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.
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.
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?
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