Farming In Urban Areas

jumpstart magazine
By Steve Gleeson | Growing clean, fresh food close to where people live and eat will become a fundamental part of urban planning for smart cities. But where do you put the farms?

The United Nations says the world population will grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Since 2007, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, it is estimated that about 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities.

More people means more homes and less farmland. Urban encroachment, sprawl, expansion, development… it doesn’t matter what we call it, land is utilized. Prime farmland on urban fringes that has been made productive over decades is lost to residential development and not easily replaced, certainly not close by.

Thus, the answer to ‘where do you put the farms?’ is: in space – such as rooftops, buildings and waterways.

A paradigm shift is occurring on how farming can be practiced and fresh food can be produced. Rather than land being dedicated to farming, primarily to grow food in soil, space is being identified where alternative methods can be used to produce fresh food crops.

Scalable & Sustainable

Urban farms that are small footprint, high yielding, and energy efficient will be developed by providing an alternative use of available space, and intentionally being integrated into building design. The potential for protected cropping farms, such as in glasshouses, to eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides in food production and reduce or reuse waste, makes them urban friendly in terms of amenity – they can look beautiful.

Scale and sustainability remain important factors. So too are the capital investment and profitability for commercial reasons, but all this can be achieved in smart cities through innovative systems and business models.

Aquaponics is one example. This ancient form of agriculture now takes its place in farming practice ranging from backyard to broad acre, intensive to extensive, crops to livestock, food to fibre, and protected environments to the great outdoors.

Aquaponics integrates aquaculture (fish) and hydroponics (plants) using a soilless process in a recirculating water system. Fish waste becomes plant nutrient and the cycle continues. Typically, both the fish and plants are harvested and sold for human consumption. Balancing the ecosystem required to grow the fish and plants successfully together usually means that no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used.

An aquaponics farm can be established in many different spaces and has a great capacity to produce high yields in relatively short time frames.  In a protected environment, such as a glass house, non-seasonal year-round production can be achieved with plant and fish species grown specifically for local market demand.

If lighting and temperature controls are required, renewable energy supply can provide a cost-effective way to have the system adapt to most climates and even to building space with no natural light.

Aquaponics can be completely soilless and uses water as its main component. It is one of the most hyper-efficient food production methods of all, using a lot less water to grow a lot more food.

Water Becoming More Precious, Less Certain

Around 70% of available freshwater is already consumed globally by agriculture. Some estimates put future human water consumption at more than twice the rate of population growth. Water volumes used typically to produce 1 kilogram of edible foodstuff add to the serious concerns about sustainability. The speculation and trading of fresh water as a commodity reinforces the supply/demand value equation.

The UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in the 2013 report Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not tell how food waste compounds water consumption. IMechE estimate that as much as 50% of all food produced globally is lost/wasted ‘before reaching a human stomach’, equating to around 550 billion cubic meters of water also being wasted.

The IMechE put chocolate at the top of the list of common foodstuffs requiring large volumes of water, using 17,196 liters to produce 1 kilogram. Beef requires 15,415 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram.  Increasing food production without dealing with food waste amplifies more than one issue when thinking about sustainability.

A Lot More From A Lot Less

Aquaponics systems can achieve more than 90% reductions in water use to produce the same volume of food, compared to soil-based farming. Harvested rainwater from the facility roof or other surrounding city structures can provide a secure water supply for a commercial-scale aquaponics farm.

Urban farms using innovative systems like aquaponics in protected environments offer real solutions to the existing and future food production problems. Urban farming isn’t the only solution, but it is an integral one for smart cities and is sustainable.

Growing more food doesn’t ensure that it reaches all the mouths it needs to feed. IMechE’s estimate that 50% of all edible food produced currently is being wasted means that distribution is equally as important as supply. More mouths to feed compounds the urgency of ensuring everyone gets to eat, whether they are in the most hospitable or harshest of living conditions.

Urban farms bring food production right in among consumers and, like aquaponics, may be adapted to and replicated in developing countries as a sustainable supply of fresh meat protein (fish), herbs and vegetables (plants). Food production at the point of consumption was the genesis of agriculture. Smart tribes or smart villagers of old remind us that food grown close to where you live and eat was, at one point in human history, revolutionary. Smart cities integrating urban farms might be just as revolutionary.

Aquaponics is an obvious urban farming application for smart cities as it creates a highly productive use of space for clean, fresh food production. And a premium food product this close, this clean, this safe, and this fresh should command a price that allows for a profitable business.

Pure Ponics is the commercial aquaponics business we launched in Geelong near Melbourne in Victoria, Australia because we believe in the future of urban farming and the development of smart cities. And there’s plenty of space…

About The Author

Pure Ponics Co-founder and Managing Director Steve Gleeson grew up in rural Australia and was exposed to farming and agri-business early in life. While working on an economic development project in a small rural community, he was struck by the global food production problems and began exploring potential solutions. Aquaponics appeared to have real potential and was worth seeing if a viable business model could be achieved.

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