Urban Farming

Main Feature / 1st Quarter 2020

Urban Farming

by Alakesh Dutta

Urban farming is the cultivation of plants and fish, and the raising of livestock within and around cities. It commands a significant level of commerce, which makes it much more than just homesteading or subsistence farming.

Urban farming is embedded into various parts of an urban ecosystem with which it is constantly interacting. It consumes scarce urban resources like water and energy; it engages urban residents as labourers and consumers; it becomes part of urban networks of storage and distribution; it impacts urban ecology and most significantly, it competes for land with several other components of urban infrastructure.

Modern agrotech-based vegetable farm

WHY IS URBAN FARMING IMPORTANT TO CITIES TODAY?

The increasing attention that urban farming has been gaining in cities stems from the extreme stress that they are experiencing to provide safe and adequate amount of food to all strata of society. By this year, the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America will be home to 75 per cent of all urban dwellers.

The challenge to provide equitable access to food is not just limited to these developing countries. For example, 80 per cent of the population in California are urban residents. The cities in the San Francisco Bay Area alone import 2.5 to 3 million tonnes of food daily over an average distance of 500 to 1,000 miles.

But this food fails to reach one out of every eight people in the region who live under the poverty line.

These are mostly elderly citizens, children and minorities. Singapore, on the other hand, imports 90 per cent of its requirements from 180 countries across the globe. However, importing food at such scales consumes enormous amount of energy, generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, and makes cities such as Singapore vulnerable to a multitude of local and global disruptions.

Greenhost Boutique Hotel (Indonesia) (Photo courtesy of
Greenhost Boutique Hotel
)

HOW CAN URBAN FARMING IMPACT THE ECOSYSTEM?

Bringing farming closer to urban centres can also relive the pressure of production on traditional industrial agriculture. These industrial-scale farms spread themselves across swathes of fertile land and focus solely on production and profit. There is scant consideration for their impact on nature and the ecosystem. They are the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the energy sector and the largest consumer of water.

Industrial agriculture is also monocultural in practice, where farmers focus on just one or two crops over an entire area. It consumes tonnes of fertilisers, which are rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, together with pesticides. All of these make it easier to manage and are highly profitable in the short term, but they lead to severe depletion of nutrients and organic matter in the soil in due course. Furthermore, industrial agriculture depletes groundwater content. Soon, the once productive ground is rendered barren and unfit for agriculture altogether.

BUT CAN URBAN FARMING PRODUCE ENOUGH FOOD?

In 2017, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that 800 million people around the globe were already growing their own fruits or vegetables and urban farming accounted for up to one-fifth of the world’s food demand.

WHAT MORE DOES URBAN FARMING NEED?

Urban farming is multifaceted in nature. It has a symbiotic effect on several sectors and disciplines within any urban framework—like urban planning; health; waste management; water resources; energy sector; community development; ecology management; as well as on several financial and business institutions that may be supporting urban farming.

Therefore, policies and action plans that address each of these linked sectors should be encouraged to collectively create the environment within which urban farming can thrive and deliver. Based on its own experiences from several urban farming projects, the FAO prescribes five key considerations for cities to sustainably embed urban farming within their own policy programmes for food security.

Conducive policy actions on the part of the government and regulatory agencies shall go a long way in allowing these entrepreneurs to evolve. Their success will in turn instil greater confidence in financial institutions to lend their support, which has been lacking thus far. The 2019 United States Department of Agriculture’s toolkit also reported that farmers continue to struggle to find and finance suitable land for urban farming.

Urban farming promises the potential to create resilient cities that are productive, socially inclusive, food-secure and environmentally sustainable. But there also remains a host of unresolved issues (like policy frameworks, investment opportunities, market readiness, etc.) that urban farmers will have to continue to contend with. The production and selling of food items could also be rife with safety and liability issues. Producing food for people is a big responsibility and no business or individual should enter it without careful thought and planning.

A rooftop urban farm in Singapore (image courtesy of Edible Garden City)

References

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