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

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

“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.

With 2.1% of the US landmass classified as urban and 19.5% cultivated farmland, Hladik says the farmland is 100% dedicated to producing food while urban terrain is often marginal for food production.

“I would be surprised if the food production potential of the available urban land would amount to even one percent of that available on conventional farms utilizing open fields, pastures and rangeland," Hladik says. "It is doubtful if even this one percent of potential urban land resource could ever be utilized, given the lack of enthusiastic and capable gardeners.”

Besides questioning the commitment of some urban farmers, Hladik addresses the issue of water as well as the sustainability of the soil that gets trucked in:

“That soil does not just 'happen;' it was once farmland that has forever been removed from productivity in its natural setting... Does anyone worry about 'soil miles?'"

The soil in urban areas is also of concern to University of Illinois researchers that found that years of high traffic in urban areas can cause contaminants like lead to build up in the soil. Higher lead levels are often found in soil in older neighborhoods. Soil remediation strategies can be cost prohibitive, especially for do-it-yourselfers, or community groups operating on a shoestring budget. Growing crops in raised beds, however, seems to be a possible way to mitigate the problem. 

Such arguments are not necessarily productive to urban farming advocates like Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. Woiwode says the conversation needs to consider whether it is replacing something that is better or worse. Modern agriculture has plenty of its own problems, she points out, including wastes and chemicals washed into waterways and the lack of sustainability in larger-scale farming systems.

“Whether you are tapping the Ogallala aquifer to raise corn and cows in the middle of the country…or countless numbers of other areas where surface and groundwater are being depleted, overuse and waste of precious water is going to be one of the greatest barriers to maintaining food production as we have it today,” Woiwode says.

She says some of the best urban agricultural efforts are those with an effectively closed loop, “where the water cycles through the plants to feed fish whose waste is used to fertilize the plants,” she says. Other water conservation methods include rain barrels and greywater systems to capture water otherwise treated as waste.

One problem for urban farming, says Woiwode, is that most subsidies go to modern agriculture, such as concentrated animal feeding operations (factory farms), rather to developing sustainable food systems, which urban agriculture can be a part of.

“If we are serious about food sustainability, then those research funds and subsidies must be drastically overhauled,” says Woiwod, pointing to the Less=More campaign which opposes the current USDA subsidy systems.

Woiwode acknowledges that urban farming may not solve world hunger, but “growing food is something everyone should have an understanding of, if not a role in. As a tool for teaching people about the importance of growing food, it should not be underestimated.”

For Wendy Lockwood Banka, who lives in Ann Arbor where she tends to a few chickens and a rooster and is president of the Michigan Small Farm Council, the most recent battle for small farmers is retaining their ability to farm since the state’s recent changes to the Right to Farm Act. The change, covered last month by AlterNet, now puts farms with animals in primarily residential areas, formerly protected by the Act, at the mercy of nuisance complaints.

Banka, who also runs the Sustainable Farm Policy website, calls the change a way to protect larger commercial operations from the increasing number of urban farmers. “People are afraid of the [industrial] food system,” she says, adding that smaller scale operations offer a safe, alternative food source.

“Urban farming is simple,” she says. “My chickens produce less waste than a dog. Am I using more water? I don’t know. As much as a garden does. It’s not hard to run a very clean small farm operation in your backyard.”

But Sam Wortman, one of the University of Illinois researchers behind its urban farming study, remains unconvinced that the movement can thrive without a vast network of support.

“If urban agriculture is going to move toward a more profitable, environmentally sound system, ecologists, hydrologists, horticulturalists, environmental scientists, and others will need to take up this issue or it will continue to be a nice concept that academics like to talk about. But we’ve got to get out there and get our hands dirty and figure out the real challenges and how to solve them,” he said. 


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