Written by Freya Windle-Wehrle,
Can urban farming foster greater food security and autonomy in advanced economies? This was one of the key issues discussed at the EPRS Foresight Club on Friday 12 February 2021. Marie-Sophie Barreau, outgoing trainee at the Strategic Foresight and Capabilities Unit, introduced the topic of urban farming for a gathering that included colleagues from the JRC, DG AGRI’s ‘Farmers of the Future Team’, the Committee of the Regions, the Millennium Project and elsewhere.
Urban agriculture takes place within cities or their immediate proximity. It produces for local consumption and is anchored in the urban ecosystem. Urban farms take many forms, but are typically commercial ventures which occupy smaller surfaces and embrace innovative technologies. They aim to provide a more sustainable, healthier, and circular alternative to modern food supply chains.
Urban farming should not be confused with urban gardening. Urban gardening is mainly about societal benefits: plants are usually grown for personal consumption (such as kitchen gardens) and urban gardens typically adhere to educational or integrational goals, such as community building. Urban farming is a business, with economic interests in addition to societal benefits. Interestingly, the Covid‑19 pandemic renewed interest in urban gardening and farming practices. When picturing the cities of the future, the public goods associated with urban farming are worth considering.
China has taken a strategic approach to urban farming. It has invested heavily in vertical farms where crops are grown in vertically stacked layers within a controlled environment. This has prompted questions about the competitiveness and innovativeness of urban farming in Europe.
In 2014, there were about 110 plant factory projects in China. Some of these were 12-storey high vertical farms. In 2025, China will have more than 220 cities of over one million people, and eight megacities of over ten million. In this view, urban farming seems a promising venture. Not only could it help fulfil the growing demand for pesticide-free, healthy, and fresh food, but it could also play a part in China’s goal to become climate neutral by 2060. Will this development trigger a breakthrough for urban farming in the West?
Urban farms strive for resource efficiency, and the use and re-use of water is critical. Aquaponic and hydroponic farming models are emerging. The use of wastewater has pros and cons. Its high concentration in nutrients is an opportunity, potential contamination risks and health hazards are a challenge.
Additional concerns about the effects of air, water, and soil pollution on the crops grown in cities were also mentioned. Pollution can have a negative impact on the crops grown, but there are ways to mitigate the risk. In the case of rooftop farming for instance, the height and location of the roofs make a difference. The industrial past of cities should also be taken into account.
Energy use by urban farms needs to be optimised. They can consume a lot of energy to maintain artificially-lit and climate-controlled buildings. In the future, energy efficiency could be improved through operations with waste streams such as heat, Co2, grey- and wastewater, and compost.
Research and investment are needed to unlock the benefits of urban farming. EU support can play a key role. A few urban agriculture initiatives already exist at the EU level, such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. Research projects have received EU funding through the Horizon 2020 framework, such as the proGlreg and EFUA projects. Support and coordination across the different policy sectors remain critical to the long-term success of urban farming ventures in Europe.
The future of traditional farming was also discussed: will farmers relying on past methods be successful in the future? How will they adapt to social trends and megatrends such as climate change? Will urban farming bring opportunity or disruption?
The discussion touched on insect farming and its environmental advantages in comparison to livestock. This has taken off in many countries, including Thailand, India, Kenya and South Africa, and is used as a source of protein for feed and food production.
Urban farming initiatives may be closer to you than you realise. The European Economic and Social Committee supports the urban beekeeping movement. The initiative hopes to raise awareness about the importance of bees for the environment and is linked to the Good Food Strategy, promoting the development and conservation of green spaces and biodiversity.
Before leaving, participants replied to our Sli.do poll asking about their awareness of urban farming initiatives in their neighbourhood:
An ‘At a Glance‘ paper on the topic, written by E. Noonan and M.S.A. Barreau, will soon be available on the think tank page.