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According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urban farming or urban agriculture is ‘a part of a local food system where food is produced within an urban area and marketed to consumers within that area’. It has been touted as a means to ensure food security in urban areas, but there are some barriers that may prevent it from being employed on a large-enough scale. 

What problems does urban agriculture solve?

Apart from growing produce, urban farming also consists of beekeeping, animal husbandry, aquaculture (fish farming) and aquaponics (integrating fish farming and agriculture). It can also encompass activities like nurturing seedlings and growing flowers. The EPA also observes that urban farms can ‘contribute to the revitalisation of abandoned or underutilised urban land and offer social and economic benefits to urban communities and on the urban landscape’. The main difference between urban agriculture and community gardens is that the former has an aspect of commerce whereby the product is grown to be sold, whereas the latter does not, instead focusing on personal consumption or sharing in the local community. 

One of the most interesting aspects of urban farming is that it thrives in city spaces like backyards, rooftops, balconies, vacant lots and car parks. Urban farming also includes community gardening, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space. The Guardian describes how urban farming is being employed in unlikely places such as an underground car park in Paris, underground farms in New York and a Second World War air raid shelter in London. There are also proposals to convert abandoned mines, barges on the Thames and bunkers into sites of urban farming. Incidentally, the largest urban farm in Europe, spanning approximately 14 000 sq metres (150 695 sq. feet) will open in Paris in early 2020. The farm plans to grow more than thirty different plant species and produce around 1 000 kg of fruit and vegetables daily in high season. Urban farming is being undertaken in the US, Singapore and Japan, among others. 

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A study conducted by Cornell University, “The Promise of Urban Agriculture,” postulates that urban farms can be ‘commercially viable and economically self-sufficient’, while also offering benefits for residents in the local community. Some of these benefits include promoting financial security, empowering small business owners, providing opportunities for employment, allowing more access to healthy food, beautifying the community and allowing for more occasions for social interaction. Greensgrow, an educational urban farm and demonstration garden in Philadelphia, USA, suggests that ‘urban farms can be the front line of the food system’ and can be ‘a way of reintroducing the public to the many aspects of food that we have lost as a culture’. Greensgrow also proposes that knowing how food grows and what kind of produce grows in different regions and seasons are important for urban consumers. 

However, a study published by NCAT (National Center for Appropriate Technology) in the US found problems with urban agriculture, like the high cost of land needed, difficulty accessing capital resources and limited availability of technical assistance. Another study published by the American Society of Agronomy lists some major issues with urban farming: potential ingestion of lead present in the soil, finding reliable and safe water for irrigation and temperature and atmospheric changes in urban versus rural areas that might adversely affect photosynthesis. Dr. Francois Mancebo, professor of urban planning and sustainability at Rheims University and director of IRCS (International Research Center on Sustainability) and IATEUR (Institute of Regional Development, Environment and Urban Planning), establishes other issues with urban farming, such as ‘dissemination of pesticides and fertilisers as well as waste and by-products of industrial urban agriculture’. 

An article in the Anthropocene Magazine focuses on a case study of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) in New York City. This type of urban agriculture leaves a greater energy footprint than regular farms because it uses artificial lights in indoor farms. Additionally, high-tech systems, such as wind, rain, temperature and humidity detectors and indoor heating to enhance growing conditions in environments that aren’t naturally suited to agriculture, raise energy costs. Next, lettuce- which is predominantly grown- is not of much nutritional value to people struggling with food security. Lastly, new farming startups might not have the money to pay for urban spaces because of the rising prices of real estate. 

There are numerous benefits to urban agriculture but there are also numerous political, legal and logistical issues that must be considered. Nevertheless, the benefits far outweigh the problems and urban farming is a potential solution to ease the impacts of future pollution, food shortages, environmental degradation and health concerns.  

Organic farming is largely associated with food safety, and environmentally friendly and ethical farming practices- but is this really the case? In recent years, organic farming has been the target of criticism, raising doubts about it being truly sustainable. In the face of the ever-growing global population and the increased demand for food that this brings, will agriculture rise to the challenge?

Contribution to Global Warming?

Organic farming may actually contribute more to global warming than conventional farming. Because it does not use chemical fertilisers, organic farming requires more land to produce the same amount of commercial crops compared to conventional farming. This additional land needed may inadvertently lead to deforestation in other parts of the world as compensation for the reduced productivity of the domestic organic farms, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions. 

What is organic farming?

Conventional farming involves the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and monoculture. All of these practices reduce soil biodiversity and lead to land degradation, as well as widespread chemical pollution; all of which have negative economic, social and economic impacts. Conversely, organic farming methods aim to protect soil biodiversity and maintain the various nutrient cycles (e.g. nitrogen cycle) found in healthy soil. Soil microbes should also be present and healthy, as biologically active soil is important in avoiding soil erosion and maintaining a healthy agricultural system. Healthy soils also prevent land degradation, which is important since many areas of land around the world are already degraded

However, organic farming may also result in soils being depleted of their nutrients, leading to a loss in productivity. If this is true, then this would render organic farming unsustainable economically as crop yields would decrease. Additionally, soil is difficult to replenish; it may take up to a century for a new layer of topsoil to form. 

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how sustainable is organic farming?
Parts of the world’s land that experiences land degradation (Source: Gibbs, Salmon, 2015).

