URBANA, Illinois, USA, Sept. 16 (IPS) – Cities around the world, including New Jersey and California, a state with a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, continue to experience extreme events related to climate change, including scorching temperatures, extreme heat, severe storms and flooding with devastating effects on agriculture, food security and food systems.
Challenges in agriculture and food systems, particularly in urban areas and cities around the world, present an opportunity to reshape urban agriculture and increase food production and processing in and around urban areas. This could feed billions, but it will take investment, collaboration, research and innovation.
Promisingly, there are several innovative approaches to growing food in urban areas around the world that are already helping. An example is vertical farming where abandoned buildings, warehouses and skyscrapers are used to grow food. Other approaches include growing food in trendy rooftop gardens.
In New Jersey, for example, Aerofarms has the capacity to produce approximately 19,000 pounds of vegetables annually. In Chicago, Wilder Fields, a vertical farm has the capacity to produce 25 million heads of fresh lettuce.
These urban-growing food approaches that are no longer a futuristic concept have several advantages over traditional agriculture. First, these approaches need no ground. Instead, they use other growing medium such as hydroponics and other nutrient rich growing medium. Second, because production is indoors with no definite growing seasons, reliable production can take place all year round. Third, vertical farms use less water and have short production times.
In addition, fresh food grown in vertical farms travels fewer miles to supermarkets as opposed to conventional products that travel thousands of miles by plane or truck. By protecting the crops from various challenges faced by conventional farming, including extreme weather conditions and crop-devouring insect infestations, vertical farming can lead to higher yields and food production. Indeed, vertical farming can meet food production needs in an environmentally sustainable way.
Urban urban consumers have also contributed to an increase in vertical farms as they increasingly consider the carbon footprint of the food they consume.
Encouragingly, there has been a gradual increase in the number of vertical farms in recent years, particularly in Asia and North America. In the US, there are several vertical farms, including AeroFarms, Green Spirit Farms, BrightFarms, Gotham Greens, Freight Farms, Chicago, New Jersey, and Detroit.
The growth of vertical farming and urban farms and the associated research evidence showing that urban farming can be highly productive is a good trend that should be supported by governments, industry, philanthropists, NGOs and research institutions and universities.
To encourage the continuous growth of vertical farming and food production in urban areas and to make urban areas into agricultural powerhouses, sustainable research, innovation and funding is needed from a variety of funding sources.
The good news is that some of the most important things that need to happen to support the growth of vertical farming are happening. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture convened a stakeholder workshop focused solely on vertical farming and sustainable urban ecosystems, as well as held small-group discussions focused on many areas critical to thriving vertical farms, such as plant breeding, engineering and pest management. In addition, USDA has launched a call for funding to support urban agriculture research.
At the same time, there is an increase in peer-reviewed articles and research on vertical farming. This includes research into economic feasibility, system designs and optimizations, cultivating plant varieties, optimizing nutrients used in vertical farming, using robotic technology to automate harvesting, and effective and best practices for pest management.
Of course, scaling up vertical farming and making sure that all cities, not just a few cities, have at least one vertical farming, will take a lot more. One of the things that is needed is the formation of multi-stakeholder task forces charged with devising strategic plans, policies, recommendations and assessments of what it takes to grow urban farms in cities. In the US, for example, the White House in conjunction with the USDA and all elected mayors and public and private research universities can join forces.
Complementing the above efforts is the need to continue to build databases of urban farming initiatives, encourage increased private sector funding, create policies to support the sustainable growth of urban farms, including vertical farms, and launch urban farming research initiatives that are housed in universities located near cities.
The time has come to reshape urban agriculture with vertical farming. The ongoing global food crisis, particularly in urban areas, offers a unique opportunity to grow and enhance this revolutionary and sustainable approach to food production.
Dr Esther Ngumba is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a Senior Food Security Fellow at the Aspen Institute, New Voices.
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