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Urban agriculture is bringing food production back into our cities

Written by Ryan McChrystal on Wednesday, 07 January 2015. Posted in Disruption, Analysis

We’re about to see a lot more growing of produce in our cities as urban farming steps in to help boost global food production

Urban agriculture is bringing food production back into our cities

We are nearing crisis point: the combination of climate change and pressure on vital resources has put global food security under threat. By 2050, it is estimated that 80% of the world’s population will live in urban areas and so there is an urgent need to identify and develop alternative, complementary and innovative approaches to increase local and sustainable food production. Urban agriculture may just be the solution and despite still being an early-stage industry it has already proven itself to have a massive influence. In the first global assessment of urban farms by the journal Environmental Research Letters , satellite imagery has found that 456 million hectares – 1.1 billion acres – is being cultivated in and around the world’s cities. This is an area roughly the size of the European Union.

The research finds that urban croplands make up 5.9% of all global croplands and that cropping intensity in urban areas is higher than on rural farms, meaning that urban farms are producing more food per hectare. In the developed world at least, urban farming is praised for reducing emissions and enhancing a green economy. In the UK, the green economy grew by £5.4bn in 2011 and in 2012 increased by almost £6bn (5%), raising its worth to £126bn, according to the government’s own figures.

At 1,572 km2, London is one of the biggest cities in the world. But even inside this sprawling metropolis, urban farms are popping up – or down, as the case may be – in the most unlikely of places. A 2.5 acre network of tunnels 33 metres under Clapham in London, originally built as a WWII bomb shelter, is being used to grow salad vegetables for Londoners. The space – owned by Transport for London – has been lying dormant since 1945, when it was used as a bomb shelter that could accommodate 8,000 people. It may not be a surprise that it’d been unused for so long, given it had no elevator system, but the 179 stairs didn’t put off Steven Dring and his business partner Richard Ballard at Growing Underground – as far as they were concerned, they had found a great place to grow.

Dring says: “I know there’s a novelty element of growing underground but it really is the perfect growing environment at a consistent 15 degrees. The best thing you can have when growing is a controlled environment. That’s why a lot of people moved from open-field farming to under glass and into polytunnels.”

The only difference between growing in a greenhouse and growing on the London Underground is the use of LED lights, which are constantly going up in quality and down in price. This perfectly suits Zero Carbon food, the holding company behind Growing Underground, perfectly. As Dring explains, with the challenges facing population growth and farming in general, the case for bringing food production back into cities is twofold. “Firstly there is the sustainability aspect of lower food miles and a lack of agricultural run off.” For Growing Underground, the world needs to look at different ways of growing, given that agriculture is one of the largest contributors to CO2 levels.

“Then there is the social element of bringing it closer to the consumer. You’ve got a massive disconnect between grower and consumer; we’ve got kids in London who think spaghetti is growing on trees,” adds Dring. “No one else is doing what we’re doing. We’re breaking new ground all the time.”

And despite behaving like a social enterprise – the desire is to employ ex-addicts and ex-offenders, for example – Growing Underground is out to make profit. With Michel Roux Jr on board and other great connections in the restaurant industry, it looks set to do just that. “You don’t get a Michelin star chef to become an investor for nothing,” says Dring.

While he doesn’t believe that urban agriculture will ever replace rural agriculture completely, he does agree that it can play a complementary role. “If we can take an old tunnel and with a bit of urban regeneration turn it into something to produce salad products and there’s potentially a hectare of space above ground that we could be using to grow then hopefully we won’t be importing those products.”

Dring also observes that urban farming is on the rise in the capital. “Having spoken to a lot of architects and planners I know there are a lot of plans to turn urban space into urban farms,” he says.

Many of the existing farms around London are pretty tight-knit. The guys at Growing Underground are good buddies with Kate Hofman, co-founder at GrowUp Urban Farms, a four-man show using aquaponics to produce veg and herbs for local markets and restaurants. For those not in the know, aquaponics is a recirculating system that combines hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) and aquaculture (fish farming) to create an efficient closed-loop system which uses fish waste to fertilise soil for plants through vertical columns. The plants in turn filter the water the fish live in and so all that remains to be done is to feed the fish.

“We mostly farm tilapia and we only farm the males because that way they are less aggressive,” explains Hofman. “We are also currently trialing carp because they don’t need the water warming so much which means good energy efficiency over the winter.”

GrowUp started off by building a prototype demonstration farm – the GrowUp Box – 18 months ago following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It consists of a greenhouse above a shipping container where the fish live. “We set up first of all because we wanted to have something up and running to show people that food can be grown in cities using aquaponics.”

