Urban Agriculture is not going to Feed the World… and that’s okay

When arguments against urban agriculture arise, the topics of yield and production type tend to be towards the forefront. Even when speaking with individuals involved in small scale agriculture, many have doubts over the attention it receives and the worth of the practice’s overall production. Some common rhetoric always seems to be along the lines of “well people cannot survive off herbs and leafy microgreens alone”.

What crops are responsible for feeding the world?

The three global staple crops are wheat, rice, and corn (maize). High in carbohydrates, these provide efficient and important energy in the human diet. In fact, these three cereal crops provide nearly 60% of the total calories consumed worldwide (FAO). America is one of the world leaders in corn and wheat production (15.6 billion bushels combined in 2019), which is done mainly in the vast Midwestern region (NASS). Even with these rural communities being so far from urban Los Angeles, once cereal crops go through post-harvest processing, they can be transported and stored for months at a time. This makes these agricultural products accessible and relatively inexpensive.

Argentina on track for a super wheat harvest | Argentine Farm News

On urban farms and gardens, it is unlikely that growing these crops will result in similar outcomes seen in commercial production. Most cereal crops are either self-pollinated or wind pollinated, requiring that they be grown in dense rows. This takes up valuable space as cereal crops take several months to grow and result in only a single harvest. Additionally, to receive commercial levels of yield (i.e. a low level 24 bushels/1440 lbs of wheat per acre) expensive agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides are expected. Due to realistic yield expectations and the ease of accessibility in the United States, growing cereal crops such as wheat, rice, and corn in small urban farms is just not practical.

So, yes: there is some truth to the common rhetoric.

The difference between being satiated and having a complete diet

What it [the common rhetoric] fails to address though is that that the products being grown on urbans farms, the “herbs and leafy microgreens” (in addition to various vegetables, fruits, and tree crops) have been found to be revolutionary in the improvement of diet quality and security of that standard in inner city urban communities. While produce does not supply the calories of cereal crops, they are vital in the human diet for providing essential vitamins and minerals. The production of many vegetable and fruit crops can be done on the small-scale easily (ideal for the empty/abandoned lots being used for urban agriculture), with container gardening even being a viable option. These plants tend to reach harvesting age within 2-3 months, and afterwards will produce regularly throughout the season.

Container Gardening - Growing Vegetables In Containers

In the 2014 article “Gearing up to support urban farming in California”, it is explained that there are many inner-city communities that are located within food deserts, areas where there are few accessible grocery stores providing affordable, quality, and culturally appropriate produce. Where urban farms and community gardens have been established, many of the hardships associated with living in a food desert are offset. It was found that “People who participate, or have family members who participate, in community gardens ‘were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at least five times per day” (R. Surls et al.). Higher consumption rates of vegetables and fruits help prevent malnutrition and obesity. Additionally, because these foodstuffs are being produced by the communities themselves, the products usually will stay within its limits, aiding in its overall food security.

With all this in mind, it is okay to say that urban agriculture is not going to feed the world. Urban agriculture (as it is now) exists for the communities in which it is established. Why is it then, with its recognizable nutritional benefits, does the value of urban agriculture come under scrutiny from even the agricultural community itself?

Works Cited:

Crop Production 2019 Summary. (2020, January 10). National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Retrieved from https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/cropan20.pdf

Staple Foods: What do people eat? FAO. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/u8480e/u8480e07.htm

Surls, R., Feenstra, G., Golden, S., Galt, R., Hardesty, S., Napawan, C., & Wilen, C. (2014, January 22). Gearing up to support urban farming in California: Preliminary results of a needs assessment. Retrieved from https://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanAg/files/188371.pdf

3 thoughts on “Urban Agriculture is not going to Feed the World… and that’s okay

  1. Gabrielle brought up good viewpoints on certain issues in Urban Ag that I want to touch on. First and foremost, She he hits the hammer right on the nail when expressing her thoughts on urban agriculture being much more than just producing high yields. Urban agriculture focuses on the very serious issues with our food systems; About 23.5 million people live in food deserts with nearly half of those people belonging to low-income areas (USDA). Also, approximately 2.3 million people live in rural areas that are more than 10 miles away from a supermarket(USDA). Urban agriculture’s more realistic hope is to potentially provide families with an additional source healthy, low cost food.

