Urban farming won’t feed our cities, let alone our world. In this respect at least, their fate of inefficiency in the nutritive and economic puzzle to feed 9 billion mouths by 2050 seems nearly sealed.
This is the consensus emerging—with increasing tenacity—from a number of neutral studies from disparate sources.
It’s important to note that this conclusion is, for me personally, both depressing and unsurprising. I remain (and have been for a decade) amongst those big proponents of gardening, urban farms, guerilla city farms, rooftop and vertical solutions, not to mention aquaponics. I’ve been effusive on the topic with anyone who’ll lend an ear, and written perhaps hundreds of blog posts, articles and reviews championing the urban farming phenom.
Yet I’m not despondent. Urban farming, a catch-all term which has gone from obscurity to mainstream trendiness, is neither on the uptick or the decline. It’s simple. It’s finally starting to mature. To be clear, it’s only a tentative beginning, perhaps with the depth of an affordable three year-old California Merlot. Yet when I see something topical (ie, widely known in the mainstream) food thing start to mature, I can in some ways, breathe a sigh of relief. For, like a wine, the maturation for food concepts and methods can only be good.
When it comes to mainstream food issues, the maturation process is more than just “helpful” or “good.” To utilize once again the crutch of French gastrospeak, it’s not un “atout,” rather “le tout.”
Maturation of food discourse is critically essential for a food phenomenon to do anything and even, I’d argue to mean anything. dd
Yet urban farming is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to mainstream food concepts (ie, methods, discourse & structures) these days. I speak of those which, like urban farming, began to enter the mainstream sphere five to ten years ago, thus having the benefit of some effects of “slower discourse” . Those without this jump are even more at risk to be subsumed by rushed faux conclusions, junk science clickbait and partisan rhetoric.
To be subsumed by these is ultimately to be aborted. Abortion robs many generations (and yes, I’m pro-choice!) ,despite its its short-term effect, independent from its final relevance or lack thereof.*
THis is the part where I want to put most of the eventual writing… some parts of it I got at later on though I’d like to move them here & perhaps refocus it on GMO or whatever
Picture a restaurant wine cellar loaded exclusively with vintages from 2016. Fragile in its variety of flavours, textures, terroirs to be sure. Not necessarily a disaster–surely some bottles would yield bursts of pleasure or insight–yet certainly this this
Now picture a world where discourse on food issues was never allowed to mature. The result is similar, yet with collective consequences vastly more dire.
Merely reporting the growing consensus that urban farming is not effective, by any metric, has not just fallen short, yet rather is nowhere near the silver bullet it was touted to be ten, five or even one year ago, therefore, is today prone to be disregarded, smeared, vilified or brutally championed.
The deep unsettling feeling in reporting or discussing such uncomfortable truths is what would lead someone like me to provide disclaimers at the top: such as how much I’ve supported it, that of course there are many social and localized benefits, etc.
The research we’ve seen is not some qualitative value judgment. Research is research. This used to mean something. Journalism used to mean the relaying of immediate information to a mass audience, a glossing of happenings at its broadest agreed-upon meaning. In contrast, diaries used to be, for 99 out of 100 people, the product of a personal worldview, so subjective as to be secretive by nature.
Of course, we know what’s happened to journalism-as-blog and vice-versa. Somehow, independent research, including creative work, interpretive humanistic work and now even quantitative work, has become blurred with our into our incomplete tenacious food views, so commonly aborted that we forget that research on food does exist, not just in a fantasy world, in a way that might lead to maturity, like how we trust the entomologists who catalogue the species of insects on earth.
Frankly, the internet’s failure to deliver on its promise of open, intelligible data has hardly helped this cycle of abortion and mistrust, nor has the ancient corporate brutality that fuels academic publishing.
So urban farming won’t save us, or even really make a huge dent. Yet none of this detracts from the environmental, nutritive and social benefits it brings to some individuals and communities.
Sort rt of the crux of the matter. Urban farming, in its 21st century carnation, really only turned up in mainstream thinking since the turn of the century (echoing, ironically its 19-20th century turn-of-the-century burst . It always takes some time for research, enough independent sources, to catch up with rhetoric, which until now has been largely baed on empirical personal experience, trusted social circle anecdote (word of mouth), activism (both proximal and distant) and punditry (fuelled by marketing and what we used to call ‘corporate’ media).
Now we are each party to all of theses; for some from many sides. Though the empirical might be limited to the idiosyncratic twists & turns of our own life, punditry might arise from corporate or State interests or local community leaders alike. Similarly, anecdotes might come from global food industry friends or home gardening cousins.
