Building flourishing farms in the heart of cities used to be just a utopian fantasy. Now it’s an important step towards developing a smart, diversified food system capable of feeding a growing world population.
Guillaume Fourdinier has lived in Paris for six years, but he still misses the taste of the fresh cereal grains, beets, carrots and more that grow on his family’s farm in Verton. There, in northern France’s countryside, eating locally is a way of life – not simply a trend or a sticker on an apple at the grocery store.
“Local food is everywhere when you are in the countryside. You get fruits and vegetables with better taste, more nutritional value,” he says. “When you are in Paris, what is local food? There is nothing coming from a local farm. I think for quality of life for people living in big cities this is a big problem.”
In 2015, Fourdinier co-founded Agricool, an urban farm that’s now comprised of 11 recycled shipping containers on the north side of the city. Eight farmers plant, harvest, pack, and deliver the pesticide-free lettuces, herbs, and strawberries to 60 supermarkets (though Fourdinier expects that number to grow to at least 200 retailers by the end of 2021).
Urban farms like Agricool are part of a broad collection of metropolitan agricultural efforts including everything from vertical farms to greenhouses to aquaponics to community gardens. The idea of cultivating food in or near cities is not new (see the victory gardens of both world wars, for example), but these ventures have become increasingly popular in recent years as the local food movement strengthens. After the rise of the supermarkets led many people to feel disconnected from food production, consumers are again paying more attention to how and where their food is grown, along with how far ingredients must travel between field and plate.
From Brussels to Nigeria, entrepreneurs and farmers are reimagining what farms are and conceiving innovative technology to help grow food in smaller spaces and in more sustainable ways. They’re attempting to fix existing food supply chain concerns, which we’ve all became intimately familiar with in the past year. Images of picked-over grocery shelves and farmers tossing out produce early in the Covid-19 pandemic broadcast the failures and fragility of our current systems.
By 2050, it’s estimated that the global population will balloon to almost 10 billion, and 68% of those people will live in cities. That means we’ll have to produce more food than ever before, to feed people who live farther from the rural areas where most crops and animals are cultivated. Bringing production closer to where consumption happens could increase food security, improve our health and lessen the industry’s considerable impacts on the planet – if we’re able to grow enough nutrient-rich grub, that is.
In the United States, it’s estimated that urban and peri-urban farms account for almost 15% of the country’s farms. Among them is 80 Acres Farms, a vertical farming operation based in Ohio but which has eight locations in four states, all of which use zero pesticides and require 97% less water consumption compared to traditional farms. (Vertical farming refers to growing crops in vertically stacked layers in a controlled environment, often incorporating soilless techniques.)
Co-founders Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston are trying to push the potential of this multi-billion-dollar industry further. To date, enterprises like theirs have primarily focused on easy-to-grow leafy greens – which won’t sustain civilisation on their own – but with advancements in technology Zelkind and Livingston have been able to add more substantial crops like peppers, tomatoes and baby cucumbers. They explain how their farms have incorporated sophisticated technologies.
80 Acres’ farms are, on average,300 to 400 times more productive than field farming, Zelkind says
80 Acres is a year-round operation that optimises its growing environments based on the plants’ genetics, harvests at the peak of ripeness, and relies on a smaller delivery radius to get food to customers within a day of its picking. It’s “democratising high-quality food”.
“You can enable people, no matter where they live, to reconnect to the food supply,” Zelkind says.
Technology has made the duo’s goals increasingly achievable – and made indoor farming both more efficient and more affordable. 80 Acres’ farms are, on average, 300 to 400 times more productive than field farming, Zelkind says, because the vertical structure creates room for more crops in less space and because the produce grows faster.
At Agricool, which also relies on a tiered growing system, Fourdinier says his containers produce 120 times more sustenance per square metre than in traditional field growing and 15 times more than most greenhouses.
“Ten years ago, this was science fiction,” Zelkind says. “Tomorrow it’s going to be so ubiquitous that everybody’s going to be doing it and we will think, ‘Oh my God, did we really ship our berries 2,000 miles a few years ago?’”
To that end, 80 Acres is commercialising what it’s learned through Infinite Acres – a partnership with Netherlands-based horticulture technology firm Priva Holding BV and the UK’s online grocery giant Ocado. The project provides the technology, operations help and necessary infrastructure to help budding farmers and interested municipalities launch their own indoor farms. 80 Acres operates a reference design and demonstration farm in Hamilton, Ohio, that’s capable of robotically planting, harvesting, and packaging around 1.5 million pounds (681 tonnes) of leafy greens annually. It proves the “economic feasibility of vertical farming indoors”, Livingston says. “We intend to build a farm like this farm all over the world.”
Which gets to the big question: Can a patchwork of metro area farms actually grow enough to feed future populations?
“To say that it is a solution to all of the ails? No, it’s never going to be to me because we don’t grow calorie crops in controlled spaces. I think it’s a complement. It can provide resilience on a very local level in that you have multiple [food] sources and you’re not relying on just one supply chain,” says Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farms Program, which works to advance the viability of small farms. “It becomes part of a whole platform of food supply.”
