The role of an urban farmer may seem like an oxymoron, but it is not as crazy as it seems. The population of the earth has grown explosively in recent decades and, increasingly more people live in cities. It will no longer be viable to grow food exclusively in the traditional spaces and urban farming will become essential for sustainable food production.
What is urban farming?
It’s not very complicated. People use whatever space is available in a city to grow vegetables, fruit and even hold livestock. The idea is not new; a historical example is Machu Picchu, where terraces were built in the city to grow vegetables. More recently, during World War I and World War II, the so-called Victory gardens in the US, UK and Canada helped to produce more food. Furthermore, during the Great Depression, this offered a way out for some people, providing them with a job and food.
A very recent example is in Detroit. The city took a big hit in the financial crisis, which forced many car producers to close their factories. As a result of this, a lot of vacant space became available that could easily be converted into farmland. The company Hantz Farms is leading this effort. They want to turn Detroit into an example for the world.
Why urban farming?
The first reason you can think of is availability of space. As the world’s population keeps growing, the available traditional farmland might become scarce and there is still plenty of space available within the cities to grow extra food. This is not only in gardens and parks, but rooftops can also be used.
One of the biggest drawbacks of centralised farming is that the food has to travel a significant distance to get to the consumer and it has to be refrigerated during the transport. On average, produce travels about 2000 km to its destination.
This has a big impact on the carbon footprint of farming. Producing the food closer to the end user can offset this as people can consume the freshly grown food almost instantly. The efficiency is between five and fifteen times better.
The higher concentration of plants in the cities also consumes the carbon dioxide that is more present in urban areas. Through photosynthesis, oxygen is produced and this improves the overall quality of the air.
Plants also reduce the concentration of ozone and particles by absorbing them. A rooftop of about 2000 m² of uncut grass could potentially remove up to 4000 kg of particulate matter.
As is clear from the previous paragraph, urban farming creates a better environment. However, that is not the only health benefit. People will be more likely to eat the vegetables which they have grown themselves. This in turn improves the quality of their diet. In addition, the food will have been grown with less fertilisers, pesticides and processing, which also ensures higher quality food in the end. By having less time between the harvesting and consumption of the food, fewer nutrients are lost.
One can argue that food grown in cities is more exposed to pollutants. One important way to prevent this is to select the soil carefully and to make sure that the food is not grown in an area of the city that could be polluted by heavy metals. The soil can be tested for this. In addition, fresh soil can be added on top of the original soil.
The second source of contamination are all the airborne pollutants and, more importantly, fine particles of dirt. The best way to avoid this is to grow food away from busy streets and to make sure that the vegetables are cleaned thoroughly.
As it happens, the countryside is not always as safe as you think for growing vegetables. Smog is formed through the interaction of ozone and pollutants from car exhausts. This process takes time and is often only complete when the air has migrated outside the city.
Working in your garden is also a great workout and it will increase people’s wellbeing and mental health by spending time with nature. People can also develop new skills which can add to a higher self-esteem.
Urban farming has a lot of social benefits: it gives people an extra source of income and increases the feeling of neighbourhood safety. The neighbourhoods can look nicer and become more pleasant areas in which to live. People can interact because of the joint activity and will exchange best practices and even recipes. People will not always want to sell their produce, but will often simply trade their products.
The urban farmer, a job on the rise?
As you have seen, there will most likely be a need for growing food in cities. Basically, anyone with a small garden or any other piece of land can start growing his or her own food. There is not a specific profile for the urban farmer. However, if you are looking for the perfect job, this might be something for you. You’ll become healthier, have a positive impact on your community and you’ll be part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem.
Want to find out in what way food impacts our quality of life? We got you covered! Find out more about food and surviving.
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