As we step into a new decade, humanity faces global political turmoil, economic injustice, remarkable technological advancements, and an existential threat posed by the escalating climate crisis. To overcome these challenges, it is crucial for us to reevaluate how we meet our basic needs.
The global urban population has experienced rapid growth, increasing from 751 million people in 1950 to 4.2 billion people today. According to a United Nations (UN) report released last year, nearly 70% of the global population is projected to reside in urban areas by 2050. In contrast, at the beginning of the 1800s, over 90% of the population in the US lived on farms, with each farmer producing enough food to sustain three to five people annually.
Advancements in agricultural technology and techniques led to increased food production with less labor. For instance, in 1900, an acre of land used to grow corn produced only 18% of the yield achieved on the same land in 2014. In the present day, farmers make up only 1.4% of the population in the United States, and the average size of farms has substantially grown. This growing disparity between urban populations and the farmers who feed them places immense strain on the agricultural industry, posing a potential threat to global food supply, biodiversity, diet quality, and cultural connections to cuisine.
Shifting Agriculture Landscape
The demand for year-round, mass-produced, and affordable produce has already caused various issues, including the decline of honey bee populations, wildfires, and droughts exacerbated by water-intensive crops like almonds and avocados. One of the significant challenges arises from the fact that as more people move to cities, the supply chains required to feed these expanding urban populations become longer and less sustainable. The consumption patterns have also changed, with rising incomes and urbanization leading to an increase in the consumption of animal-source foods, sugar, fats, oils, refined grains, and processed foods. This “nutrition transition” has contributed to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and diet-related diseases.
Challenges and Consequences of Current Food SystemsI
n the UK, despite advancements in modern medicine, life expectancy for lower-middle-class and working-class males, adjusted for infant mortality, is three years lower than in the mid-Victorian era. Researchers suggest that the edifice of post-1948 healthcare has mainly focused on controlling the symptoms of non-communicable degenerative diseases caused by the failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards. The mid-Victorian diet, characterized by high nutrient density, consisted of affordable items like onions, watercress, cabbage, apples, cherries, beetroot, fish, and meat. Reverting to these nutritional values could significantly improve health expectancy today and combat the current obesity and diabetes pandemics.
The UK’s population in the mid-Victorian era was around 30 million, with a lesser degree of urbanization compared to today. In 2019, over 83% of the UK population lives in cities and towns, while fewer than half a million farmers produce less than 60% of the country’s food.
So, how do we address these challenges?
The key to improving nutrition and reducing the supply chain distance between rural farms and urban consumers may lie in a deceptively simple solution: growing food in cities. While it may seem like an oversimplified response to a complex issue, there are compelling cases around the world advocating for urban farming.
Bowery Farming, an urban agriculture startup founded in 2015, exemplifies this approach. They utilize advanced farming techniques in their warehouses, meticulously monitoring climate conditions, light intensity, humidity, and nutrient balance to create ideal growing environments. Bowery Farming claims to use no pesticides and consume 95% less water than traditional agriculture while achieving over 100 times more productivity within the same land area.
Growing Food in Cities: A Potential Solution
Urban and vertical farming techniques are gaining popularity as potential solutions to increasing populations, climate instability, and food deserts—areas without easy access to fresh and affordable produce. These practices can range from growing lettuce on a windowsill to fully automated hydroponic facilities driven by artificial intelligence. Vertical farming, in particular, enables multiple levels of plant cultivation in climate-controlled environments, maximizing agricultural output within limited urban spaces.
To address water wastage, key techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics have been employed. Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, utilizing a nutrient-rich liquid solution. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with fish farming, where fish waste provides nutrients for plants, creating a symbiotic ecosystem. Aeroponics, initially developed by NASA for space farming, involves misting plant roots with a nutrient-rich mist, using significantly less water than conventional hydroponics.
By employing closed-system farming techniques like these, farmers gain unprecedented control over their crops’ conditions. For example, slight adjustments in lighting and nutrient levels can affect the quality of produce. The convergence of traditional farming knowledge with technology has led to hybrid roles, with farmers increasingly assuming responsibilities as data scientists. Bowery Farming, for instance, plans to open its third farm in 2020, leveraging data-driven operations to expand their production.
Financial Challenges and Potential Solutions
Despite the success of urban farming startups like Bowery, the industry still faces financial challenges. Vertical farms struggle to compete due to factors such as electricity costs, small-scale operations, and higher urban rents, impacting profitability. Based on a report by Emerald Insight, fewer than 33% of urban farmers in the United States are able to maintain their operations successfully. However, two potential solutions have emerged:
- It’s not solely about financial gain: Many urban farms operate as non-profits or community projects. Dividing the work among a neighborhood or a block of flats fosters self-contained farming communities in cities, reducing dependence on imported and expensive produce.
- Scaling up: Operations like Bowery and Brooklyn Grange, a large-scale rooftop farm, have demonstrated long-term viability as for-profit urban farms. French startup Agripolis aims to capitalize on the “bigger is better” approach by opening the world’s largest urban farm in Paris, emphasizing responsible production, organic farming practices, and sustainable crop cycles.
The coming decades will witness diverse manifestations of urban agriculture, presenting one of the most promising opportunities for humanity to tackle the challenges ahead.