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  • Agricultural & Food Policy
  • 02/2023
  • Prof. Dr. Joachim von Braun

Urban Farming – Innovations for sustainable living

With increasing urbanization, the quality of nutrition can suffer. Different urban food environments can find adapted and innovative models - but today's projects must become tomorrow's systems.

A family with an allotment in the Bolivian city of El Alto de la Paz © FAO

What is more rural and less urban, than the farm? So, the term “urban farming” can be considered an oxymoron. Yet, things change in the urban food environments, not just with ever more presence of supermarkets, outside home eating, home delivery of foods, and food processing in urban contexts, but also with urban food production. All this is part of the grand food systems transformations. Whether these trends are good for health of people and planet is a question to be assessed in specific contexts. Here I want to review trends and explore how they might be directed toward sustainable, secure, diverse and healthy food systems.   

There was always some backyard farming in urban environments, such as chicken in the gardens or on the balcony. Peri-urban agriculture encroaching cities’ peripheries while urban expansion moves into the rural space. In these zones at urban margins, where high intensity food production - especially vegetables and other perishables grow - are not new. In many peri-urban settings of low income and emerging economies 30% to 60 % of households engage in some agriculture production. Economics and business calculus teach us that foods which are energy-, labor-, and transport-cost intensively produced  are located close to and even inside urban areas. Surprisingly significant agricultural activities find a home even in centers of mega cities. For instance, during a household survey in central Cairo/Egypt already in the 1980s we came across a veritable herd of milking cows on the third floor of a high-rise building - the fodder base was mainly urban food waste.

Processed and shrinkwrapped ‘sour fish’ in northeast Thailand. © FAO/Alisa Suwanrumpha

The new indoor farming revolution

But today, there are very new developments in urban farming driven by two forces, new technologies and growing demand for fresh foods. Regarding the former, new technologies fundamentally change production toward indoor farming, going far beyond the traditional Green House technologies. For instance, technologies using LED lamps instead of the sun light, replacing the soil by artificial soil-type material with liquid plant nutrients, and even replacing the bees by small robotic drones for pollination.

I recently visited an indoor food production startup center at Singapore University. The first chamber of the size of a shipping container had fresh looking tomatoes on the plants, some ripe for harvesting, some green, and some blooming. The plants stood in liquids and ranked high up to the ceiling filling the container space. The pollinating drones started from time to time from their platforms, found the yellow blossoms, did go about their pollination business, and returned to their resting place where their batteries get charged. Another container featured good looking strawberries. This container was cooled in order to facilitate desired aroma in the tropical city. The strawberries were also grown on liquids, as was the kale grown in the next container. That leafy cabbage is high in urban demand for health-food smoothies. An enthusiastic expert from the start-up explained that this kale variety needed careful watching because it takes only about two weeks to grow to about 40 cm above LED lamps.

Beyond fruit and vegetables, the start-up  demonstrated another container with open water containers, filled with tiny prawns in one instance and more grown-up prawns in another. The objective of this site is to identify and manage healthy ecologies for sea food, free of antibiotics and with monitoring the prawns’ health  by early disease detection with innovative water testings. The tiny prawns had been shipped from Malaysia and were bound for Vietnam to an outdoor farm in the Mekong delta after such testing of their health.

Does any of this indoor urban farming have a future? In Singapore the government implements a strategy of “30 by 30”, meaning 30 % of Singapore's food consumption shall be produced in the city by 2030. This strategy is partly triggered by the uneasiness about secure food supply chains in the ongoing food crisis for the city state. More self-sufficiency is always coming at a price. The costs of the products mentioned may be 3 to 4 times higher than importing them from next-door South East Asia. While at this point the initiatives may be mainly illustrative, there is a clear commitment to scale them up for the 30 by 30 policy goal.

Indoor farming: growing strawberries on a large scale. © Singrow via FB

For innovations like that, Singapore is a hotspot – but not the only one. In Japan, indoor farming growing chambers of the size of a small refrigerator are becoming popular for households. You grow your own fresh herbs and microgreens in the kitchen under LED. The seeds come readily placed in a little mat delivered by a service provider. You just place it in the growing chamber with the nourishing liquid, instead of conventional soil, in combination with the chosen seed mix. By now, in many big cities, be it Tokyo, New York or Berlin, you find related technology delivery services in the web. There may be a growing market for every day fresh greens for urban housing without a balcony, which is probably more and more the situation of urban citizens in the future.

