As we enter a new decade, the human race finds itself faced with worldwide political turmoil, economic injustice, dizzying technological achievements, and an existential threat in the form of a spiralling climate crisis. In order to rise to and overcome these challenges, humanity is going to need to drastically reevaluate the way it caters to some of its basic needs.
The global urban population has grown rapidly, from 751mn people in 1950 to 4.2bn today. Almost 70% of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050, according to a report by the United Nations (UN) released last year. At the start of the 1800s, more than 90% of the population (in the US) lived on farms and, on average, a farmer grew enough each year to feed between three and five people. Throughout the subsequent centuries, advances in agricultural technology and technique meant that farms produced more food using less labour. In 1900, an acre of land used to grow corn only produced 18% of the yield achieved on the same piece of land in 2014. Today, farmers represent a mere 1.4% of the US population, and the average size of farms has grown dramatically. The ratio of people in cities to the farmers that feed them is already at a huge disparity and, as that relationship becomes more and more imbalanced, the strain put upon the agricultural industry has the potential to spell disaster for a global food supply - to say nothing of biodiversity, quality of diet and cultural connections to cuisine itself.
Massive demand for year-round, mass produced, cheap produce today is already causing problems, from the incipient extinction of the honey bee to the wildfires and droughts exacerbated by overfarming water-wasteful crops like almonds and avocados. One of the most prominent issues, however, is the fact that as more people move into cities, the supply chains required to feed these swelling urban populations get longer and less sustainable. Food grown and produced to last for long periods of time contains more indigestible fats and sugars. “Diets are changing with rising incomes and urbanisation— people are consuming more animal-source foods, sugar, fats and oils, refined grains, and processed foods. This ‘nutrition transition’ is causing increases in overweight and obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” noted a report on Changing diets: Urbanization and the nutrition transition by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
In the UK, despite all the advances of modern medicine, life expectancy for lower-middle class and working class males is - when adjusted for infant mortality - three years lower than it was in the mid-Victorian era. “The implications of a better understanding of mid-Victorian health are profound. It becomes clear that, with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of post-1948 healthcare has not so much enabled us to live longer but has merely supplied methods of controlling the symptoms of non-communicable degenerative diseases, which have become prevalent due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards,” write Dr Paul Clayton, a Fellow at the Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour, Oxford; and Judith Rowbotham, a Visiting Research Fellow at Plymouth University. The mid-Victorian diet that Clayton and Rowbotham espouse the values of was fairly one-note, but had spectacular benefits. “The Victorian urban poor consumed diets which were limited, but contained extremely high nutrient density,” write Clayton and Rowbotham. “Bread could be expensive but onions, watercress, cabbage, and fruit like apples and cherries were all cheap and did not need to be carefully budgeted for. Beetroot was eaten all year round; Jerusalem artichokes were often home-grown. Fish such as herrings and meat in some form (scraps, chops and even joints) were common too. All in all, a reversion to mid-Victorian nutritional values would significantly improve health expectancy today… the current pandemics of obesity and diabetes represent in many ways an acceleration of the ageing process. We need to go back to the future.”
The population of the UK in the mid-Victorian era was about 30mn and, despite being at the height of the Industrial Revolution - was a lot less urbanised than it is today. In 2019, more than 83% of the UK’s population live in cities and towns, the country employs fewer than half a million farmers and produces less than 60% of the food it consumes.
How do we fix it?
The key to improving nutrition and shortening the supply chains between rural farms and urban consumers may be deceptively simple. While, “just grow the food in the cities,” might seem like a somewhat glib response to a nuanced issue, there are compelling cases around the world for doing just that.
In an unassuming warehouse in New Jersey, serried rows of kale, lettuce and other leafy greens are stacked in shelving units and trays that reach up into the air. The climate - light intensity, humidity, nutrient balance in the soil - is meticulously tracked by a network of sensors and cameras that feed oceans of data into a proprietary operating system that allows the facility’s operators to grow food 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in conditions that are as close to perfect as can be found anywhere. This is Bowery Farming, an urban agriculture startup founded in 2015 by Irving Fain, David Golden and Brian Falther, backed by Google Ventures. In an interview in 2018, Fain - who is also Bowery’s CEO - claimed that his company’s urban farming techniques use no pesticides and "95% less water than traditional agriculture, all while remaining 100-plus times more productive on the same footprint of land.”
