Will Cities Soon Be Able to Feed Themselves?


Skyrocketing food costs, worries about food security and an urge to do things ourselves have led to a huge surge in urban farming -- gardens in backyards, on roofs, in abandoned lots and even, in the dream of a Columbia professor and his students, in high-rise buildings in the middle of cities.

During World Wars I and II, victory gardens were considered a patriotic effort to take the pressure off the food supply and to boost morale by having people see their labor translated into produce.

An urban farmer in Oakland, Esperanza Pallana, doesn't necessarily garden as a patriotic effort, but she does enjoy what her work in the garden gives her.

"There are so many things I like about it, besides just having a food supply, though it is like magic to go out in backyard and get eggs that are fresh and delicious and to have a source of honey," she says. "It's so satisfying when I sit down to a meal and 75 percent is straight out of the backyard."

Pallana didn't start her garden with the thought of growing anything edible -- she merely wanted to fix up her front yard, which was so messy that people routinely threw trash in it. A peach tree in the yard inspired her to plant more food, but she says she just bought things at the nursery and put them in the ground; she had no idea about harvesting the food. After birds ate the broccoli she had planted, she determined to learn what she was doing and started again. Now her garden, along with produce, includes bees, turkeys and chickens.

Pallana's interest in soil and food systems has taken over her life. She now works at Urban Sprouts, a nonprofit school gardens organization, and she says she has seen the interest in urban farming grow in the four years she has been doing it.

"When we built our chicken coop, we had to design it ourselves -- I couldn't find anything about how to do it," she says. "Now there are all these books and designs online. I just see a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about this."

Barbara Finnin, the executive director of Oakland's City Slicker Farm, also sees that excitement with the people she works with in the organization's Backyard Garden Program, which helps low-income people start their own gardens.

"They tell us they didn't think it was possible to get this from a dirt patch full of weeds," Finnin says. "People feel like they have access in their backyard and they can go to pick some lettuce and collards and cook. They are really engaged with, literally, the fruits of their labor."

Having accessible healthy food is particularly important in West Oakland, where City Slicker Farm is located, Finnin says. The 21,000 residents have to leave their neighborhood to get to a grocery store, and many of them, she adds, don't have a car. To meet that immediate need for fresh food, City Slicker started in 2001 by setting up a stand and giving away food; now the organization has six lots that produce about 10,000 pounds of produce, which is sold on a sliding scale.

More and more urban agriculture projects are springing up throughout the country. When Taja Sevelle moved to Detroit in 2005 and saw the hunger, vacant lots and health problems associated with lack of fresh food, she decided that growing food on unused land was the answer. Her organization, Urban Farming, now has about 600 community gardens, many of them in Detroit, but throughout the United States and the world as well. Its lofty mission is to "eradicate hunger."

This may seem daunting, but Executive Director Sevelle, who studied to be a botanist before signing a record contract with Prince, thinks this is a reachable goal. She points to the success of the victory gardens and says her organization fed about a quarter of a million people in Detroit last year.

"This is absolutely doable. It needs to be solved and can be solved," she says. "More and more I'm seeing and hearing people making bold statements. Look at the amazing things we've done as humans. If we're able to go to the moon, certainly we can solve the problem of hunger."

Sevelle says a standard size garden of 20 feet by 20 feet will produce a quarter to a third of a ton of food and that food banks define a meal as one pound of food. Savelle sees opportunity to grow that food everywhere: Her organization plants school and rooftop gardens, and works with corporations to do edible landscaping.

But we don't live by produce alone. Kristin Reynolds, from the Small Farm Program at the University of California, applauds people's efforts to grow food for themselves, but she thinks people wouldn't be able to really feed themselves without growing grains.

"I think it would be very difficult to be self-sufficient," she says. "And I question whether that is the best use of space."

Urban farming the way Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier envisions it includes grains. Despommier and his graduate students in a medical ecology class came up with a plan they call vertical farming, which would allow farming in high-rises. It's estimated that by 2050, the population will grow by at least 3 billion and about 80 percent of the world will live in urban centers. That means we need to find a new way to produce more food, Despommier says. And corn, wheat and rice are easy to grow indoors, says the professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology.

There would be no soil in a vertical farm -- things would be grown using in the air with a method called aeroponics; or hydroponically, where plants are grown in a mineral nutrient. The energy would come from a variety of sources, including geothermal, wind, solar and incinerated sewage, and the water would be recycled.

Despommier says there are all sorts of reasons why his plan is the way to go. He cites the advantages of growing food indoors: no weather-related disasters, no plant diseases, no chemical sprays, lower water usage and lower food miles. All that is needed to make it happen is money and political will, he says. And Despommier is confident that we'll see vertical farming within the next decade, as governments get more concerned about food.

"I can guarantee you there are city councils meeting right now about this," Dickson says. "Dubai is very interested, and Shanghai and Las Vegas. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is pursuing this idea, and the Department of the Environment in San Francisco is interested."

Kevin Drew, the special projects coordinator at that department, says he and his colleagues are intrigued by the possibilities, particularly Despommier's projection of the land now used for farming going back to nature.

"His notion that you could replace a lot or all farming on the land is one of the most radical," he says. "Then you'd let the earth go back to forests and wetlands, which are some of the most efficient climate drivers in the right direction."

Drew says San Francisco already has community and school gardens that grow food, but vertical farming would increase the amount of food the city could produce. He admits to being slightly skeptical at the thought of a 30-story building supplying enough food for 50,000, as Despommier suggests, but says it's an idea he wants to explore.

"Given state of pot farming in California, there is ample evidence extremely effective farming can be done inside, not growing in soil," he says.

Drew says the agency is looking at trying to retrofit existing buildings or perhaps putting a vertical farming building in some of the more toxic areas of San Francisco.

"You could spend umpty-umph million trying to get the toxicity out of soil, or you could pour six feet of concrete over it and call it done," he says.

Sadhu Johnston, the chief environmental officer for the city of Chicago, says city officials there are committed to urban agricultural and locally produced food. And with the constraints of weather and land in the city, Johnston says he would like to see food grown in high-rises -- he believes doing so could revitalize neighborhoods and employ people. Vertical farming would also cut down on water use by not spraying and save transportation costs of food being shipped in, Johnston says.

Growing food locally would undoubtedly save on transportation, says Bruce Bugbee, a professor of crop physiology at Utah State University. But he scoffs at the rice-in-the-sky idea because he believes the energy costs of growing food indoors are far too great.

"It can't work. That's the quick answer," Bugbee says. "The electric bill will make it far more expensive than what you can buy in the stores, and the produce is of lesser quality. And I'm saying that from 25 years of working with NASA, growing food in controlled environments."

Bugbee argues that we won't, as Despommier suggests, run out of land to grow food on.

"China has five times the population of the U.S., and they feed themselves," he says. "This is a horrible ecological idea because it takes such massive amounts of energy to run it whereas sunlight is free. It looks good to somebody who's never tried it."

But Despommier is undaunted by criticism. He says there are all kinds of alternative sources of energy to be tried, such as sun and wind. Despommier also wants to recycle waste, the way he says cities in Europe do.

"We're not behaving very ecologically," he says. "Today, Germany incinerates everything. Why don't we do that? Because we're living in the 19th century."

Despommier cheerfully admits that at first vertical farming will need to be subsidized -- the way farms are now, he says.

"At first nobody is going to make any money whatsoever doing vertical farming," he says. "But what you will make is food, and tell me you don't need that."

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