Through the use of new technologies, the practice of urban farming intends to propel agriculture into the 21st century. Particularly amidst rising rates of urbanization, population growth, and climate change, urban farms could help construct a more sustainable society whilst also helping feed the world’s ever-growing population.
With a rapidly growing population, demand for food and changing consumer preferences are increasingly building pressure on global resources. By 2050, the world’s population will require an estimated 60% more food than is produced today, as revealed by recent predictions. Meanwhile, reports show that nearly 1 billion people worldwide are currently undernourished, while at the same time an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is either lost or wasted annually. In light of these issues, traditional farmers are increasingly being pressured to tailor their agricultural systems to meet the needs of a growing population. Of course, with a finite amount of agricultural land, it has become ever more difficult to do so. In fact, some estimates reveal that only 10.5 million square miles of farmable land is left – most of which is located around Africa and Central and South America.
By considering new approaches toward food production, therefore, the world’s population, environment, and climate could all collectively benefit in future decades.
Other sources, however, indicate that this remaining land may not be completely suitable to farm due to the varying climates, soil types, and multitudinous economic constraints. Pressure to minimize the negative environmental impacts of agriculture, ranging from soil depletion and water loss to greenhouse gas emissions and habitat degradation, further poses concern over whether continuing traditional farming methods will be effective or not in the coming decades. This is especially relevant in light of climate change, a threat that shows no signs of slowing down. By considering new approaches toward food production, therefore, the world’s population, environment, and climate could all collectively benefit in future decades.
One of the ways in which issues of food insecurity and environmental degradation have been addressed has been through the practice of urban agriculture, or “urban farming.” With the number of people living in urban areas predicted to rise to over 6 billion by 2050, farming the world’s cities may just prevent the global population from entering an unsustainable and ecologically-disastrous future. Unlike traditional farming methods, urban farming involves growing and harvesting a wide variety of crops in high density urban areas. Not to be confused with subsistence farming, though, this rising practice also satisfies commercial interests as it often involves the sale of crops directly within a city community, reducing the need for transportation.
By essentially producing more food with fewer resources, urban farming could very well be the key to a sustainable future.
In minimizing the number of so-called ‘food miles’, or the distance between which food is transported from its origin to its consumers, a significant portion of the global carbon footprint can be reduced. In addition, a shift towards local and in-season eating can also be restored. Other advantages of urban farming include the absence of weather and biological factors, lower water requirements, reduced amount of used space, close control over light intensity, and, most importantly, larger crop yields. By essentially producing more food with fewer resources, urban farming could very well be the key to a sustainable future.
Ranging from home-based and community gardens to large-scale indoor farms, urban farms can exist in many forms. In New York City, for example, the Brooklyn Grange operates three green roof systems, each covering roughly 140,000 square meters of space. Being the largest green roof operating system in the city, the Grange has been estimated to produce around 36,000 kilograms of organic vegetables annually, in addition to 680 kilograms of honey from its 40 naturally-managed beehives. As a leading example of urban rooftop farms, this project has inspired similar set-ups across the globe.
In Japan, for instance, the rooftops of many train stations have been converted into community gardens. Similar initiatives can also be observed in South Africa, where the Tlhago Primary Agricultural Cooperative has steadily transformed the roof-scape of Johannesburg by constructing a multitude of green roofs. On the ground, an extensive network of small community gardens exists across Taipei City, Taiwan. Collectively referred to as the Taipei Organic Acupuncture, these urban farms often occupy less developed areas of the city, such as flood-prone river banks and other areas deemed unsuitable for infrastructure. Here in the United Kingdom, Islington’s Culpeper Community Garden and Camden’s Phoenix Garden are two popular inner-city gardens located right in central London.
Having become synonymous with urban farming over recent years, vertical farming is the process by which crops are grown on vertically inclined surfaces in large indoor structures. Rather than farming food on a single level, this technique aims to maximize the amount of space used by stacking produce in vertical layers.
