(Originally published by Edinburgh University Newspaper on December 1, 2015)
This is an urban world: over half of the globe’s entire population lives in cities. But while these metropolises are neatly compacted into dense cities, feeding these bustling busybodies demands huge amounts of agricultural land for food. 38 per cent of the Earth’s surface is used to produce food, but our population continues to rise: the United Nations (UN) reports that by 2050, another 2.5 billion people will be living in cities.
Somehow this does not add up. Where can we grow the food to feed all these hungry mouths? Bringing farming into cities by no means solves this problem. The extent to which urban farming can address issues of poverty and food security is not clear. Some tout its influence, while others think it is too economically inefficient to make a dent.
Yet, even though the impacts are still to be determined, understanding urban farming (together with its pros and cons) can shed light onto our food systems and how we can put the best foot forward in feeding our planet.
The UN states that 800 million people across the globe currently grow fruits and vegetables or raise animals in urban areas, which in 2011 accounted for a surprising 15-20 per cent of the world’s food. Urban farms have their positives: they do not have to deal with insect pressure or nibbling animals. Some urban farming techniques, such as soil-free hydroponic agriculture, use much less water than conventional farming methods. Furthermore, since farmers live within walking distance of their plots, they can address problems more quickly and more easily harvest crops at their peak. They can also plant densely because they can pay closer attention to their crops and attend to them more frequently.
Moreover, bringing farming into cities eliminates the problem of shipping the food – a process which uses fuel and can lead to food losing freshness. Transporting food over large distances also costs extra. In times of emergency, when transportation and distribution is hindered, local vegetables can come to the rescue.
When we think of urban farming, it is the glamorous rooftop gardens and for-profit farms that usually make the press. However, community gardens are a prevalent form of urban architecture, feeding more people than the commercial ventures. They do everything, from converting food waste into compost, to counteracting the increased heat in cities (urban heat effect); they absorb stormwater and provide nutrition education or job training to residents.
Let us be honest: Edinburgh may feel at times more like a large town than any kind of urban hub. However, there are in fact ample options for getting involved with community farming right in the city. Even as the frigid wind starts to burn our faces, Brigend Growing Community utilises winter enduring polytunnels that will keep their urban garden buzzing in the upcoming icy months. Brigend provides training in its fruit and vegetable plots, and is also home to a wood fueled outdoor kitchen.
Meanwhile, the mission of Gorgie City Farms, which proclaims itself as a “little piece of countryside right in the heart of Edinburgh”, is to educate children and adults in the city about farming and food production, providing workshops and volunteering.
Even the Royal Botanic Garden pitches in to the urban gardening scene, with the Edible Gardening Project educating people on how to get started growing their own fruits and vegetables.
Whether urban farms revolutionise our food future, or mainly serve as arenas of food and nutrition education, remains to be seen. Regardless, it seems worth our time to pay attention to this trend.