As recently as just a few years ago the idea of urban farms and innovative ways of growing food could be dismissed as an indulgent lifestyle choice for those lucky enough to have a garden in the city. Today, scientists and politicians from around the world are all looking at the same numbers and coming to the same conclusion; we will soon be unable to feed ourselves.
The government calculates that by 2030 demand for food will increase by 50 per cent globally, a figure which sits starkly alongside the fact that in 2010 British agriculture produced a mere 52 per cent of the food consumed in the UK. Dickson Despommier is a leading expert on foodsecurity and farming techniques. He warns that by 2050 nearly 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban centres, and that there will be roughly three billion more mouths to feed. Against this extraordinary backdrop, the age of the urban farmer has well and truly arrived.
“Load the shotguns”
Between 1998 and 2009, food prices in the UK rose by a staggering 33 per cent. Also in 2009, British households wasted over four million tonnes of food. Perhaps this figure would be smaller if the British public knew that at any given time there is only enough food in the system to feed the country for ten days. That is, if lorries stopped replenishing supermarket shelves overnight we would be loading the shotguns and foraging the bins in less than a fortnight.
Given this apocalyptic backdrop it is no surprise that innovative agriculture is no longer the preserve of hippy communes and trendy urban vegans. Consider the extraordinary city of Singapore, which produces around seven per cent of the vegetables it consumes. The remaining 93 percent is imported from across Asia, especially from China.
The food miles add up to dramatic levels per serving of salad and the question of food security was too often kicked into the long grass in favour of convenience. Recently, the Singaporean government created a vast new agro-technology park which includes 100 nine-metre high glass towers for growing fruit and vegetables.
“Farming, but not as we know it”
Sky Greens was created by Jack Ng, who believes that an expansion of his growing towers could enable Singapore to produce 50 per cent of its fruit and vegetables within the city limits. It is not yet an economically attractive model, with costs significantly higher than imported food, but Ng is convinced that the costs will reduce and there are plans for the site to increase its production to 2,000 tonnes of greens a week in 2013.
This is farming, but not as we know it. Reducing the distance between producer and consumer doesn’t just reduce carbon emissions, it also creates a more tangible link between production and consumption that could, in the future, change the way the public think about their food. Micro-farms and examples of urban agriculture can already be seen across London, often providing communities or just a few families with a sustainable food source. The question is when will this behaviour move from a lifestyle choice to a hard necessity?
Christian’s next feature for ImAnUrbanFarmer will look at the extraordinary innovation of the vertical farm.