While community gardens and green roofs have clearly begun to define many cityscapes across the globe, some other countries are beginning to explore another sustainable option known as “vertical farming.” Having become synonymous with urban farming over recent years, vertical farming is the process by which crops are grown on vertically inclined surfaces in large indoor structures. Rather than farming food on a single level, this technique aims to maximize the amount of space used by stacking produce in vertical layers. Though seemingly complex, many vertical farmers tend to integrate this method in skyscrapers, shipping containers, and even old warehouses. Depending on which type of crop is grown, one acre of a vertical farm can grow approximately the equivalent of 10 to 20 soil-based acres. With such a large produce yield, vertical farms could likely help countries meet the projected 60% increase in food demand, whilst also serving as a model for future sustainability.
Through the use of indoor farming techniques, vertical farmers can closely control and monitor variables such as temperature, pH, light, humidity, and nutrients when growing their crops. Similar to greenhouses, vertical farms incorporate the use of metal reflectors and artificial lighting to mimic natural sunlight. To ensure that consistent levels of light are radiated across the whole farm, technologies such as rotating beds are also commonly employed. Furthermore, in absence of natural soil, vertical farmers typically use an alternative medium to grow produce, using either hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic processes. Facilitating the growth of crops in a nutrient-rich water basin, hydroponics is the most commonly used technique in vertical farms. As the water simply recirculates in a closed reservoir, evaporation is minimized, reducing water consumption by nearly 70%.
Similarly, much of the water used in aeroponics can be conserved as the process simply involves spraying crops with a nutrient-based solution, a technique that delivers nutrients directly to the plant roots. Moreover, perhaps the most unique method of growing crops in vertical farms is aquaponics, a process that utilizes fish. Providing both nutrients and bacteria, the fish essentially drive the growth of crops, which in turn filter the water to sustain the fish. A hybrid system clearly combining both hydroponic and aquaculture features, aquaponics is able to create a closed-loop production system that ultimately encourages the development of a mini, self-regulating ecosystem. Though each of these processes have different requirements, all three are effective ways to simultaneously conserve water whilst stimulating crop growth and yield.
A prime example of vertical farming happens to be located here in Scotland. An Edinburgh-based company, Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) supplies agritech solutions to farmers and governments around the globe. Incorporating Total Control Environment Agriculture (TCEA) techniques, this fairly new company is able to optimize productivity across their numerous vertical farms. Scheduled to be completed by the end of the year in partnership with Vertegrow, another Scottish agritech company, a four-tower vertical farm system is currently being constructed in Aberdeenshire. This claimed “superstructure” will supposedly accommodate four nine-meter high towers, which, when completed, will collectively cover 1,343 square meters of growing space, generating 70 tonnes of produce annually.
By growing a large number of crops in such a carbon-neutral way, this high-tech vertical farm might very well be representative of what may soon become the new normal in regards to global agriculture systems.
Equipped with the efficient IGS system, consisting of renewable energy sources and rainwater harvesting systems, this Scottish farm may become the world’s most technically-advanced vertical farm yet. Predicted to be in full operation by early next year, the four towers will grow a variety of crops which, in time, will be distributed by Vertegrow across all of North-East Scotland. By growing a large number of crops in such a carbon-neutral way, this high-tech vertical farm might very well be representative of what may soon become the new normal in regards to global agriculture systems.
With many different types of urban farms seeming to pop up across the globe, a transition away from rural farming seems like the obvious solution to adapt to a growing population in a sustainable way. However, it is important to recognize the drawbacks of urban farming, including the limited amount of lateral space, risk of urban contamination, complicated legal requirements, as well as the costs for some of the more technologically-advanced indoor farms. In many cities, these factors have discouraged the shift towards urban farming.
Nevertheless, while urban farms may be difficult to manage at first, they have evidently proven to be both more efficient and sustainable than traditional farms. Thus, given the greater production yields and reduced environmental impact, farming the world’s cities may be one of the only viable ways to adapt to the planet’s rapidly changing environment and ever-increasing population.
Art by Alice Vine