Vertical farming is not just indoor agriculture1. All sorts of urban settings in land scarce environments (and the whole world is increasingly land scarce) are being considered. While “normal farming” brings together agronomists, plant scientists, business and marketing experts, vertical farming engages architects, designers, software and robotics specialists, and engineers on top. They are required for the complexity of energy needs, water recycling and waste management issues. Sustainable and efficient energy supply is a central question of indoor farming and also in many settings of vertical farming. Environmental impact assessments are of essence. Sustainability cannot be taken for granted.

Urban farming in low- and middle-income contexts

In low- and middle-income countries urban farming is expanding too but in very different ways than the high-tech settings mentioned above. That expansion happens to be vertical not horizontal. More and more experiments at scale are coming to the forefront. One of them, the Kibera Youth Reform Organic Farm, started on a garbage dump in Africa’s largest slum in Nairobi already in 2008. After a year, the farm had crops ranging from kales, cabbage, spinach, carrots, onions, okra, sugarcane, maize, tomatoes, eggplants, to passion fruit and more. The members of the youth group benefit from fresh vegetables as well es from income from sales and consulting – offering their services to others. Similarly, there are Women’s Groups that initiated locally adapted vertical farming, using sacks, jerricans, PVC liners, and pipes to grow vegetables in tiny spaces in urban residential areas.

Eggplant seeds for allotment gardeners in the South Sudanese capital Juba. © FAO / Mayak Akuot

Small businesses for instance in Uganda, established vertical storied plant containers from wood that have lots of single plant openings on the sides for greens and vegetables. And how to grow food in a slum in series of sacks that are filled with manure, soil and small stones that enable water to drain and other such low-cost equipment has been more and more widely been picked up in low income urban communities2. There are ample opportunities but also constraints to scale, and concerns about food safety of these production systems. Food safety systems must be an integral aspect of these emerging urban fresh food systems.

Reports about an exploratory study that involved the design, development and evaluation of vertical greening within low-income communities in Lagos, Akure (Nigeria) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) highlight vertical gardens’ contributions to vegetable production. Challenges identified include high maintenance, low yield, pests and animal attacks, vandalism, tenure status and socio-cultural misgivings about growing vegetables on walls. Returns as observed in this study, were not significant on the scale of the project implemented. It seems crucial to combine such initiatives and programs with citizen-led, community-based vertical farming within the urban fabric in sub-Sahara Africa3.  So it seems the competitiveness and profitability of vertical farming in such low-income settings still is as far away as Singapore's efforts from currently competing with conventional farming. But averages of experiences are not telling the story of opportunities in innovations. Pioneers will show. This is also a lesson from innovations transforming food systems elsewhere in Africa, Asia and Latin America4.

Broader perspective: nutritional improvement with urban agriculture

Broadening our perspective beyond urban farming to the urban food systems context suggests a nutrition perspective. Rising rates of urbanization are accompanied by rising malnutrition. Urbanization is creating a patchwork of smaller urban areas. About half of the world’s urban residents live in settlements or towns with less than 500,000 inhabitants. Poor diets among city inhabitants are the consequence of a combination of forces. These include changes in types of occupation, particularly for women; food-environment factors; shifts in norms and attitudes regarding food; globalization of food supply chains; lack of infrastructure; post-harvest food loss and waste, etc. So called secondary cities, i.e. mid-size towns - offer entry points for urban food system transformations, because the integration with rural surroundings are easier than for mega-cities5.

Urban agriculture can offer improved access to nutritious foods (e.g., fruit, vegetables, dairy) and provides a source of income and employment. As found in a study in Quito (Ecuador), urban farming improved dietary diversity in ten out of fifteen analyzed countries. The Participative Urban Agriculture Program AGRUPAR targeted the most vulnerable population of the city through the production of organic food and by promoting urban agriculture as a livelihood and a powerful strategy for improved food security and nutrition6.

Throughout the project, both the production and consumption of locally grown food is promoted. The project stimulates subsistence farming and facilitates selling surplus products through organic produce markets (bioferias). The project also facilitates the provision of technical assistance, microcredit and capacity-building to the urban growers and uses applied research to stimulate the use of agroecology. The program demonstrates the strong potential of urban agriculture in terms of improving food producers’ livelihoods, job creation, food and nutrition security and democratization of the food system in secondary cities. The project could serve as a model for other (secondary) cities.

