As our cities sprawled, creating a convoluted web of highways, tall buildings, noisy traffic, and crowds of workers trying to get to their offices before nine, a new ecosystem was created. Global urban populations grew rapidly in the last six decades from 746 million to 3.9 billion people in 2014, and are expected to keep rising. This growth has left certain aspects of non-urban life behind, in particular the production of our food which has created a gap between city-dwellers and the countryside. People living in more populated areas are less knowledgeable about agriculture than those who live in smaller towns, to the point that when asked to identify common produce, some urban children could not do so.
The disconnect between the urban population and the food production system has created complex challenges, especially those related to consumer behavior. Consumers expect perfectly round oranges and bananas without dark spots on the skin. As a result, buyers have created strict standards that encourage large purchasers to reject good, though visually unappealing, produce, which generates more food waste. In addition, as more people move into cities, socioeconomic changes influence the transition towards western-style diets driving a higher consumption of meat, dairy, and processed foods. This type of diet has significant impacts on human health, and increases demand for transportation and storage of food. Increases in transportation and storage in turn contribute to lower air quality and higher greenhouse gas emissions. Also, consumers’ limited familiarity with the production of food could allow companies to implement deceitful practices or fail to disclose information in order to prioritize profits at the expense of public health, the environment, animal welfare, labor or human rights.
The nature of this rural-urban gap seems to be slowly starting to change. Consumers are choosing grocery stores that tell them the story behind their food. Students’ interest in food production is promoting the inclusion of agricultural classes in high schools and universities. Education initiatives can help people create healthier eating habits through the introduction of farming programs that teach people how to grow food, and identify plants so that they know what products are locally available. People can learn from marketing campaigns where supermarkets teach clients that visually unappealing produce goes to the landfill. In order to reduce waste, supermarkets can portray the unwanted produce as a chic option through witty advertisement, as a nutritious alternative by giving free samples of juices or smoothies, and by selling them at lower prices. Closing the knowledge gap between city-dwellers and the countryside is opening a wide range of prospects for passionate visionaries who want to change the current food production system into an exciting and innovative economic sector. This transformation would provide pathways for concerned citizens who want to buy food harvested in a socially and ecologically responsible manner the ability to do so.
Innovative small and medium scale urban agricultural production can alleviate the social and environmental impacts that are characteristic of conventional agricultural practices. Urban farms can use greenhouse gas emissions calculations to decide which products to grow. For example, a community farm estimated that they could reduce emissions equivalent to 186 passenger vehicles driven in one year (881 Ton CO2E) if they sourced tomatoes and beans from the local market. Non-locally sourced tomatoes grow mostly in greenhouses and therefore require high energy use, and beans that are transported from overseas produce a significant carbon footprint en-route to market. Restaurants in Detroit set yet another example: benefitting from unused inexpensive real-estate, they are able to source fresh produce from nearby urban farms constructed on vacant lots, creating a local food system that helps the community by providing jobs, fostering a sense of community, and reviving the city.
Exciting projects addressing the current challenges facing the food system are happening everywhere. For instance, the construction of a floating dairy farm demonstrates how coastal cities with limited available land may adapt to the potential direct effects of rising sea levels. As another example, a concerned group of architects created a modular insect farm in response to the Food and Agriculture Organization urging people to eat more insects. And if you have ever wondered if astronauts eat or grow veggies in space, look no further than aeroponics. Aeroponics is a technology that NASA tested in outer space back in the late 90’s. In this technique, the farmer places seeds on a piece of cloth that provides the source of growth and development for the plants. The plant also absorbs nutrient-rich air which is sprayed under the cloth. Results from the NASA study determined that aeroponic growing systems are “clean, efficient” and fast because the mist provides nutrients eliminating the need for soil and minimizing water use. In some aeroponic operations, the farmer transfers plants with long roots to vertical towers until harvest. Aeroponic systems also include LED lighting, and devices to regulate the levels of oxygen, humidity and temperature in the room. Due to “cheaper, more advanced equipment” aeroponics is currently economically feasible. Aeroponic farms are now focusing on produce. The largest aeroponic farm aims to produce “2 million pounds of leafy greens a year” in a 69,000-square-foot warehouse, but there are also smaller scale projects such as an aeroponic garden at a major airport that provides fresh produce to its restaurants.
Though there are an increasing number of urban-farming projects, it is important to keep in mind that it would be difficult to completely replace rural farming. Urban agricultural operations have financial and technical constraints like higher energy costs and/or the need to invest in lightweight materials. Also as urban space becomes limited there is more competition from other projects such as solar power generation and housing. The lack of space would also restrict small and mid-size city farmers from expanding their production. Cities also pose environmental threats to crops from pollutants such as lead, the creation of altered microclimates, and challenges to accessing safe water. Also, in some places urban farming is illegal. Additionally, some urban agriculture initiatives’ main goal is not to replace large-scale rural farming, but rather to provide communities with social and health benefits such as improved access to healthier food for low-income communities, providing job training, donating fresh fruits and vegetables, or educating families and children about cultivation practices. Environmental, social and economic challenges are part of the complex pressures the food system faces and it is not limited to city farming. In my next article, I will take a closer look at how protecting the environment and being socially responsible can transform agriculture in the countryside.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on April 17, 2017.