Driven partially by concerns about food security and food safety, the rise of urban farming has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of local food movements, which have encouraged more people to consider where and how their food is produced. Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) spans a number of agricultural practices, including hydroponics and aquaponics, aquafarming, horticulture, beekeeping, and, to a lesser extent, animal husbandry. Contemporary urban farming is lauded for lowering the ecological footprint of food production, decreasing food miles, creating jobs, adding greenery to cities, and promoting environmental justice and community empowerment as well as reducing the heat island effect.
Many urban farmers capitalize on unused property like abandoned parking lots and empty spaces between buildings, or on vertical growing technologies (think: wall gardens and two-story farms), with an emphasis on soil-free solutions like hydroponics and aquaponics. Aquaponics – perhaps the most popular trend in sustainable agriculture today, and which entails growing plants in water enriched by fish – allows growers to run sustainable seafood operations hand-in-hand.
But for all its popularity, many question the accessibility of urban farming produce to communities who cannot afford to pay a premium for locally grown organic goods, essentially asking whether urban farming is more of a hobby for white, middle class hipsters than an answer to food security. Agricultural economist Maurice Hladik, author of Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork, argues that urban farming as a solution to food scarcity is a myth, and that large-scale food production is both more efficient and more sustainable on the long run. Hladik notes that counting food miles might be misleading, since rarely do urban farming proponents talk about “soil miles,” or the cost of transporting soil to urban farms. Hladik argues that rooftop gardening is one of the least water-efficient farming practices, pointing to its high consumption of water and high soil temperatures as flaws that make it environmentally unsustainable. Finally, he notes that the usage of potable water for irrigation is another indicator of just how misleading it is to assume that urban farming is a more environmentally sustainable solution to urbanites (UrbanAgLaw, a collaborative that supports urban agriculture in the United States, also points to the problems associated with using potable water for agriculture).
Urban policy and environment writer Will Boisvert points out some of the other fallacies associated with urban farming. Using the example of New York, Boisvert argues that, rather than transform vacant lots into seasonal urban gardens which often remain unused for much of the year, affordable housing and year-round jobs could be created for people in these spaces, decreasing the need for them to commute long distances from the city’s fringes and reducing urban sprawl. Boisvert also notes that, while transporting something within a city may consume fewer miles, it often entails transporting smaller loads through denser traffic, effectively making it less fuel-efficient.
In many ways, Hladik and Boisvert are right; our cities just aren’t built for farming. They are hot, densely populated, and often-polluted places that are built to put people, services and businesses in one place.
A recent study by Carolyn Dimitri, Lydia Oberholtzer and Andy Pressman published in the British Food Journal notes that urban farming in many cities in the United States may not have the business model built into it to be sustainable. The authors note that urban farming poses challenges like “high land costs, water prices, and regulatory barriers,” all of which raise production costs. The study also found that urban farms often had nonmarket goals, and that many of their targets included: “educating consumers about food and agriculture, local food systems, supporting local communities, building community, and/or reducing food insecurity in underserved neighborhoods.” In other words, many of these farms are more effective at engaging communities than they are at feeding them or making profit themselves.
Notably, the study demonstrates the shift that urban farming has undergone from an activity for poor communities in the cities of developing countries to a common practice in large cities of wealthy countries. According to the study, however, any similarity between urban farming in the North and South ends there: urban farming in poor countries often benefits women the most and is usually practiced by rural migrants who farm to produce food that they would go hungry without; in the North, it is used to combat obesity, whereas in the South, it is to combat malnutrition.
Some Urban Farms Are More Equal Than Others
But while urban farming may be “trendy” in the North because of the rise of local food movements –better known as locavorism – the one thing that critics of urban farming agree on is that not all urban farms are created equal. Organic urban farming in Cuba, which was introduced after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 as a solution to the food crisis that followed, has since made Havana a model for self-sustainable farming. More recently, food shortages in Venezuela have pushed the government to encourage citizens to turn to urban farming and the country has even formed a Ministry of Urban Farming.
And then there is the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) shocking estimate that 800 million people around the world – roughly 40% of the world’s urban population – practice urban agriculture. In an interview with progrss, the FAO’s Growing Greener Cities Programme’s Agricultural Officer Bruno Telemans and Senior Agronomist / Horticulture Specialist Wilfried Baudoin explain that urban and peri-urban agriculture have always gone hand-in-hand with the development of cities in the North. The difference today, they explain, is the attention given to urban agriculture and – to a certain extent, its formalization – which is proving to be useful because of its role in creating and maintaining open public spaces that are used for recreation, education and food production. Rather than a luxury, the duo perceive urban agriculture as a reality that “…offers a pathway out of poverty and malnutrition for poor urban dwellers…” The one caveat, of course, is that it be legal – which it is still not in most places where it is practiced.
According to Telemans and Baudoin, urban farming has “increased civic participation and spurred neighborhood revitalization, transforming vacant and unattractive plots of public land into appealing green zones with environmental and health benefits.” They explain that the benefits are especially tangible in cities facing rapid urbanization, where large segments of the often-young population are socially excluded or unemployed, and that it is in cities like Kinshasa, Lagos, Dhaka, Delhi, Bogota and Rio de Janeiro that urban farming can and does radically affect people’s lives.
The FAO itself has a variety of programs and projects designed to combat food insecurity in urban areas, and the organization emphasizes the importance of governments providing institutional, political and technical support and monitoring. The FAO’s five-point approach, which includes getting political and institutional support, securing land and water, ensuring product quality and environmental protection, securing the participation of stakeholders in the sector, and securing new markets for fruits and vegetables, attempts to create a framework for urban and peri-urban farmers to operate.
What does this mean for the future of urban agriculture? Perhaps that it is, above all, a reality that we must accept, and that it is time for city administrations to create legislation and regulations to ensure it is practiced sustainably and legally. Perhaps that our cities need to be re-wired to allow greywater to be used for agriculture and for community gardens to become regular fixtures in every neighborhood. Perhaps that, as Maya Shetreat-Klein recommends, children and adults do need to understand how their food is grown and to get their hands dirty – even if only once in a while.
Whether or not it is a solution to world hunger is questionable – and perhaps we are pinning too much on it in positioning it as a panacea for all nutrition-related ills in the world. For now, it certainly provides many less privileged communities with access to healthy, nutritious food and a source of income.
This article was amended on April 11. An earlier version of this article stated that the FAO Growing Greener Cities Programme Researcher Diana Gutierrez was interviewed for this piece rather than Agricultural Officer Bruno Telemans and Senior Agronomist/Horticulture Specialist Wilfried Baudoin.
*Never miss a story like this - subscribe to our weekly highlights and stay up-to-date