Time for urban farming in cities to reduce obesity

Time for urban farming in cities to reduce obesity

urban farm

In 2005 over 40 {1897c8b751ad578bd9a969480021909bcd327853590acbf66d5abd5e194cce96} of the Earth’s land was given over to agriculture. This is an area of roughly 4.6 billion hectares, about the size of South America.  A further 3.2 to 3.6 billion hectares is being used to raise livestock. By 2050 up to 80{1897c8b751ad578bd9a969480021909bcd327853590acbf66d5abd5e194cce96} of the earth’s population will live in urban centres. If food is to be produced and consumed in the same inefficient way as is today, we will need further arable farm land the size of Brazil to support this population.

The best farming lands are already cultivated. Further increasing the agricultural land area will come with great environmental consequences, such as: destroying valuable natural ecosystems; water pollution from nutrient run-off; and soil erosion. New agricultural models are required. These models need to use new technology to improve cropping productivity while reducing the use of water and the application of fertilizer and other potentially harmful chemicals.

The evolving urban agriculture model

Urban Agriculture is one such model being developed around the world. In Chicago, the world’s largest rooftop farm is being built on top of a new manufacturing plant.  Gotham Greens, which runs three commercial greenhouses in the New York area, will own and operate this rooftop greenhouse. It will grow 15 types of leafy greens and produce about 45 tons of food a year. That is a lot of edible greens.

Plantagon being built in Linköping, Sweden

Plantagon being built in Linköping, Sweden

The first Plantagon urban vertical farm greenhouse is being constructed in Linköping, Sweden. According to Plantagon, the farm “will dramatically change the way we produce organic and functional food. It allows us to produce ecological [resources] with clean air and water inside urban environments, even major cities, cutting costs and environmental damage by eliminating transportation and deliver directly to consumers.”

Urban farming is safer, more local and with less or no input of unnatural pesticides.  Growing crops in a controlled environment has benefits such as: no animals to transfer diseases to plants through untreated waste; no massive crop failures as a result of weather-related disasters; less likelihood of genetically modified “rogue” strains entering nature. Urban farming helps urban areas make use of abandoned lots and buildings.

We need to start incorporating the production of food into the way we plan and organise the places we live. To date, governments at all levels have paid little systemic attention to this. Governments create land use plans that allow development to take place on prime farmland. They regulate access to water for food growers. They enforce antiquated zoning regulations that dictate where farming and food businesses can operate.  They do it all with little or no understanding of their impacts on communities’ food resources.

Cities make us fat

There is rising concern around the world the urban lifestyle is making us fat and sick. The rising rates of obesity in countries such as South Africa mirror similar trends around the world. In the past, the medical community blamed the individual for eating badly and not exercising. But there has been a change in attitude regarding this. The medical journal, The Lancet, in its special report on obesity in 2011, says rising obesity is the normal response of normal people to an abnormal environment.

In the United States hunger and obesity often go hand in hand. More than 17 million US households struggle to put food on the table, and when they do, it’s often highly processed and energy dense and is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Healthy options are scarce in low-income neighbourhoods.  The Food Trust found a shortage of healthy food resources in lower-income areas across the state of Michigan has creating a public health crisis.

To fix the problem, we need to look at the way the city, our food and its inhabitants relate to one another. Yes, the individual has to be responsible for his or her lifestyle and food choices, but as the UK Local Government Association’s  Tackling the Causes and Effects of Obesity Report stated: “We are living in an `obesogenic environment’, one in which energy-dense rich foods are plentiful and sweets, sugary drinks and fast food are affordable, easily available and widely advertised to all ages. If we also consider how many short journeys are now taken by car, the numbers of people who work seated at computers or other sedentary occupations and reduced requirements for physical effort in the home and at work, it is hardly surprising that rates of obesity and overweight continue to rise at every stage in the life-course.”

Officials focused on food

Governments ensure public safety; they regulate economic activity; they have departments that deliver water, sewerage, education, transportation, open space (parks) and social services. Yet, governments pay little attention to the one resource most essential for our well-being, food.

We need officials in government who are dedicated full-time to addressing the problem.  The food system is complicated. It includes physical components such as land/areas for farming; facilities for storage, processing and retail; and transportation networks for distributing food. It also includes natural resources such as soil, water, sunshine and pollinators, and human resources like entrepreneurs and a trained workforce of farmers, farm workers and processors.

These officials will make sure land use and transportation plans protect assets such as farmland neighbourhoods. They will rewrite outdated zoning codes.  They will help bring amenities to cities like farmers’ markets and community gardens. They will assist in creating stronger regional supply chains of farmers, processors, distributors and consumers.

In the USA, Baltimore and Seattle are cities where thoughtful urban agriculture planning is already taking place. Both these cities have staff focused on developing purposeful food policy. Both also have food policy councils, advisory groups of committed volunteer residents who advocate for improvements.

In Australia the policy development has been more piecemeal.  The focus has been on urban gardens open to the community to grow food for their personal use.  Detailed policies still need to be developed that encourage large-scale commercial urban farming projects like those being undertaken in the USA or Sweden.

There are some encouraging signs that State and Local Government planning strategies have begun to incorporate more agriculturally ‘sensitive’ urban development. Melbourne’s latest planning strategy, Plan Melbourne (2014), emphasises the need to use undeveloped urban land for food production. Queensland State Government’s South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009-2031 has provisions that support ‘initiatives’ to increase access to fresh food in urban environments.

Modelling the food network

Governments need to invest in long term planning, delivery and maintenance of infrastructure networks such as: water, sewerage and roads. This planning strategy should extend to our food networks. When we are modelling the effect urban growth has on these infrastructure networks. We should also model the effect urban growth has on community’s access to healthy food resources.  If productive farming land is turned into urban development, then urban gardens or rooftop glass houses should be provided to offset this loss of that food production.

Forecaz Modeller makes it is very easy to add a ‘Food Network’. When the modeller generates urban growth models it can also forecast the demand for food resources to service the urban population. This demand for food resources can inform food network models to ensure the supply chains of farmers, processors and distributors can provide feed resources locally to the community.

Quoting Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University. “Cities already have density and infrastructure needed to support vertical farms, and super-green skyscrapers could supply not just food but energy, creating a truly self-sustaining environment.”

Hopefully in the future our urban models will determine the area required for urban agriculture and urban planners will ensure this area is incorporated into the city’s strategic development plan.

Bradley Rasmussen