In Paris, Agripolis recently opened Nature Urbain Farm on the seventh story of the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles. Five gardeners currently tend to the tomatoes, strawberries, eggplant and even butternut squash growing on the world’s largest rooftop farm using a closed-circuit, aeroponics system. The facility is only one-third complete, but there will be room for 20 gardeners to harvest up to 1.1 tons (1,000kg) of 35 varieties of fruit and vegetables every day. This surprising farm on a central Paris rooftop is already bearing fruits.
“It shows a new model – virtuous, economically viable, and local – and that’s important to have,” says founder Pascal Hardy. “I don’t think the aim of our urban agriculture is to feed all the city. It’s just a contribution. It’s an additional offer compared to traditional agriculture.”
Other potential contributors sit below our feet. Nearly 600 hectares (1,483 acres) of car parks (roughly an area the size of Gibraltar) sit unused in Paris. Cycloponics is utilising some of that space to produce protein-rich mushrooms and provide space for other innovative food start-ups.
“People are looking for good food. They want to know where it comes from. We try to answer that,” says chief executive Jean-Noel Gertz, a thermal engineer. Currently, Cycloponics is able to grow up to 100kg of mushrooms per day in just 38,000sq ft (3,500sq m). That’s under 0.1% of the total amount of car park space available in the City of Lights.
While it all sounds promising and exciting, there are plenty of challenges to be addressed. Those hurdles include access to land and skilled workers as well as scalability – producing enough food to make these viable enterprises in costly urban centres.
Topsoil Innovative Urban Agriculture is an outdoor farm situated on 20,000sq ft (1,850sq m) of to-be-developed land on the outskirts of downtown Victoria, British Columbia. Founder Chris Hildreth says the enterprise is proving “that you can farm sustainably in a financially viable way”. The orderly layout of fabric geotextile planters – holding a variety of crops such as salad greens, radishes, herbs and cucumbers – can be adapted for other unused urban spaces, such as rooftops or gravel plots around schools. “We can set up a 20,000-square-foot site in less than a week and have it planted and growing. We can take it down in that time too. It all fits into a 20-foot shipping container,” Hildreth says. “Essentially now we have a farm in a box that we can ship to any city and implement in any city.” He’s in talks with other Canadian metro areas to purchase the Topsoil model for their own communities.
Affordability and access are other ongoing worries. Much of the produce cultivated in or near cities is priced at organic food rates, which aren’t known to be budget-friendly. As the technology being employed, such as LED grow lights and AI sensors, becomes more affordable, those savings are expected to trickle down to the consumer. Advances in knowledge and equipment could also make it possible – not to mention more environmentally friendly – to efficiently grow the higher biomass crops necessary to nourish future populations.
If you’ve ever eaten a sugar snap pea the moment after it was picked from the vine or bitten into a ripe farm tomato, you know that they burst (in some cases, quite literally) with flavour and taste a heck of a lot better than those you purchased during your last grocery store run.
That ultra-fresh produce is also more nutritious than what’s in your fridge because of the reduced time between when it was gathered and when it reached your table (or mouth). Some vegetables, for example, lose between 10% and 77% of their vitamin C within a week of being harvested, even when kept refrigerated. At urban farms, produce is able to be both packed and sold within a short radius of where it ripened, without the chemicals used to sustain foods for long journeys.
The health benefits extend beyond the physiological. Urban farms can provide jobs and educational opportunities, supply nutritious sustenance in food deserts, and improve air quality, among other environmental perks. They even influence property values. In New York’s lowest-income neighborhoods the presence of a community garden within 1,000ft (304m) can increase property values up to 9.4%.
Of course, they can’t do it alone. Urban agriculture comprises just one piece of a sustainable and reliable food ecosystem. “This is not going to replace farming,” Agricool’s Fourdinier says. “It’s about what can we do better altogether so that the mix can be better for the planet and better for the consumers.”
And consumers have their own roles to play. Communities need to support these efforts by choosing local produce and adapting their diets to include more of the sustenance that we are able to grow in or near urban areas.
Currently, only 2% of global calories come from the oceans (the majority of which comes from fish, whose populations are heavily depleted), yet eight of the world’s megacities are located on the coasts, including Sao Paolo, Shanghai and New York City. John Holmyard, a longtime commercial fisherman in Brixham, England, wanted to find a more sustainable protein option, so he turned to mussels. His company, Offshore Shellfish, grows the molluscs six miles from the port town, on long ropes that stretch out below the waves. The underwater farm can produce around 11,023 tons (10,000 tonnes) of mussels annually. “Mussel farming is as pure a form of farming as you can get,” he says. “The mussels are grazers. They graze on the natural wild planktons in the sea. All we do is give them somewhere to live.”
The catch? Though an average serving of mussels (around 100g, or 3.5 ounces) contains about 24g (0.8oz) of protein, mussels also ingest and concentrate everything in the water around them, including heavy metals and other pollutants. The waterways of the future will need to be clean enough to make the seafood a reliable and healthy option.
These various forms of urban agriculture will have to work in conjunction to create a food system that can sustain our growing world. The industry needs to be smart and creative, matching crops with the right type of farming method to be both cost-effective and yield the best product, says Topsoil’s Hildreth. That may even mean continuing to produce certain foods farther from home. “The industrial food system is not going to be solved with one massive solution,” Hildreth says. “Urban agriculture is that opportunity to showcase that there are other options.”