Urban and vertical farming techniques are growing (sorry) in popularity across the world as a potential way to solve a number of the challenges posed by increasing populations, climate instability and food deserts (areas of rural, suburban or urban land without farms or grocery stores, making it next to impossible to obtain quality, fresh food in an affordable way and offering only convenience food chains in their place - food deserts are playing a major role in the deterioration of urban population health). The practice has its roots (again, sorry) in times of economic scarcity and turmoil - the Great Depression and the Second World War both saw a huge increase in the number of urban farms - and can be as low-tech as growing a head of lettuce on your bathroom windowsill, or as futuristic as a fully-automated, end-to-end hydroponic facility operated by artificial intelligence (but more about Stacked in a minute). At the moment, urban farming operations are turning to vertical farming, the practice of using (typically) climate-controlled environments to grow plants across multiple levels - a practice that can turn a 3,000 sq ft allotment in a city centre into effectively a 9,000 sq ft agricultural facility.
Regardless of the level of technology employed across their operations, there are a few key vertical farming techniques that are being adopted in an effort to solve one of the key problems facing modern agriculture: water wastage.
The practice of growing plants without soil. Hydroponics uses a nutrient-rich liquid solution to submerge the roots of plants, which are placed in an inert medium (gravel, sand, clay pellets) for support. The method can drastically reduce water usage and increase yield.
Adding an additional layer of sustainability to the hydroponic technique, aquaponics uses fish as the generators for the nitrate-rich plant food. Fish create ammonia-rich waste in their tank, the water from which is then pumped into an inert medium that contains plants. Bacteria in the bed turns ammonia into nitrates which the plants use for food, cleaning the water in the process. Then, the clean water is cycled back into the fish tank for the symbiotic process to begin again. Fish like perch or catfish can also ensure that the method provides two sources of food.
Invented by NASA in the 1990s as a way of potentially raising crops in space (where tiny soil particles can be a nightmare for delicate instruments and electronics), aeroponics doesn’t use a liquid or solid medium to cultivate crops, instead using a nutrient-rich mist. It uses 90% less water than conventional hydroponic techniques.
Feeding plants using closed systems like these gives farmers an enviable amount of control over the condition of their crops. In Bowery’s system, a simple tweak of the lighting and nitrate levels in the soil can deliver a crop of kale that’s less chalky. As with any industry undergoing a digital transformation - and the data-driven, high-tech operations at Bowery’s three farms are certainly indicative of that - old roles and new roles are being constantly combined. Katie Morich, a Bowery farmer explained in an interview with Food & Wine that her job has become half farmer and half data scientist. The combination of traditional and tech has been yielding promising results at Bowery, which is scheduled to open its third farm (an operation some 90 times larger than the company’s first operation in New Jersey, situated in Baltimore) in 2020.
However, despite the success of startups like Bowery, and the promise of urban and vertical farming techniques, the industry isn’t immune to teething troubles. While environmentally sustainable (although a number of urban farms still use pesticides), vertical farms have been struggling to compete financially as a combination of electricity costs, small scale operations and higher rent in urban areas conspire to make profitability a challenge. According to a report by Emerald Insight, less than a third of urban farmers in the US are making a living from their operations. There are, it would seem, two solutions to this problem:
It’s not about the money
One of the major benefits of vertical farming systems is that, thanks to a technique like aquaponics, and increasingly cheap IoT technology, urban farming doesn’t need to be a full time job. A majority of urban farms in the US are registered non-profits or community projects. Dividing the work among a neighbourhood or even a block of flats could make for self-contained farming communities in the city that are free from depending on imported, expensive produce.
Founded in 2009, Colorado-based company The Aquaponics Source specialises in providing small scale aquaponics systems for schools, institutes and household use. Startup AquaSprouts sells self-contained home units with a focus on education and home use that cost under US$200, although the internet assures me you can build an industrial scale system to grow edible fish and leafy greens for significantly less (assuming you know a guy who’s looking to get rid of a giant rainwater barrel). Going small and cooperative may provide a look into the way urban farming can help support the global food supply. After all, it’s how the practice began.
Go big or go home
Operations like Bowery and Brooklyn Grange (a 44,000 sq ft rooftop farm in Long Island) are significant scale operations and some of the few for-profit urban farms to have shown serious longevity in the fledgling industry.
Capitalising on the idea that bigger is better and makes more money is French urban farming startup Agripolis. In collaboration with Cultures en Ville, the company is set to open the world’s largest urban farm in Paris early this year.
“The goal is to make this urban farm a globally-recognised model for responsible production, with nutrients used in organic farming and quality products grown in rhythm with nature's cycles, all in the heart of Paris,” the company said in a statement. The farm will grow more than 1,000 fruits and vegetables a day when in season.
Whatever shape the future of urban agriculture takes, it may be one of humanity’s best shots at overcoming the challenges of the coming decades.