The demand for agricultural products has never been higher, the smart farming market is growing rapidly all the time, and Urban Farming might be a key part of reducing the impact of all that growth upon environmental sustainability.
The problems with large-scale farming, in terms of sustainability, are many and varied. Monocultures threaten ecosystem biodiversity, the need for agricultural land expansion encourages deforestation (especially in developing nations), and industrial farming accounts for almost a quarter of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions according to some estimates.
Urban Farming: Some Size-Based Options
With the population explosion in urban areas, people are living farther than ever from the source of their food, which compounds the impacts of all these problems. Indoor farms, community gardens, and rooftop urban farming make it easier to avoid creating a monoculture, obviously do not require land to be cleared, and have perhaps the most significant impact of bringing food closer to the table for large segments of the urban population, reducing emissions through transport.
Rooftop farming is pretty much what it says on the tin: farms are established on the rooves of city buildings, which benefits residents with all sorts of plant growth and reduces the carbon footprint of the building, all while using rainwater and runoff for sustainable water consumption and improving air quality via photosynthesis.
Vertical farms, also known as indoor farms, can also be extremely productive, typically outproducing similarly sized outdoor farms by orders of magnitude. They usually use either hydroponic or aeroponic growing techniques to reduce resource usage and encourage volumetric production. They do have the drawback of increased energy consumption, however. Indoor farming notoriously uses a huge amount of electricity to manage and power its operations, which has a distinct impact on the sustainability of this solution. The sheer volume of produce grown with this method of farming shouldn’t be discounted, though.
Community gardens are also very popular, good for air quality, and generate a variety of produce. It also allows for the elimination of so-called “food deserts” in urban areas where nothing fresh is available for sale. The downside to this approach is in volume. There typically is just not enough land available to produce large yields from these small collective farms.
Government Buy-In on Urban Farming
Recognizing the importance of these urban farming initiatives, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently announced more than $6.6 million in grants and cooperative agreements for Smart Urban Farming in 2021, made available through the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. That figure is about $2.5 million more than was provided in 2020 through this program.
The USDA’s Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production (UAIP) Competitive Grants Program supports urban farming programs through two grant types: Planning Projects that help to establish community gardens and nonprofit farms, and Implementation Projects targeted at increasing food production and access in economically distressed communities and developing business plans and zoning.
Through its Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction (CCFWR) Projects, the USDA is also funding pilot projects for municipal compost and food waste reduction. The department also recently announced the new Secretary’s Advisory Committee for Urban Agriculture, the members of which should be announced later this year.
In a recent speech at Colorado State University, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “The market wants it. Consumers want to know where their food is coming from and whether it’s contributing to a changing climate.” He went on to say that the USDA hopes to use these programs to not only encourage the growth of Urban Farming but also to perform data collection on climate indicators in smart cities and communities, so they can measure the impact of the initiative. Vilsack also talked about the principal climate change threats the USDA foresees affecting American agriculture. They include climate’s impact on productivity through heat, disease, or pests; drought; and the lack of resilience in the existing agricultural ecosystem, among other threats.
“We have focused on continued efficiency and productivity and sacrificed diversity and resiliency,” Vilsack concluded.
Urban Farming as enabled by IoT technology, monitoring, and automation is unlikely to replace large outdoor farms anytime soon, but the short-term impacts these farms could have might be needed sooner rather than later.