Originally built at London Bridge, the box moved to Stratford as part of a bigger project called Roof East – formerly an empty rooftop carpark, now a haven for food lovers. “Since December last year, we have been working on the business model for scaling aquaponic urban farming to a commercial model in cities like London, looking at the different operation models and at some variations in production systems,” says Hofman.

In her view, aquaponics could be used to get the most out of existing space in cities, whether it’s rooftops or brownfield sites. With over 400 plants growing at any one time in the box – varying from leafy salads to herbs – and an expansion just around the corner, GrowUp supplies to a number of small restaurants including the Print House in Stratford, the Hackney Pearl and Roses, a small Thai restaurant group, among others. “The produce has been fantastically well received,” says Hofman. “If anything we’re not able to keep up with the demand.”

The demand for urban grown produce is definitely growing. Ben O’Brien, founder of Sourced Market, a range of markets in London, believes in the benefits of London-based producers. “At Sourced Market, we value every one of our local producers and carefully source the finest food from London farms to improve the quality of food in tube and rail stations.”

“We benefit a lot from working with urban suppliers and can meet the demands of our customers easily with their support,” O’Brien adds. “It means low food miles, regular deliveries and buying local. Customers want high-quality, artisan foods. The relationships we have with our London suppliers are strong and we enjoy helping to promote their products by stocking them on our shelves.”

In terms of food actually being grown in London, Sourced Market has worked with Calabaza Growers – an urban farm in Carshalton, south west London, producing a range of vegetables – for years. While Sourced Market started working with Regents Park Honey in 2009, it hasn’t sold any honey for the last two years because a lot of bees have been lost. Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat so this is not good news for the urban farmer.

Photography - Vibol Moeung

Fortunately, there are people out there working to overcome this problem and make our cities more bee friendly. Alison Benjamin and her partner Brian McCallum set up Urban Bees near King’s Cross in 2009 for training and education purposes. It received a little help from the Co-operative Group, which through its Plan Bee scheme, aims to address the decline of pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths.

While Urban Bess does sell some honey, this isn’t its main purpose. It aims to train people about responsible urban beekeeping and to improve forage available for bees in towns and cities and to connect beekeepers with available urban land. It started with a colony in Benjamin and McCallum’s back garden at King’s Cross but has since spread to bigger areas around the city, such as Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.

“We need to be much more clever with the ways we manage our towns and cities and if we can benefit bees it will benefit us as well,” says Benjamin. “There are loads of flat roofs that we can turn into green roofs so I’m quite passionate about improving forage for pollinators.” For her, greening cities is a great idea to improve beekeeping and therefore human health and urban agriculture as well.

The evidence is stacked that we need to find efficient and environmentally enhancing ways of feeding ourselves. Urban agriculture is an important aspect of the wider issue of sustainability, which aims to supply food from close-by as well as offering jobs to city dwellers. Urban agriculture is also an industry that blends innovation with centuries-old farming techniques and is attracting people from all backgrounds to its cause. If you live in a city there’s probably an urban farm lurking just around the corner, and if not, there could be very soon. 

City limits 

City Farm Systems 

Buckinghamshire-based City Farm Systems’ technology produces commercially viable and sustainable facilities for the growing of the most perishable and hardest to transport fresh produce. These plants and vegetables are to be produced at the point of sale or need. “This will allow fresh herbs, salads and small vegetables to be grown within supermarkets or corporate offices, which will help reduce transport costs, fuel and CO2, virtually eliminate waste and bring improvements across the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit,” says Jonathan Lodge, founder of City Farm Systems. The company’s technology has just been selected by RBS’ Innovation Gateway initiative to help it reduce its resource demands and will be soon be implemented on its estate.

Lodge is obviously a proponent of urban agriculture but believes that current action is fixated on bringing allotment style gardening to the city or relocating the rural greenhouse business model to edge-of-city warehouses. “Unfortunately, the outcome is simply the replacement of some transport with large rent and rates bills,” he says. City Farm System’s patent pending technology, on the other hand, maximises rooftop space at retailers and places of major consumption. “Rather than seek incremental improvements along the supply chain, we simply remove several costly links and offer many compelling advantages.” 

About the Author

Ryan McChrystal

Ryan McChrystal

In a previous life McChrystal wrote about asset management in the Middle East. A history and politics graduate from the north of Ireland, he now focuses his efforts a little closer to home. 

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