Inner city farms are becoming an important area for delivering produce
As the population grows and urban areas become larger, we're going to need to farm smarter
“As a nation we can’t simply go around the world chasing the cheapest deal for our food,” said the National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall last month. “We are a trading nation but at a time of economic uncertainty a strong food producing industry is essential.” He wants us all to buy more British produce, but farming doesn't have to just mean the countryside.
Could growing food in our cities help us regain control over our food supply? “The way that we feed people in cities is unsustainable,” says Kate Hofman, an urban farmer whose London-based GrowUp project began earlier this year. “It relies heavily on fossil fuel-based fertilisers in order to continue to get high yields from fields. Farmers have to use more and more every year and that damages the natural capacity of the soil to support growing and suppress the carbon.”
There is currently something of a renaissance going on with the concept of the urban farm
There are also issues of food security. “The way cities are built they have very little food security – London would last about three days if the supply routes were cut off,” says Hofman. “To build up food security and resilience it's important to look at the space in cities to grow food, especially as food becomes more expensive and more people live in cities.” The UK currently produces just under two-thirds of its food, with the rest imported.
Many Brits are doing their bit already, with the roughly 300,000 council-run allotments in more demand than ever. “A lot of urban farming is on a personal level,” says Dominic Medway, professor of marketing at Manchester Business School, himself a farmer, who thinks that the renaissance of urban farming in Britain – at least among the middle classes – is being spearheaded by cookery writers like Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver. “The idea that you can use your garden to grow vegetables, or your balcony to keep chickens, it's like people trying to get back to The Good Life,” says Medway. “As life becomes more hectic with the pressures of work and the recession, it's often a way of escaping the oppression of the urban environment, too.”
There are many unused areas in cities that could be turned into urban farms
Small-scale urban agriculture like this isn't new. After the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Cuba was plunged into crisis when its supply of chemical fertilisers was lost and the US embargo restricted access to fuel. In the capital, Havana, people had to revert to organic growing. Over two decades later – with the crisis long over – more than half of Havana's fresh produce is still grown on the city's balconies and vacant plots, gardens and small-scale farms.
However, urban farming as a 'first world' phenomenon has its roots in North America when there was a trend for using compost grow-bags on balconies. That so-called bagriculture continues today, with urban farming now rife in cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Vancouver, where some of the community-based projects have since transformed into commercial-scale farming. One of the most successful is Lufa Farms in Montreal, which in 2011 built the world's first commercial rooftop greenhouse, and has since opened a second.
An inspiration for many of the world's wannabe urban farmers, the main farm uses hydroponic production methods, captures and recirculates rainwater, and transports its produce short distances to 130 collection points around Montreal. It currently has 2,000 customers. “The average consumer is far too distant from their food sources,” says Lisa Figlioli, public relations officer for Lufa Farms. “Consumers should know who their farmer is, how their food is grown, and have every assurance in the traceability and safety of the food they eat.” She thinks that the use of pesticides and long shipping chains, as well as overconsumption of water, and food waste, just isn't sustainable – and that city farms eliminate all of this.
The GrowUp box concept allows people to make the most of their urban environment to grow produce
The rooftop idea is key to Lufa Farm's success. “Cities could be self-sufficient in their food production if enough rooftops were utilised,” says Figlioli, who insists that Montreal – a city of 1.65 million – could be self-sufficient if 28 million square feet of rooftop space was used for greenhouse production. That's roughly 19 shopping centres.
“We're a bit behind North America,” says Hofman, whose business GrowUp nevertheless had grand plans for food production in London. Ironically housed in a shipping container – the lynchpin of globalisation that transports food around the world – the GrowUp box provides both plants and meat from any urban location. “We built our first farm earlier this year, a demonstration farm that shows the maximum stable yield of food that you can get from a small space,” says Hofman. “We just happened to use a shipping container – it just shows what you can do with a footprint of just 14 square metres.” Around 150 tilapia fish live below 400-450 plants in the GrowUp box, with the waste from the fish feeding the plants, and the plants cleaning the water for the fish. It's a closed system called aquaponics.
“The waste for the fish is high in nitrates, so the things that grow well are green, leafy plants like salads and herbs,” says Hofman. “They're all quite delicate, perishable crops that people in cities can struggle to get hold of in good quality and freshness.” GrowUp is now assessing brownfield sites in London to situate a commercial 'food production' site, possibly on the Lufa Farms model. London isn't yet a hotbed of urban farming, but there are other small-scale 'guerilla garden' projects like the Edible Bus Stop, which aims to transform neglected sites across London’s transport network into community growing spaces.
A wide variety of produce can be grown in urban areas and that's likely to increase in the future
This is small-scale, for now, but there are wider trends; it's becoming common for heat produced by industrial processes – such as by power stations – to be pumped into adjacent greenhouses. Consider the global climate and population trends, and increased urban farming begins to look inevitable. While we're trying to slash carbon emissions, humanity is becoming more and more densely concentrated in cities; the urban areas of the world are predicted to triple in size by 2030. Why not physically take more of the supply of food to where there's the biggest demand for it?
The food miles argument is well rehearsed, but it's not always possible to say that locally grown food has a lower environmental impact. Life-cycle analysis shows that apples grown in season in New Zealand and flown over to the UK can have a lower environmental impact from a carbon perspective than apples grown out of season in the UK that rely on artificial heat and light. “We're a long way from being at a point where we're growing everything locally that should and could be grown locally,” says Hofman. “We're really privileged that we can access foods from all over the world, but there are more sensible ways of growing them.”
This building is able to house an array of produce and it's all grown in the heart of a city