    There are also social benefits to urban agriculture that can make a difference in people’s life, The John Hopkins author, Brad Plumer, cites a number of studies showing that the presence of urban farm can be associated with things such as improved neigborhood aesthetics, reduced crimes, and most importantly, community cohesion. Research done by Katherine Alimo, Thomas M. Reischl, and Julie Ober Allen, also showed how community gardens can increase social bonds and networks with neighbors as well as reducing existing tension and fostering integration between serrated groups. Another big part of urban farming is the economic perks that it can provide. Farms have been known to serve as sites for education and youth development through programs that offer education on science, environmental health and health eating. (Plumer,Brad)

    Lastly, urban agriculture allows for community members to reconnect with how our food is grown. In todays world, the disconnect from our food has widely spread, many people haven’t even seen a farm in their life. Community gardens help people understand what it takes to grow a variety of crops and how complex this system can be. It allows people to have a sense of pride in something they worked hard for and giving them a sense of responsibility which can go a long ways for some people. This connection to our food allows one to have much deeper appreciation for the natural systems that we depend on, but take advantage of and exploit in our current farming practices. As Gabrielle and myself have stated, their are much deeper connections and lessons to be had from urban farming as opposed to simply focusing on yield and production. Urban farming wont feed the world, but it can be the difference in people’s life who come in contact with urban farming.

    Works cited:

    Alaimo, Katherine, et al. “Community Gardening, Neighborhood Meetings, and Social
    Capital.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 6 Apr. 2010
    onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jcop.20378.

    Plumer, Brad. “The Real Value of Urban Farming. (Hint: It’s Not Always the Food.).” Vox, Vox, 15 May 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/5/15/11660304/urban-farming-benefits.

    United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “Access to
    Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and
    Their Consequences.” United States Department of Agriculture, 2009.
    WebAccessed February 23, 2015. ↩︎

    Like

  2. I appreciate your post! I read an article recently disparaging urban farmers and laughed at the idea that urban “gardeners” would or could feed the world. He went on to say “the bottom line is that urban farming is a myth when it comes to being a significant contributor to the nation’s food supply… The burden of feeding the world, or even your community, should not be your concern.” (Hladik, 2012). The first though that came to my mind was, what urban farmer has ever thought that they were going to feed the world? Food deserts are a real thing and it has become even more difficult now due to Covid 19 for many people to have access to healthy, locally grown foods. Urban farmers are helping supplement the food supply, not trying to replace it.
    Crop production of cereal grains, as you mentioned, is not and should not be the goal of small urban farmers. Those grains often are readily available and require a significant amount of processing that would pose difficulties to most urban farmers. As you suggested growing fruits, vegetables and leafy greens are not only a healthy dietary option but these crops often have to be picked early and ripened using gasses or have short shelf lives. By growing these crops locally, it is much easier to maintain freshness and quality.
    Another crop I have recently seen as a great urban farm option is mushrooms. Gourmet mushrooms are an excellent option for urban farmers because they can be grown indoors and have a high yield to space ratio. Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are two of the best options. Oyster mushrooms can produce a high yield, up to 25 pounds per square foot per year (Wallin, 2019). Mushrooms also have a very short shelf life and therefore are an ideal option for growing in an urban setting.
    References
    Hladik, M. (2012, July 26). COMMENTARY: Urban farming is an urban myth. Retrieved from Ag Professional: https://www.agprofessional.com/article/commentary-urban-farming-urban-myth
    Wallin, C. (2019, March 3). 10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow. Retrieved from Profitable Plants Digest: https://www.profitableplantsdigest.com/10-most-profitable-specialty-crops-to-grow/

    Like

  3. I appreciate your post! I read an article recently disparaging urban farmers and laughed at the idea that urban “gardeners” would or could feed the world. He went on to say “the bottom line is that urban farming is a myth when it comes to being a significant contributor to the nation’s food supply… The burden of feeding the world, or even your community, should not be your concern.” (Hladik, 2012). The first though that came to my mind was, what urban farmer has ever thought that they were going to feed the world? Food deserts are a real thing and it has become even more difficult now due to Covid 19 for many people to have access to healthy, locally grown foods. Urban farmers are helping supplement the food supply, not trying to replace it.
    Crop production of cereal grains, as you mentioned, is not and should not be the goal of small urban farmers. Those grains often are readily available and require a significant amount of processing that would pose difficulties to most urban farmers. As you suggested growing fruits, vegetables and leafy greens are not only a healthy dietary option but these crops often have to be picked early and ripened using gasses or have short shelf lives. By growing these crops locally, it is much easier to maintain freshness and quality.
    Another crop I have recently seen as a great urban farm option is mushrooms. Gourmet mushrooms are an excellent option for urban farmers because they can be grown indoors and have a high yield to space ratio. Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are two of the best options. Oyster mushrooms can produce a high yield, up to 25 pounds per square foot per year (Wallin, 2019). Mushrooms also have a very short shelf life and therefore are an ideal option for growing in an urban setting.
    References
    Hladik, M. (2012, July 26). COMMENTARY: Urban farming is an urban myth. Retrieved from Ag Professional: https://www.agprofessional.com/article/commentary-urban-farming-urban-myth
    Wallin, C. (2019, March 3). 10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow. Retrieved from Profitable Plants Digest: https://www.profitableplantsdigest.com/10-most-profitable-specialty-crops-to-grow/

    Like

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