Urban farming, or "urban agriculture," emerges as a versatile solution to the growing challenge of food security in cities. This concept embraces a wide range of possibilities, both in terms of citizen action and the food industry. It can range from allocating small plots of land to the residents of a neighbourhood, where the community comes together to cultivate, to large-scale implementation, as in the case of New York City, where the world's largest consortium of urban farmers, known as the “Brooklyn Grange”, cultivates on the rooftops of city skyscrapers. These initiatives go beyond the concept of a pastime, becoming real businesses. Urban farming not only provides opportunities for community gathering but can also educate citizens about where their food comes from through events and educational programs.
But what is the problem to which urban farming is trying to find a solution?
First of all, it is important to say that over the last century, our relationship with food has undergone a drastic transformation, mainly due to urbanization. In the past, the majority of the population lived close to sources of food production and actively participated in growing their own food. However, with industrialization and urbanization, this connection has been lost. We moved to the cities, stopped farming, and moved physically and mentally away from food production. It became necessary to devise an efficient system to distribute food from production areas to cities. The introduction of supermarkets in the 1930s in the US and later in Europe in the late 1950s revolutionized the way we get our food. These supermarkets created a food supply system that we take for granted today, ensuring the availability of out-of-season, perfectly packaged food and unparalleled variety.
This transition to a supermarket-based food system has brought significant benefits, including solving food shortages. In the past, with 70 percent of the household budget allocated to food, food supply and the cost of food were serious concerns. Today, this percentage has dropped to around 10%. Of course, the remaining 60% is often spent on things that can be considered unnecessary, but in any case, this transition has had and still has many benefits.
Another significant change that has taken place concerns the role that women have assumed in society. The advent of ersatz products such as vegetable stock cubes and ready-made tomato puree, not to mention so many others, allowed women to get out of the kitchen and participate in other activities that were no longer only home-related and therefore strongly traditional.
However, despite these benefits, there have been many obvious degenerations in terms of individual, environmental, and climate health. It is crucial to consider these consequences in order to understand why urban culture has changed and how it can be transformed to be more effective and beneficial for the population.
A major problem associated with the current food system concerns emissions. These are not only related to transport but also, indeed, especially, to food waste. Globally, about one-third of the food produced is wasted, and a considerable amount of this is lost before it reaches the consumer. In Europe, this proportion is evenly divided between pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. In contrast, in Africa, where infrastructural deficiencies and logistical problems often cause food to spoil before consumption, there is less consumer waste but a high amount of pre-consumer waste. Therefore, most of the population in the countries of the global north has great problems with wastage, especially of fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, herbs, etc., which are precisely the products that could be grown on the roof of a skyscraper.
Moreover, these are also the products that are increasingly missing from poor diets, an aspect that highlights the social inequality in our society. In a traditional food system, the poor—and thus the majority of the population—grow what they consume themselves and thus have an abundance of fresh produce and less meat, fish, etc. Today, perhaps the situation is reversed: people with less income have easier access to so-called junk food, and instead, everything fresh is more the preserve of those who are better off. A great paradox that can be explained by the term "food deserts," i.e., food deserts not in poor but in rich countries where there are large supermarket chains with an abundance of food but no easy, direct, affordable access to fresh food. Because of that, people have to travel kilometres, take the car, and spend more than they can afford to buy, let's say, broccoli, while buying Coca-Cola costs very little.
Urban farming is emerging as an innovative response to these many challenges. It is a practice that is not limited to growing food on the rooftops of skyscrapers but also includes the creation of plots of land in public parks and the development of vertical farming systems on the outskirts of cities. A striking example is the "Urban Farming Ground Zero" initiative in Tokyo, where young urban farmers reclaim unused land in the city to successfully grow vegetables. Also known as the "Tokyo Neofarmers," these urban farmers are demonstrating that urban farming offers innovative solutions to urban food problems.
In conclusion, urban farming is constantly evolving and promises to be a key component in redefining our relationship with food in cities. While it presents challenges, it offers significant opportunities to address food waste, the accessibility of fresh food, and the efficiency of the urban food system. In this process, however, it is essential to balance the benefits and challenges to ensure that urban farming is sustainable in the long term and contributes to the well-being of urban communities. In fact, urban farming appears to have numerous limitations too, which will be shown in the second part of the article. That said, stay connected for more!