The rise of urban agriculture around the globe

The traditional agriculture industry is insufficient to meet the growing population’s food production demands. Increasing agricultural projects in urban environments could be a solution.
Industries: Agriculture
  • The benefits of urban agriculture
  • How well can crops grow in cities?
  • Urban agriculture initiatives in New York and Brussels
  • Food production innovations in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and South Korea
  • Rooftop farming in Singapore, Paris, and New Jersey
  • The future of sustainable agriculture

Approximately 800 million people in the world do not receive sufficient nourishment, and it is predicted that we will need to produce 70 per cent more food by the year 2050 if we are to keep up with increasing demand in a world with a growing population. However, the agriculture industry has shrunk rather than grown to meet this challenge, and now represents only 3 per cent of global GDP. If we are to provide enough food for the world’s population in the coming decades, there must be innovations in agriculture. This requires efforts, investments, and the use of new technologies. Thankfully, many organisations in various countries across the globe are developing innovative methods and technologies to help meet these demands. The rise of urban agriculture – or farming in urban settings – is a key factor. Urban agriculture includes events and spaces like farmers’ markets, community gardens, and even more ambitious projects and initiatives. Optimising urban spaces for farming and food production could have significant positive effects on the agriculture industry and the planet.

Around 14 per cent of the world’s food produced commercially never even reaches store shelves, and 38 per cent of energy in food production is wasted on this food.

United Nations

The benefits of urban agriculture

Rural farming has some notable limitations. As well as being under pressure to produce a constantly-growing amount of food for people in faraway populated areas, the intensive farming methods used to keep up with this demand are often counterproductive. For example, the nutrient value of soils is significantly reduced by intensive farming, and fertilisers can have harmful effects on the environment. Urban agriculture can provide many benefits, not only to nearby communities but to the planet as a whole. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is that of increasing the year-round availability of fresh produce to urban citizens, and the subsequent health benefits of that. Urban farming can also increase biodiversity, providing habitats for bees, birds, and other pollinators in urban areas that otherwise would not have these species in abundance. Moving farming to cities and urban areas can also reduce the amount of food that is wasted. According to the UN, around 14 per cent of the world’s food produced commercially never even reaches store shelves, and 38 per cent of energy in food production is wasted on this food. A large reason for this is that food is usually grown rurally, but must be transported to more populated areas. When this transport is insufficient, food can be lost or degrade in transit due to inadequate storage and preservation methods. Growing food closer to where it is sold and consumed reduces these issues. 

Food is also wasted due to being aesthetically imperfect – for example, a ‘misshapen’ vegetable is often thrown away or not purchased at all, despite being perfectly edible and nutritious. In fact, one-third of fruits and vegetables never even reach stores as they are discarded for this reason. When consumers are closer to the growing process, they may be more likely to understand and appreciate what goes into growing food, and less likely to reject it for cosmetic reasons. Being closer to the source of our food can increase our understanding of the natural world. An Irish survey found that one in seven children think that vegetables originate in supermarkets. Being exposed directly to agriculture can be educational to both children and adults. This has many social benefits, such as increasing awareness and appreciation of those involved in getting food from farm to plate, such as farmers, pickers, packagers, and drivers. This awareness can lead to improved conditions for these essential workers, and stronger community ties. Urban farms and other agriculture projects can also provide new jobs for communities, and make use of previously underutilised land. 

How well can crops grow in cities?

You may think that crops can grow much more effectively in rural areas than in urban ones – after all, only 15 to 20 per cent of food in the world is grown in cities. However, research from the UK’s Lancaster University has revealed that, for many crops, the reverse is actually true. Crops like potatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce can actually produce yields four times larger when grown in urban areas than when grown in the countryside. During this research, the team analysed 200 previous studies from many different countries, and found that urban spaces can be more suited to methods such as hydroponic and vertical growing, which benefit vegetables like tomatoes, lettuces, broccoli, and kale.

“Despite its growing popularity, there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about urban agriculture, like whether the yields are similar to conventional agriculture, or even what crops are commonly grown.”