Implications for Farmers: A Case Study on Sikkim

Almost four years ago, the Indian state of Sikkim converted fully to organic farming to provide safer food using environmentally-friendly farming methods. However, farmers have been struggling to cope with reduced yields after the switch. A major concern has been the increase in disease outbreaks and pest attacks on crops. Sikkim’s farmers have also complained about not receiving enough guidance and assistance from the government on how best to manage their organic farms.

how sustainable is organic farming?
Change in productivity before (in grey) and after (in red) converting to 100% organic farming in Sikkim (Source: Down to Earth).

In response to the widespread challenge of increased pests and diseases, Sikkim’s Department of Horticulture reasoned that ‘we can never become self-sufficient in food. Since Sikkim became a 100% organic state, the inflow of tourists has increased by 25% and we will now also focus on wellness tourism’. To maintain food security, the state relies on conventionally-grown food crops from West Bengal.

Can Organic Farming Feed the Whole World?

Could the global agricultural industry follow Sikkim’s example and convert to organic farming? Further, would it be truly sustainable, or would it result in a food shortage? Another implication of organic farming is the products’ higher prices compared to those of conventional farming. For example, according to a Consumer Reports study, one head of organic iceberg lettuce cost at least one and a half times more than its conventional counterpart in two of the three grocery stores surveyed. In light of this, not everyone will benefit equally from organic farming, especially in developing countries.

According to Alexander Ruane, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research, “The goal of organic farming in developed countries currently is about meeting the needs of those who can afford to buy the highest quality food. If this luxury interferes with the need to feed the entire population, then you have the potential for conflicts.”

Further, a big part of the appeal of organic farming is the notion that because it doesn’t use fertilisers or pesticides, the food is healthier. This may not always be the case. Organic crops may have to contend with more weeds and pests than conventional crops, so they may produce more natural toxins to ward the weeds off, as potatoes do with a chemical called solanine. Additionally, the use of manure fertilisers may increase the risk of contamination by microbes such as E.coli

Farmers’ Health and Safety

Farmers on organic farms get certain benefits over those on conventional farms, such as the avoidance of pesticide poisoning as seen on conventional farms that utilise large volumes of chemical pesticides. Pesticide poisoning occurs when farmers lack protective equipment when spraying crops with pesticides, a more common occurrence in developing countries

Need for a Novel System

It is clear that organic farming has benefits, however it needs to be revolutionised to meet the growing demands of the global population and the environment. The development of this new system would need to maintain a careful balance between the needs of society- especially the marginalised- and that of the planet.

 

It is a never ending discussion whether organic food is healthier than conventional food (produced by common agricultural methods). Several studies have compared the nutritional composition of different organic and conventional food products. So far, neither seems to have won the battle! However, researchers overwhelmingly agree that agriculture and what is on our plates is a major contributor to one of humanity’s biggest challenges: Climate Change.

Plants do sequester carbon through photosynthesis, but agricultural activities overall release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they prevent or capture. Animal husbandry, production of chemical inputs, deforestation for agricultural conversion and rice production are prime examples of natural capital depletion.

Politicians, farmers and consumers have teamed up in the last decade in an effort to implement mitigation policies. Yet, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2011 the agriculture sector was still the second largest carbon emitter to the atmosphere.

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The environmental impacts of agriculture

It is estimated that around 10-12% of total annual Green House Gases (GHG) emissions and 75% of global deforestation come from agriculture. Developing countries are the worst offenders. Southeast Asia (SEA) emits annually almost 315-627 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e). Indonesian agriculture tops the charts as the largest single contributor of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in the region and is responsible for 84-247 million tons.

Synthetic fertilisers alone, which are a petroleum dependent product used in conventional agriculture, account for a 13% percent share of global agricultural emissions. But alternatives are not necessarily rosier. A recent study showed that organic farming practices may actually contribute more to GHG emissions due to the need for additional land to reach the same crop yield. This particular recent study, however, has compared single crops, and its findings cannot be extended to all organically-farmed produce. 

Cutting meat production and diets is a sure pathway to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, along with avoiding food waste, using renewable energy, applying good manufacturing practices on farms as well as enforcing environmental friendly harvest and processing standards will halt deforestation.

Does organic agriculture a count as a “good manufacturing practice”? Certainly, organic agriculture has been proven to indirectly support climate change mitigation. As part of the natural carbon cycle, most of the carbon sequestration occurs when carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed and stored in the soil. Soil from organically managed farms is found to be higher in substances able to capture and store much higher levels of carbon and for longer periods of time.

According to a paper published by the Soil Association, organic farming can store an average of 28% higher soil carbon levels in the organic farms in Europe, and around 20% in the organic farms world-wide (source 3). In addition to its climate change mitigation factors, organic agriculture also supports biodiversity through organic farm management practices and increases animal welfare. Avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides protects the soil, reduces water pollution and supports human health through fewer concentrations of harmful chemicals, pesticide residues and cadmium in the food.

In addition to these benefits, organic farming also reduces the pollution associated with the use of chemicals on conventional farms. We have yet to prove organic food to be more nutritious, but it is a healthier pathway to maintaining fertile soils, with benefits extending to environmental protection, climate change as well as animal welfare.

Consumers grappling with ethical dilemmas about what food to put on their plates can indeed find solace in organically farmed produce, which offers an eco-friendly alternative to standard food and has less of an impact on climate change.

Mindful that both agricultural practices accelerate the discharge of carbon into the atmosphere, organic food still takes the podium as the least harmful option for the Planet.  

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