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Not Everyone Is Sold on Urban Farms as the Solution to Food Industry Problems

Researchers have some counterarguments to the idea of urban farming as a panacea.

Photo Credit: Jill Chen/Shuterstock


Urban farming is all the rage, from "locavores" who want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s raised, to those trying to reduce their carbon footprint (fewer miles for food to travel), to those trying to be more self-sufficient, to those who reject Big Ag and its factory farming methods.

There is a trend, to be sure, which for some gained momentum when First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged Americans to start their own backyard gardens, largely out of concerns of poor nutrition and obesity among the country’s children.

In cities with lots of unused space and desparate residents, such as Camden, NJ and Detroit (a leading area in urban agriculture), people have revitalized vacant lots with community gardens, created hydroponic (soil-less) farms, rooftop gardens (which can help reduce air conditioning costs) and vertical farms, growing plants in buildings.

With up to 30% of agricultural production in the U.S. now originating in metropolitan areas, and up to 15% on a global scale, according to the USDA, agriculture has only recently become a mostly rural activity. With its origins in densely populated areas, it is still a means of survival in less developed countries.

The return to urban farming seems here to stay, though not without its challenges. Critics are many, coming from the farm industry, science researchers and even some enviornmentalists. 

According to the Food for the Cities report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as of 2007, half of the world’s population was already living in cities with that population topping almost five billion in 2030, making urban food security and its related problems a high priority in coming years.

At the moment, this trend does put pressure on limited urban resources with challenges in developing countries that include insufficient access to water and sanitation. Other issues include land and soil contamination, especially in industrial cities. When done right, urban farming can also supply local jobs and income, and especially for poorer populations, healthy food alternatives as well as a degree of sustainability.

Water and soil worries

Worldwide water use is growing at more than double the rate of the population over the last century. This means sustainability is a high priority, with solutions including drip irrigation and hydroponics, according to the FAO.

“In rapid growing urban centers, water has become a fragile and scarce resource in a competing environment….Urban and peri-urban farmers often apply water from municipal sewage, mostly in its untreated form, increasing the risk for illnesses to farmers and consumers. In urban and peri-urban agriculture, locally adapted small-scale irrigation and plant production methods and schemes are possible solutions to save water. Low-cost water-savings technologies such as underground and drip irrigation can increase water efficiency as well as allowing safe use of low quality water resources.”

In the U.S., the use of potable water to sustain urban farms is another problem, according to UrbanAgLaw.org:

“In most municipalities in the U.S. there is not a separate and less expensive non-potable water supply for irrigation, and it is necessary to use the municipality’s potable water. Although it is possible that some urban farm locations already have access to an independent water supply, many have no access to water. In instances like this, it may become necessary to 'borrow' water from one or more neighbors to provide enough water to supply your farm’s needs.”

Maurice Hladik, author of Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork, criticized urban farming as a nice hobby but no solution to world hunger and even a threat to larger commercial farms in a 2012 editorial in the trade publication AG Professional.

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