Dear system change leaders,
In today’s #LoveFood newsletter, we want to ask you a simple question:
Where is your food being produced?
If you are city-dwellers, you are probably picturing some bucolic countryside or maybe a large and modern farm. And we are not going to prove you wrong, most of our food is produced far away from our cities, but you would be surprised to know that almost 20% of it is generated in the heart of cities. Hard to imagine, right?! Urban farming might be more developed than what we think, and today we hope to make you discover some exciting innovation that is happening in this field.
Why urban farming is a much-needed systemic change?
- Global population is expected to surpass 9bn by 2050 - with more than 65% living in cities
- Traditional farming is not always possible: about 2.5bn people live in dry areas.
- Our current agricultural system is broken:
- Over-fertilization: only 5% of the fossil-based nutrients used to grow plants is absorbed by humans
- Water pollution: excessive use of fertilizers leads to nitrogen leaking into rivers and eventually seas, which has created 240,000km2 of eutrophicated dead zones over the world (equivalent to the size of the UK)
- Soil depletion: 30-85% of soils across Europe are degraded due to intensive agricultural practices
- Conventional agricultural supply chains and production methods are exposed to climate change and extreme weather patterns and conflicting demands for land-use
- In the UK, food travels in average 5,000miles from farm to plate creating many externalities on the way
For these reasons, urban farming is getting some attention across the world and although it is still mainly traditional, many new techniques and technologies are scaling up:
- Rooftop farming – While ground space is lacking in cities, empty rooftop flourishes providing good areas to start urban farming – especially industrial rooftops (e.g. supermarkets). Check out some key players: Lufa farms, Gotham Greens, Potage-Toit. Did you know? Rooftop farms can also help buildings to better regulate their temperatures and save energy during the year.
- Horizontal/Vertical farming – These farms optimize space by limiting the amount of soil used to the bare minimum and stacking growing plants on top of each other. Not experimental anymore, they have proven to deliver high yield while minimizing the nutrient and light required. Key players include: Sky green’s, Spread Co, Civic Farms, AeroFarms. Watch out: the start-up Agrilution in Munich will soon bring vertical straight to your kitchen by selling a ‘plantCube’. A cube – the size of a fridge – that will allow you to grow fresh greens in your home!
- Hydroponic farming: Growing vegetables without soil but directly in water is now possible! Using controlled nutrient solutions, this new technique is becoming very popular. Check out some key players – Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, GrowPonics. To go further: Although hydroponic farming involves growing vegetables directly in water – it proved to be very water efficient to operate as it requires very little input. The water is often 100% recycled. As such this technique is growing fast in Africa (i.e. Kenya, South Africa)
- Aquaponic farming: Often mixed up with hydroponic - this other technique allows to grow vegetables and fishes at the same time creating a strong interacting and interdependent ecosystem. Check out some key players – Urban Farmers, GrowUp Urban Farms
- LED farms: Farming without sun-light? Yes it is possible and it works! New LED technologies reproducing sun-light unlocked indoor farming in any place all-year round! No more seasons! Some key players include: Agricool, Infarm
These technologies are not exclusive: You can be just a hydroponic farm or just a vertical farm or just a rooftop farm but you can also be a vertical hydroponic rooftop farm!
These new technologies and techniques revolutionize the way we are thinking about agriculture but not everybody agrees that it is the right way forward. More traditional but truly innovative techniques like permaculture also offers a complementary path toward abundant, sustainable and local food production.
Some of these systems introduced above are highly energy intensive, and whether or not they provide a viable alternative to traditional agriculture has to be determined case by case. There are examples of solar-powered hydroponic systems in the Algerian Sahara, which are installed in refugee camps to grow wheat grass as feed for their goats, which has led to a significant increase in milk production and therefore human health. In this case energy intensity of the system wouldn’t be an issue, if it’s powered with photovoltaic energy. An LED farm in Munich powered by coal-power electricity from the grid would turn out with a different impact assessment.
Intrigued? Look-up where your food comes from this month, maybe it’s from one of these new urban farms around the corner!
Written by Alexandre Kremer