Florian Payen, environmental scientist, Lancaster University

Urban agriculture initiatives in New York and Brussels

The benefits of urban agriculture are being recognised in many parts of the world, and initiatives are appearing in many cities. In 2021, New York City announced the creation of an urban agriculture advisory board with its own office. Ben Kallos of the New York City Council stated: “people doing the work in urban agriculture haven’t felt like they had a seat at the table. This will give them that seat at the table that will give them access to city policy.” Brussels, another innovative global city, has announced the Good Food Strategy initiative, which aims for a 30 per cent increase in revenue from organic food and in food autonomy. Brussels is already paving the way in urban agriculture, with local demand for fresh produce leading to an extensive network of urban farming projects.

Food production innovations in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and South Korea

A particularly ambitious urban agriculture project is that of the NEOM project in Saudi Arabia. NEOM is a megacity currently under construction that is planned to be the most food self-sufficient city in the world. NEOM’s Food Innovation Hub is “using biotechnology to promote responsible and sustainable aquafarming”, “developing alternative proteins”, and developing “nutritional services tailored to genomic and microbiome data.” In Dubai, a ‘Food Tech Valley’ will become a hub for sustainable agricultural technologies. According to Dubai’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment Her Excellency Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Harev Almheiri, two central goals of the Food Tech Valley project are “fostering a culture of AgTech amongst youth, and creating viable career pathways for them.” Another hugely ambitious project is Busan’s OCEANIX, which aims to build a sustainable city that floats on the sea. Not only will OCEANIX tackle the issue of rising sea levels, but it will also be self-sufficient, producing its own food, water and energy with “fully integrated zero waste closed-loop systems.”

Vertical farming in Singapore, Paris, and New Jersey

Cities like Singapore, which have a large number of tall buildings, have plenty of vertical space to utilise, and rooftops are an excellent spot for vegetable gardens. More and more rooftop farms are appearing in Singapore, such as the Grand Hyatt Hotel’s herb garden, which provides many of the herbs used in the hotel’s kitchen. Another rooftop garden can be found in the city’s Funan Mall, next to a Japanese restaurant called Noka, which serves meals prepared with produce from the garden. In Paris, a vast urban farm can be found in the 15th arrondissement. The farm is as big as two football pitches, and uses a technique called aeroponic vertical farming, which uses nutrients instead of soil to grow fruit and vegetables. As well as producing food for the city (including nearby cafes and restaurants), the farm also offers educational tours and plots for residents to do their own farming.

AeroFarms is a 70,000 square-foot urban aeroponic farm in New Jersey, which consists of rows and towers and produces various green vegetables from seeds that grow in recyclable cloth. Sensors detect temperature and other environmental factors and automatically make adjustments to the growing process when needed, so growth is efficient all year round. The farm’s co-founder and chief marketing officer Marc Oshima even believes that these sensors can be optimised to improve the taste of the vegetables. AeroFarms can yield almost 400 times more produce than traditional outdoor farms, uses significantly less water, and requires no pesticides at all.

The future of sustainable agriculture 

According to the World Bank, agriculture currently accounts for almost one-third of global emissions, from the planting and harvesting processes, the keeping of livestock, and so on. Chemicals used in fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides also produce significant pollution. While the agriculture industry’s negative environmental impact must be reduced, there is also a need to increase production to meet the demands of a population which is expected to reach 9 billion by the middle of the century. Meeting these necessary – but seemingly-contradictory – goals requires revolutionising the way farming takes place. Implementing sustainable agriculture on a global scale is vital to feed the world’s growing population without exhausting its natural resources. With cities constantly expanding into formerly-rural land, and almost 70 per cent of the global population predicted to live in cities by 2050, urban space must be used effectively for food production and other agriculture. However, this must be planned and carried out effectively – spaces should be chosen carefully to avoid displacing existing inhabitants. The most important principle in planning sustainable urban agriculture (as with becoming a more environmentally-friendly society) is that of enabling citizens to live in harmony with nature, rather than in conflict with it.

Industries: Agriculture
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