For Eco-Conscious City Dwellers, Urban Agriculture Is One Road to Real Impact
Eco-consciousness is a hot trend. It’s become common occurrence to see shoppers with reusable grocery totes at the supermarket. Bamboo straws are flying off shelves as people opt for eco-friendly products. Urban gardening and composting, too, has taken root as consumers try to minimize their carbon footprints.
These small actions are encouraging first steps, but they’re not enough when it comes to tackling agricultural contributions to climate change. Strong-worded warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detail the potential for climate disasters to worsen if modern consumption patterns don’t change — and soon.
There’s evidence that reimagining urban environments’ food systems might help reduce carbon emissions. And with more than 60% of the global population expected to live in cities by 2030, urban agriculture might be one piece of the puzzle for reducing strain on city resources. The practice typically involves growing food in smaller, city environments such as on rooftops, apartment balconies, or even walls.
Here’s a look at how urban agriculture innovations might have a positive environmental impact.
The agriculturalist’s dilemma
A recent report on global food systems and climate change demonstrates the circular nature of the relationship. Agricultural practices lead to increased carbon emissions. Climate change — resulting in part due to those emissions — makes it more difficult to maintain stable food systems.
At the same time, the human population continues to grow at record rates. Each day, another 200,000 people join Earth’s already stressed ecosystem.
If growth rates continue as projected and lifestyle patterns don’t change by 2050, nearly three Earths will be needed to support the population. Farmers will also need to produce 70 percent more food to sustain so many people. [Editor’s note: while this is a commonly used statistic, some projections are lower]
Even though world hunger is a global problem, there is more than enough food to go around today. Inefficient practices, however, mean that much of what is produced is thrown out. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates about a third of the world’s food — or around 1.3 billion tons every year — ends up wasted.
Urban agriculture presents a simple solution to food waste: Grow food more sustainably, closer to where it’s being consumed. Some concepts that have emerged recently include city gardens in underserved communities — the DC UrbanGreens program in Washington, D.C. is one example. In Mexico City, giant plant pillars intended to improve city air quality have been proposed by a group called ViaVerde.
Composting, too, encourages city dwellers to rethink how they dispose of food scraps. At-home composting via products like the Vermicondo, a worm composter designed for modern apartments, are gaining popularity. Many composters use their compost mixture to make fertilizer for gardens on their balcony or in other small spaces. These efforts contribute potential environmental benefits — and could introduce more green space into cities, too.
Startups making a difference
A number of social good ventures focused on eliminating food waste at every link in the supply chain have emerged in recent years. These companies are a natural complement to urban agriculture.
Tristram Stuart, part of the UBS Global Visionary program, founded his company, Feedback, after witnessing the wastefulness of many grocers, restaurants, and stores. He was particularly disturbed by the common practice of throwing out produce that fails to meet aesthetic standards. Stuart’s organization raises awareness about food waste by hosting on-the-ground events. The group also attempts to enact change at the policy level. Feedback’s campaigns include a mix of hard-hitting investigative research, massive public events where “salvaged” food is served, and pilot projects that test out improved food systems.
In 2016, Stuart launched Toast Ale, another startup tackling the issue of food waste with an inventive approach: The company turns surplus bread into beer, and pours its profits back into Feedback and other charities.
Another UBS Global Visionary, Iseult Ward, is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCloud, a tech platform that connects surplus food to charity organizations around the UK. To date, more than 4,000 food and retail partners are donating to more than 9,500 charities through FoodCloud.
In a video on YouTube, Ward discusses the company’s incredible growth in just a few short years. “What started as an idea with two people has now become a movement. That gives us huge confidence as to what we can achieve into the future,” she says.
Refusing plastic bags at the grocery store simply won’t cut it when it comes to real, lasting environmental impact. For those invested in turning the tide of climate change, greater commitment is required — and urban agriculture may be one part of a long-term solution.