Urban Farming: a new way to feed the world?
The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 5,000 years. There has been a hockey-stick curve away from the traditional agricultural system that we were used for so long – we’ve gone from an agrarian economy where most of the food we ate was grown within 2 miles of our homes (or right out the back door) to today, where the food we eat travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching our dinner plates.
We are paying a price for the convenience of our modern food system. More than 1/5 of the fossil fuel consumed in the world is used for agriculture – everything from fertilizing the fields to fueling the harvesters, to storing, processing and transporting the food to market and to the grocery store. As fossil fuel supplies become scarcer in the coming decades – and as the world population continues to grow toward 12 billion people (close to the projected maximum capacity of the planet), we will have to re-evaluate some of the assumptions that underlie our modern system of food production.
Not only are there environmental and cost concerns to our current system of agriculture, but there are also some alarm bells going off as to whether our current system is even growing enough food to feed the world. According to a recent announcement from the Global Harvest Initiative, the world needs to achieve a 25% increase in annual agricultural productivity – every year for the next forty years – in order to feed the expected population growth on our planet.
It’s estimated that the planet can sustain 10-12 billion people and we’re on course to reach that level in our lifetime. What happens next? It’s going to take some dramatic shifts in farming.
One answer could be urban farming. We are already seeing a few trends in this area as city dwellers have started planting micro-gardens, and the “locavore” movement to eat locally grown food for reasons of flavor and environmental concerns.
Locally grown food tastes fresher and burns far less fossil fuel than bananas shipped from South America to Chicago, or produce shipped from California to New York. (Locally grown food can be good for restaurateurs as well – according to a new study from the Penn State University School of Hospitality Management, restaurant customers are willing to pay 18% more for menu items made from locally-grown ingredients.)
But one of the biggest manifestations of urban farming is yet to arrive – “vertical farming.” According to this episode of Discovery Earth, a Columbia University study found that New York skyscrapers could be designed to grow crops and raise animals. A 30-story building potentially could feed 50,000 people a year. This new type of urban farming could reduce food costs and eliminate tons of fossil fuels from being burned and releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Skyscrapers may soon do for agriculture what they did for modern day urban housing. By creating a dense center of food production that is connected to the immediate community (and a vibrant local market for food), New York City could become one of the most productive farm areas in the United States.
Maybe that sounds crazy. But it wasn’t long ago that “green building” and energy efficient housing designs were looked upon with skepticism – and now these principles are becoming increasingly important and in-demand as businesses and homeowners look to cut their energy bills.
Which city in the world will be the first to pioneer the concept of vertical farming?
Rather than starting with 30-story skyscraper full of hydroponic plants and chicken coops, I think we’re going to see urban farming start out on a smaller and more intimate scale.
In the short-term, as skyscrapers and apartment buildings are increasingly being built with eco-friendly, energy-efficient designs and LEED certification, there is potential for urban farming to be an add-on to this trend. We can expect to see buildings that include rooftop gardens, chicken coops, tomato cages, herbs, spices, cucumbers, watermelons and other things that are easy to grow.
Urban farming is not just a thought exercise or something that’s nice to do for the environment – it could be a marketing advantage for real estate developers as well.
Marketing is all about differentiation – what can you offer the marketplace that’s different from your competitors? If you’re the owner of a building who is looking for high-end tenants, you need to find ways to differentiate one building from the next – especially in the current real estate market.
A lot of prospective tenants would find urban farming appealing, as it reflects the brand and values of their companies – many companies would rather rent space from a building that has LEED design, eco-friendly features, and maybe urban farming will be next on that list, not only because of the practicality of it, but because of the message it sends about their companies by being affiliated with that building.
We’re seeing this aspect of urban farming being applicable right now. We were consulting a hospital that would like to do more wellness and prevention programs, and they were interested in including urban farming as part of their new building design to help reinforce the message of healthier eating, get people more connected to where “real” food comes from, and create a holistic atmosphere of better health and natural living.
Urban farming is going to be a powerful trend over the next 5-10 years that will give new meaning to the term “locavore.” People are craving food that is authentic and connected to their local region, especially in the face of growing concerns about the environment, the cost of fossil fuels, and the health effects of processed and chemically treated foods.
It could be that with the rise of urban farming and an increased focus on locally grown food, we will start to see farmers becoming celebrities, just like the rise of celebrity chefs during the past 10 years with the Food Network. Organic farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms of Shenandoa, VA has published several books and has a busy public speaking schedule – he is arguably America’s first “Celebrity Farmer“. He won’t be the last.
Whether it’s a 30-story skyscraper or a downtown farmer’s market, look for urban farming to grow as Americans become more interested in getting back to their culinary roots. Restaurants that embrace this trend and adapt their menus will reap big rewards.