable food production method. Methods such as rooftop farming have taken off in cities such as Kerala.

Africa

The African continent has also seen wide-scale urbanization in recent years. Urban farming methods in the poorest countries have largely centered around setting up micro-gardening and community gardening projects, overseen by UNFAO, equipping urban locals with skills and resources to produce sustainable and feed the local community. Methods such as vertical farming are starting to take hold in some African countries. Johannesburg has hosted two Urban Agri Africa Summits to date, looking into possibilities of developing urban farming technologies across the continent.

Urban farming is unlikely to replace traditional agriculture any time soon but it will have a vital role to play in addressing challenges such as environmental sustainability and food insecurity in the coming years. As the world continues to urbanize and new technologies emerge, we can expect to see increasing governmental and inter-governmental involvement as urban farming becomes more mainstream. The key stakeholders will need to make sure that business models stay alert to environmental, social and economic challenges so that the farming of the future is a sustainable benefit for all.