Yet I’d say the fruitful, wild ride of a continent-sweeping phenomenon has some characteristics which define its arc, leaving us in need of substantial data for it to mature.
Maturing is necessary for the phenomenon to take root and truly have an effect.
Maturing’s necessity remains despite its type or arc or type or type or arc.
What I mean by this is that the process of maturing is necessary outside of its particular characteristics or speed.
For example, the adoption of herbal teas (I like the word “tisanes” in French, as it rightly differentiates herbal hot beverages from “teas”, which they aren’t). These tisanes, in the US, were rather obscure not that long ago, and have since ebbed and flowed in its popularity, hitting one early moment of uber-trendiness before dying back down, then stabilizing. Yet passing through obscurity to over-hyped it matured. The final resting point, in this case, was as a reliably complementary hot beverage in restaurants, cafés and social settings. Stable, yet not central. It did not in the end usurp the place of black teas or coffee. A secondary, yet stable place as a hot beverage option. Perhaps one sixth of the selection in the coffee & tea aisle. We’d now expect to find at least one herbal tea option at the local café. We’d hold hope (yet not complete certainty) in our heart that our dinner host might offer it should we turn down the coffee or black tea after dinner. We likely wouldn’t, however, expect or strongly hope to find it on brew at neutral points of intersection (gas stations, dépanneurs, budget economy flights), though we might be surprised. Finally, we’d likely not even consider it as a beverage in, say, a time of scarcity, an army ration or a lunar mission.
Therefore, when I refer to the maturation process, I do not refer to the phenomenon that consensuses amongst researchers form a wave over time (e.g. sugar saves lives; sugar is evil). This is another largely scientific discourse of its own, revealed ad nauseum by countless others, much more qualified scientifically than me, in several spheres including food. When it comes to the latter, frankly, I’d also wager that this “wave” phenomenon on food matters, is quite evident, even intuitively, to most of us.
The necessity of the maturation process is independent of its ultimate outcome. In other words, the process by which something matures is its own crucial phenomenon which must occur (and be studied) no matter the ultimate verdict on its relevance to a big problem.
relevance or outcome.
For on the one hand, the bulk of independent research might reveal that the food thing finds its natural fit in some not-quite-earth-shattering, complementary solution to a big problem,mean a long, slow maturing, wherein the phenomenon finds . Yet the yet reliable and longstanding solution of a big problem.
mean that rhetoric while activism from those who overlook factual analysis in favour of ideology.
This is conclusion drawn from independent researchers who have—unlike these other groups—actually done the legwork to get a pulse on the reality out in the (urban) field.
The research shows that urban farming is inefficient, both biologically and economically, in feeding current urban or rural areas. This is not even to say feeding the ever-mushrooming percentage of the world population that will live in cities in the future.
“If every homeowner in Seattle ripped up their lawn and replaced it with edible plants, the resulting crop production would be enough to feed just one percent of the city’s residents,” the University of Washington, referring to just one study, this time out of the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.
This quote does not accommodate all of the factors that make urban farming “efficient”: there are social, economic, environmental metrics. However, it shows the tip of the complexity of this iceberg, shows just how tough it is to make a dent in feeding such massive populations using such condensed areas.
Catching up with the past several years of urban farming growth, more comprehensive data is for the first time available to give us a sense of the reality. d ddd dd d
The only caveat, which we have mentioned with regards to, for example, MIT OpenAg projects or PlantLab. Barring, is that the “fate sealed” prognosis holds only if you bar what I’d call an “Einstein-like” breakthroughs in the field, and even then, only if this occurs, gets tested on large scale, and widely adopted in the next five years. Yet even these initiatives, as evidenced in, for example, some MIT folk in a comprehensive WIRED piece, reveal wholeheartedly and without hesitation that a huge challenge remains cracking the field wide open, and certainly none of these tech advances on their own will not solve the problem alone, combining with studies such as “Urban food crop production capacity and competition with the urban forest.”
Though it’s a tall order to break a science (or method, or market) wide open in just a few years, it’s not unprecedented. The right magical recipe of technology breakouts in the right order, or sudden geopolitical events, could see this happen.
Goji berries, Tibetan example:
- (yes, goji berries were yummy when we were all tossing them in salads in 2007), Tibetan 3000 yeras
It’s just that, otherwise, urban farming, despite its many benefits, will remain a very minor, at best complementary factor of the food security roadmap between now and 2050, where we’ll have to feed 9 billion, mostly urban mouths.
Let’s not shut down doors, though keep in mind that more blended solutions the better for all of us….