How many mouths can urban farms feed?

Sensemaking / How many mouths can urban farms feed?

Urban farms have emerged as a solution providing access to local food and economic opportunities for low-income communities, but how much of future demand can they meet?

By Juliette Aplin / 21 Aug 2015

According to the FAO, one fifth of the world’s food is already being grown in cities. For cities to feed the world’s current urban population fully, a study published by McGill University found that a third of urban space would have to be given over to planting vegetables – a scenario which looks unlikely ever to happen.

However, efficient and innovative growing techniques and creative approaches to space constraints suggest this doesn’t need to be a barrier to scale for city-grown food. For example, indoor farms using hydroponics have emerged as a means of growing food with 98% less water and 70% less fertilisation than traditional methods, and without the disruptions of weather and seasons.

Growing Underground stands as testament to the scalability of this innovation, having established a commercially viable farm in London’s disused rail tunnels.

However, as Louis Albright, Director of Cornell University’s Controlled Environment Agricultural program comments, “the main challenge [for urban farms] is the cost of high levels of energy usage and intra-city distribution.” How then can urban farms achieve the scale required to become commercially viable?

Securing investment: growing interest from entrepreneurs and investors

Large-scale investors such as Philips, NASA and governments are increasingly developing interest in funding urban agricultural ventures. Philips' GrowWise City Farming research centre, for example, is aiming to refine LED technology for indoor farming, making it possible to grow food they hope ‘virtually anywhere’. LEDs use half the power of flurorescent lights, and have recently become inexpensive and efficient enough to be used within start-up urban farming initiatives.

Freight Farms and Podponics, have developed custom-built growing systems designed to grow produce directly within shipping containers. This business model simplifies transport logistics and significantly reduces distribution costs.

Others, such as BrightFarms in New York, have overcome the challenge of funding and economies of scale by working with mainstream supermarkets.  The hydroponics specialists have devised a scalable business model to enable them to raise capital on a project-by-project basis for its greenhouses. Once a supermarket partner is secured, a ‘produce purchase agreement’ (PPA) is agreed which commits the retailer to buy produce from the greenhouse, for distribution via its networks.

Providing more than food: scaling up community participation

Perhaps focusing on the commercial viability of urban farms is overshadowing a further socio-economic rationale for scale. Some urban farms are providing important social services too, such as community elder care, education initiatives, homeless sheltersrehabilitation, employment  programmes, and cleaning up vacant lots. In doing so, they are reconnecting city-dwellers with the food system.

Is the next step is for urban authorities to recognise these wider benefits by factoring   farming initiatives into formal governance policies and planning? As the FAO noted, ‘city authorities could do much more to make space or waste land available to urban farmers’.

Image caption: Vegetables grown in Chicago's Fulton Market Innovation District

Image credit: Kurman Communications Inc / Flickr

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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