Is Urban Agriculture the Solution to Global Food Insecurity?

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STOCKHOLM — The world’s growing population and increasingly limited resources have created a great challenge to our current agricultural systems, whether they are conventional or organic. Yet new research and innovative projects show that cities around the world can certainly be part of the solution.

It is no longer news that we will have to double our food production by 2050, as the United Nations reported earlier this year. By midcentury, the urban population is predicted to increase by 80 percent.

Creating Synergies

Plantagon is a forward-thinking Swedish company that sees a solution to sustainably feeding the global population through urban agriculture. It is focusing on developing a vertical greenhouse to minimize transportation, land, energy and water use in food production.

The idea behind urban agriculture, as well as Plantagon’s concept, is that it should provide the market with products that don’t need to be transported while creating synergies with all the resources offered in a metropolis or a community, including energy, carbon, water and sunlight. The goal is to make food production more efficient, with innovative approaches toward minimizing input into the process. Because urban agriculture is close to those urban resources, food production can be integrated into these resources and make use of them.

Feeding a growing population

Holger Kirchmann, a researcher at the Swedish Institute of Agriculture, is writing a book titled “The Organic Dream — Myths and Truths About Organic Farming.” The book examines ways of producing food to feed the expanding world population while staying environmentally sustainable by using fewer pesticides, maintaining satisfactory biodiversity and using resources efficiently.

Recirculation of nutrients is an interesting dimension of this, and something that Kirchmann thinks is one of the most important aspects of future resource efficiency. His book examines the possibility of creating a new “green” fertilizer from nutrients in our urban waste. The method would involve extracting minerals from urban waste by incinerating or gassing it. The minerals in the ash would then be the primary materials for the recirculation and the base in the production of fertilizers.

Previous attempts to recirculate waste have mainly focused on returning organic waste to the cultivation areas, which has proved to be very difficult, mostly due to toxic substances in the waste.

“Organic farming fully excludes the use of mineral fertilizer, which makes the concept of extracting this green fertilizer undoable in the organic production system,” Kirchmann points out. He also says it will not be possible in the future to bring sufficient amounts of food to major cities in the way we are doing it today.

“The most important step for the future is to recirculate our resources and have a functioning closed-loop solution for the nutrients we feed our crops with,” he says.

Soil vs. Pumice

Organic labeling is not an option for Plantagon. Sepehr Mousavizadeh, the company’s project manager, says organic farming is a good method of production for now but is not efficient enough in the long term. And while the growing medium for organic certification remains soil, it is not compatible with the production techniques applied by Plantagon.

“We believe that if we could imbibe the Plantagon concept of sustainable production within the ecological norms in urban environments, the rationale for market shares is evident,” the company’s website says.

Plantagon’s vertical greenhouse is based on the principles of hydroponic systems. In other words, plants are grown with nutrients and water, not soil. This method, used in greenhouses, conserves water and land. In addition, it most often does not require more than basic agricultural skills.

The plants are grown in large trays where the water is provided from below, directly to the plant’s root system. This irrigation method is very efficient, as surplus water is drained and, after disinfestation, the excess nutrient solution is collected and reused, thus creating the method’s closed-loop system.

Pumice, a natural substrate, is increasingly used in the production process. The nutrients from the pumice are dissolved in the irrigation water and fed to the plants. Pumice has proved to be very durable, up to several years, and because it is a natural substrate at the end of its life cycle, it doesn’t affect the environment.

Five steps to solve the food dilemma

“Unfortunately, the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms,” says Jonathan Foley, a global ecologist at the University of Minnesota. He has been recognized for his work on understanding global ecosystems land use and the environmental implications of modern agriculture.

Focusing on reducing environmental effects while meeting the global population’s food needs, Foley has come up with five steps on how to solve the food dilemma by reducing environmental harm and doubling the availability of food.

The first step is to freeze agriculture’s carbon footprint by not expanding the agricultural area. The second is to grow more on the farms that we have, while the third step is using resources more efficiently. The two last steps concern the routines of our daily life: changing diets and decreasing meat consumption in the richest parts of the world as well as reducing our food waste.

The future of urban agriculture

Urban agriculture does not exclusively open up environmentally friendly solutions. It has also a social aspect. The cost of middlemen is avoided, making it easier and cheaper for farmers to sell their food directly to customers.

“Think about the amount of people who would be able to provide food directly to the urban population, and the contribution to new jobs that comes with it,” says Mousavizadeh. “Also, the definition of what is local is vague today—there is no actual definition at all. But buying food from the same city will definitely be local.”

He adds that the biggest challenge to urban agriculture, apart from the dependence on imported food, which he refers to as “food globalization,” is consumer awareness. As the organic sector has increasingly developed in the European Union in recent years, most people tend to turn to organic as a solution to the problems of food production.

Because both organic and conventional approaches have their flaws as solutions, “it need not be an either-or proposition,” says Foley. “Rather, it would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms, and blend the best of both.”

Featured image courtesy of Plantagon. 

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