How vertical farming, aquaponics, underground and rooftop farming are revolutionising traditional agriculture
As urban centres expand and growing space for cultivation diminishes, the food we eat often comes from across the country, or even across the world. This removes people from food production and is problematic as imported food has a high carbon footprint contributing to worldwide air pollution. Furthermore, this produce is less nutritious, as food begins losing its vitamins the moment it is picked. As a consequence, the larger the distance from where our food is produced to our plate, the less nutritional value it will have. While Southern European countries such as Italy import only 10% of their agricultural produce, northern countries are dependent on much higher percentages of imports, with the United Kingdom buying up to 55% of their food from abroad. These issues have caused an ever-growing debate in agriculture surrounding the future of food security.
Modern agricultural methods began to emerge in the 1960’s during the Green Revolution. Its aim was to modernize farming methods with the fusion of agriculture and technology, creating genetically modified high-yielding seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides which were imported to over 50 countries worldwide, prevalently across the Global South. The promise was to increase food security and production efficiency as the new technologies were supposed to contribute to larger crop yields. Sixty years later this has not been the case, and many countries are moving away from these intensive farming methods.
Genetically modified organisms require more water than their natural counterparts, and with growing water scarcity this is problematic. Water consumption is growing at twice the rate of population growth and climate change is making rainfall more unpredictable, leading to tensions regarding the allocation of water usage in agriculture. Genetically modified organisms also require specific chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are necessary for healthy seed development: if modified organisms do not receive the correct chemicals at the correct time they do not grow.
The cross-pollination of technology and agriculture has not always been a success, and their combination in modern farming often inspires distrust throughout the general public. This may be due to their clashing essences: technological solutions are often seen as opposite to natural ones, and consequentially cannot be perceived as complementary.
Farm-to-Fork: Christopher Grallert, Green City Growers
A number of initiatives have begun to take form which aim to make the farm to fork journey more sustainable and as short as possible. Initiatives such as vertical, underground and rooftop farming and aquaponics combine technology and creativity without modifying the natural genetics of the food we consume, allowing for the development of small-scale realities which produce 0km food in urban centres. There are initiatives such as the Food-Trails project launched by Euro-Cities which aims to make the farm-to-fork journey more sustainable and as short as possible. Others such as vertical farming, aquaponics and underground and rooftop farming are gaining popularity. These initiatives combine technology and creativity without modifying the natural genetics of the food we consume and allow for the development of small-scale realities which produce tons of zero km food in urban centers.
Located in the united states, between Boston and Harvard is Sommerville – home to Green City Growers, an employee-owned company dedicated to creating and maintaining sustainable and organic farms in disused urban areas. «There are tough times ahead and the food system is going to be under pressure so we have to be more productive in more transparent ways» says Christopher Grallert, President of Green City Growers. «We are creating a new distributional approach where we grow our food where we eat it», he continues. By helping home-owners, supermarkets, restaurants and businesses set up their very own vegetable gardens and by carrying out routine maintenance, Green City Growers is helping change the landscape of urban food production in Massachusetts.
Food produced on-site
Fenwey farms is one of their most successful projects and is sponsored by the Boston Red Sox. It utilizes modular farming in which reduces waste, uses less water and reduces the use of pesticides. The farm is located on a rooftop and with 750m2 it produces up to 4,500 kg of fresh produce per year which is used in the food service concessions for local restaurants and for donations to local food-charities. Another rooftop project overseen by Green City Growers is the Whole Foods Market which operates at a larger scale and is the first rooftop farm to be located above a supermarket in the country.
Because it is a built-in-space or intensive system, the structure was constructed calculating the weight of the soil which would be placed on the roof and can support larger growing possibilities as a result. All food produced on-site is sold in the supermarket below, either at the food retail or in the prepared meals section, allowing for reduced farm to fork distance as well as helping counter the heat-island effect of urban centers, as green surfaces reflect sun rays rather than absorb them as cement does.
Green City Growers is committed to producing local fresh food as well as strengthening their community and promotes projects both with senior and with junior citizens: «By bringing people into the food production process gives them an idea of what food production is about: it is proven that children who start engaging with food production at an early age will eat healthier all their lives» says Mr. Grallert. This way the company promotes both healthy eating, community regeneration and behavioral change when it comes to food consumption, bringing urban inhabitants closer to the food production process.
Vertical farming in Urban centres
Vertical farms are gaining popularity in Europe, and located in Rome, just 33km from the Colosseum, sits the Circle, an aquaponic vertical farm with a circular economy approach where waste becomes resource. The Circle was created in 2017 with one aim: to prove that: to prove that sustainable projects could also be economically viable and lucrative. «We identified aquaponics as the right technology to place at the center of the company we wanted to create. It is a virtuous and sustainable cycle in which food is produced by reducing the use of resources and energy», says Thomas Marino, one of the founders of the company and strategy and communication director.
While The Circle operates above ground taking advantage of the south Mediterranean climate, vertical farms in London are taking a different approach. Growing Underground, an initiative located in an ex-bomb shelter from World War II below central London is also experimenting with innovative growing solutions to help provide urban centers with fresh food. Some of the company’s central goals include reducing food-to-fork distance, at the same time diminishing food miles and increasing nutritional value of their produce. Growing underground has distinct benefits: it is able to control every element of the environment the plants are reared in and their productivity is exceptionally high.
Bethany Thurston explains: «We use controlled environment agriculture, which means we regulate the atmosphere so that it is perfect for growing. Because of this, some crops can be produced in as little as 10 days». In controlled environment agriculture, variables such as temperature, humidity and CO2 are kept at optimal levels, and because of this no pest control is required. Thanks to their aquaponic irrigation system they use 70% less water than traditional agriculture. The controlled environment works so well that Growing Underground is able to produce a significantly higher yield than The Circle: in just 528m2 they produce 68 tons of food per year which they sell to a number of supermarkets across London from Waitrose to Whole Foods Market.
«In the spring we will be relaunching into over 300 Marks and Spencer stores and will be returning to Tesco for a seasonal line», explains Ms Thurston. Initiatives such as Green City Growers are closing the gap between food producers and consumers and contribute to greater food security in cities, while the technological and creative solutions adopted by urban farms like The Circle and Growing Underground are optimizing scarce land and water resources. Small realities and innovative thinking and farming techniques are doing their best to ensure greater food security, but there is still a need for governments to join the sustainable revolution and promote food production in semi-urban areas on a much larger scale.
An American mission-driven company which helps individuals transform unused urban spaces into farm landscapes by providing the set-up and maintenance of the food-production area. The Circle and Growing Underground are two aquaponic vertical urban farms which operate in Rome and London respectively. Both are dedicated to increasing urban food security, with the former producing biological zero km food for restaurants while the latter focuses on providing fresh products for a range of supermarkets.