Farming the Cities: An Excerpt from Nourished Planet

The majority of the world’s population will live in urban areas in the next 30 years, making cities central to the future of food production. Urban farmers play a key role in the development of innovative agricultural methods.

The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s people are expected to live in urban areas, and if we’re going to feed all those people, we’ll need to continue to make cities and towns into centers of food production as well as consumption. Worldwide, there are nearly a billion urban farmers, and many are having the greatest impact in communities where hunger and poverty are most acute. For example, the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is believed to be the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, with somewhere between 700,000 and a million people. In Kibera, urban farmers have developed what they call vertical gardens, growing vegetables, such as kale or spinach, in tall empty rice and maize sacks, growing different crops on different levels of the bags. At harvest time they sell part of their produce to their neighbors and keep the rest for themselves.

The value of these sacks shouldn’t be underestimated. During the riots that occurred in Nairobi in 2007 and 2008, when the normal flow of food into Kibera was interrupted, these urban “sack” farmers were credited with helping to keep thousands of women, men, and children from starving.

The role urban farmers played in saving lives in Kibera is probably only a precursor of things to come. In large parts of the less developed world, as much as 80 percent of a family’s income can be spent on food. In countries where wars and instability can disrupt the food system and where the cost of food can skyrocket overnight, urban agriculture can play a fundamental role in helping prevent food riots and large-scale hunger. In that respect, promoting urban agriculture isn’t only morally right or environmentally smart, it’s necessary for regional stability.

But urban agriculture isn’t important only in sub-Saharan Africa or other parts of the developing world. In the United States, AeroFarms runs the world’s largest indoor vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey, where it grows greens and herbs without sunlight, soil, or pesticides for local communities in the New York area that have limited access to greens and herbs. Another group, the Green Bronx Machine, which is based in New York City’s South Bronx neighborhood, is an after-school program that aims to build healthy, equitable, and resilient communities by engaging students in hands-on garden education.

Across the Atlantic, in Berlin, Germany, a group called Nomadic Green grows produce in burlap sacks and other portable, reusable containers. These containers can be set up in unused space anywhere, ready to move should the space be sold, rented, or become otherwise unavailable. In Tel Aviv, Israel, Green in the City is collaborating on a project with LivinGreen, a hydroponics and aquaponics company, and the Dizengoff Center, the first shopping mall built in Israel. This collaboration provides urban farmers with space on the top of the Dizengoff Center to grow vegetables in water, without pesticides or even soil. Green in the City also provides urban farming workshops and training in the use of individual hydroponic systems.

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