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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Urban and Agriculture Can Coexist

March 23, 2011 |

Flying over the Midwest in a plane one sees vast fields of wheat, grain, corn, and other cash crops as far as the eye can see.   Then, a few hundred miles later one catches sight of the nearest large city with its skyscrapers, vacant lots, and tar roofed buildings where some of that agriculture crop will most likely end up.

Now, imagine 20 years from today flying over cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit and seeing vast swaths of green, red, and gold agricultural terrain below in place of the expected black tar roofs and vacant grey expanses of abandoned lots; a grid of black and gray surrounded and overtaken by agriculture production. 

With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas according to the 2000 census and nearly 50% of people worldwide living in cities, and to top it off, a world population expected to increase by nearly 40% to 9 billion people in the next 40 years, it’s quite possible that cities will embrace and foster urban agriculture in order to prop up local economies, stimulate entrepreneurship, encourage environmental restoration and remediation, and increase food security.

Urban Agriculture – An Oxymoron?

The term ‘urban agriculture,’ when spoken aloud, evokes that classy oxymoron of ‘Jumbo Shrimp.’ The concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘agriculture’ simply do not fit together well from both a perception and a lingual standpoint.  The term urban signifies a city environment with tall buildings, industrial plants, commercial real estate, while the term agriculture signifies a rural environment with vast fields of wheat and corn, red barns, and tractors.

But wait!  ‘Urban’ and ‘agriculture’ are just terms, and the only real restriction to the growing and cultivation of food is arable land or land that can be transformed for crop growing.  And land, which can be used to grow crops, exists in urban areas too – on rooftops, in vacant lots, and inside of empty buildings.

Incredibly, according to a global estimate, 15 – 20% of the world’s food is produced in or around urban areas (Margaret Armar-Klemesu 2000).

That’s a lot of food production and it’s taking place in urban areas. Thus, to this author, it warrants the oxymoronic epithet of ‘urban agriculture’.

Or you can just call it what it is: agriculture.

Benefits of Urban Agriculture

Agriculture production that takes place in cities can increase food security by increasing the amount of locally, and therefore, readily available food.  It can foster entrepreneurial activities such as operating urban farms that sells their products to area restaurants, supermarkets, and direct to consumers via farmer’s markets.  Such entrepreneurial activity results in job creation related to production, packaging, processing, and marketing of locally grown foods.

Urban agriculture can also be called sustainable agriculture since many urban growing systems involve the use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigation and organic compost (trash) for fertilizer.  Additionally, urban agriculture does not emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment, as the food produced does not need to be transported thousands of miles to the nearest city.   According to the David Suzuki Foundation “the average meal in North America travels about 2400 km from the field to your dinner plate.”  In transit, carbon dioxide spews into the atmosphere, fossil fuels are burned, and some of the food even spoils.

Impediments to Urban Agriculture

Some of the barriers to establishing a robust urban agriculture infrastructure include:

  • Finding enough space to operate a farm within dense, growing, and populous urban areas
  • Land in urban areas formerly used for industrial purposes often contains contaminated soil that must be remediated before planting begins
  • Access to available water resources
  • The high cost of electricity if farming is done indoors in a building that requires LED lights to simulate sunlight
  • Legal restrictions and economic impediments to accessing land

The Future of Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture is currently in the early stages of growing into a commercial scale business.  Startup companies are developing and operating vast indoor farms, potentially right next door to the office building that you are working in now.

With vacancy rates of nearly 10.6% for commercial and industrial real estate across the U.S. (Cushman & Wakefield), many entrepreneurs see real opportunity in converting industrial buildings into urban farms.

Over the next couple of weeks, Seedstock will look at a number of startups and examine how they might enable urban agricultural production to achieve scale and real revenue.



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