Urban Farming: Fad Or Futureproof?

March 9, 2016

By: Laurie Winkless

Agriculture and urban growth have long been considered unhappy bedfellows, with arable land often sacrificed to build high-rise apartments and new roads. But this may be changing. There is growing trend towards urban agriculture, where otherwise unused space is commandeered to grow vegetables, herbs and other plants. In a sense, urban farms are not new. Allotments stretch across the UK, and in the US, community gardens have been popular for decades. But what is new is the approach being taken by this latest generation of urban farmers. So could this herald the beginnings of a future industry?

A paper published in the latest issue of the British Food Journal suggests the answer to that may be ‘nope’. Led by Prof Carolyn Dimitri from New York University, this study surveyed 370 self-identified urban farmers operating in or near to US cities. She found that found that roughly two-thirds are failing to make a living from farming. There is definitely an impression that many of today’s urban farmers aren’t ‘in it for the money’, and this paper seems to back that up. Two-thirds of the farms surveyed identified increasing food security, education and community-building as their primary focuses. But, only one-third said that they operate as non-profits, so making money is a priority, if only a secondary one.

Will this way of growing lettuce soon disappear? (Credit: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)

However questionable the profitability of the farms reviewed in this paper may be, urban farming continues to hit headlines. And that is for a simple reason – with more people living in cities than ever before, the race is on to find better ways to feed us. Across the world there are some seriously high-tech projects that are attempting to reinvent crop-farming. After the 2011 earthquake in Tohuko, Japan, a previously unused part of a Fujitsu factory became the country’s first viable indoor vertical farm. Blue and red LEDs illuminate stacked trays of salad leaves, while they are hydrated using a water mist (BRIEF ASIDE: These wavelengths are chosen because they increase the rate of photosynthesis, making the whole ‘turning sunlight into food’ process a lot more efficient). These days, the plant produces in excess of 3,500 heads of lettuce per day, and staff can monitor everything remotely using sensors and apps. A former Sony plant was repurposed to become a hydroponic plant too – it now churns out 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

Just a short walk from my home in South London, Growing Underground recently opened an urban farm in tunnels originally designed to shelter the public during World War I. Today, they grow so-called microgreens – the shoots of salad leaves such as rocket and mustard leaf. In the US, AeroFarm’s New Jersey plant has a growing area of almost 6500 m2 (equivalent to a soccer pitch) and claims to use 95% less water than traditional outdoor agriculture. One of my favourite combinations of great technology and open source data is also found in urban farming. Dr Caleb Harper from the MIT Media Lab is effectively developing an operating system for future farms. His project, called CityFARM analyses the growing environment of every crop – from the air’s CO2 content, to the acidity of the water. Then, he releases this data, a ‘library of climate recipes’, for free, to the wider world. His vision is that in future, if we want to grow the perfect tomato in our own climate-controlled micro-garden, we’ll be able to download the settings needed to reproduce the growing conditions exactly.

Read the full story at www.Forbes.com.

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