A broader perspective: urban food systems in the bioeconomy

Further broadening the perspective calls for viewing urban agriculture embedded in urban ecology, thus taking a view beyond the market value of, for instance, vegetable outputs. Urban farming can contribute to the economic empowerment of the community and offer solutions to handling slums and improving community welfare7. This broader perspective needs to consider the whole urban context, and the food system in it, not just the agricultural or crop component of urban farming, including vertical and indoor farming.

Wasted tomatoes at the Belbeis wholesale market in Egypt. © FAO/Heba Khamis

More than 1.1 billion people live in urban slum settlements, and today more than 56% of the world's population (4.4 billion inhabitants) live in cities. At mid-century about two thirds are projected to live in cities. In the Anthropocene – the age in which mankind has become an important factor influencing the biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere of the earth – a combination and integration of far-reaching initiatives for more social and technological innovations is necessary. The strategic answer to the Anthropocene challenges is an evolution towards a more bio-based economy, a bioeconomy.

The very concepts of urban and rural and cities and villages may become obsolete in the 21st century. The bioeconomy goes well beyond the circular-flow economy by focusing on social, ecological and economic sustainability (El-Chichakli et al., 2015)8. In the coming 30 years, urban development and construction may require more resources than in the entire human history, unless there is transformative change. By integrating biological principles in urban and rural planning and life, the development of the bioeconomy can contribute to higher levels of quality of life9.

Bio-based cities are based on nature's circulation principles and aim for a high quality of life and a healthy lifestyle for all. “Green” industrial production and urban farming are becoming relevant. Organic aquaponics and hydroponic greenhouses provide fresh vegetables. Accelerated life science and social sciences are fundamental for mobilizing bioeconomy at scale to overcome the Anthropocene’s pitfalls (von Braun, 2022). Urban agriculture with its innovative and sustainable components is an important element of this.

The development of food systems offers huge opportunities in urban and peri-urban settings for food security, nutrition, jobs and income. Technologies, capacity building, finance and social organization are the key ingredients. Civil society organizations like the Welthungerhilfe and her partners, together with research and startup communities can facilitate the scaling of innovations. And this will not come at the cost of rural farm-based food production in small holder food systems, because food demand growth remains strong, which will – together with the climate crisis – keep the food systems under stress.   

Prof. Dr. Joachim von Braun Zentrum für Entwicklungsforschung (ZEF), Bonn

1DICKSON DESPOMMIER. "Vertical Farms: How to feed the world in the 21st century" 2011, US McMillan

2Urban agriculture, social capital, and food security in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya
Courtney M. Gallaher, John M. Kerr, Mary Njenga, Nancy K. Karanja & Antoinette M. G. A. WinklerPrins
Agriculture and Human Values volume 30, pages389–404 (2013)

3Prospects and problems of vertical greening within low-income urban settings in sub-Sahara Africa
Olumuyiwa Bayode Adegun, Olawale Oreoluwa Olusoga, Elinorata Celestine Mbuya
Journal of Urban Ecology, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2022, juac016, doi.org/10.1093/jue/juac016
Published: 29 September 2022

4Heike Baumüller, Assefa Admassie, Sheryl Hendriks, Getaw Tadesse, Joachim von Braun (eds.) (2022) From Potentials to Reality: Transforming Africa's Food Production - Investment and policy priorities for sufficient, nutritious and sustainable food supplies. Peter Lang Publ. Series: Development Economics and Policy, Volume 82.
https://www.peterlang.com/document/1140483  and

5See more on this in Secondary Cities as Catalysts for Nutritious Diets in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
Kesso Gabrielle van Zutphen, Dominique Barjolle, Sophie van den Berg, Breda Gavin-Smith, Klaus Kraemer, Capucine Musard, Helen Prytherch, Johan Six, Simon Winter & Kris Woltering https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-15703-5_16

6See more about this in Urban agriculture, poverty, and food security: Empirical evidence from a sample of developing countries A Zezza, L Tasciotti - Food policy, 2010 – Elsevier https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306919210000515?via%3Dihub

7Urban farming as a slum settlement solution (study on slum settlements in Tanjung Merdeka Village, Makassar City) B Surya, D N A Ahmad, R S Bahrun and H Saleh. Published under licence by IOP Publishing Ltd
IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, Volume 562, Spatial Planning in The Digital Age To Achieve Sustainable Development 16 October 2019, Surabaya, Indonesia. DOI 10.1088/1755-1315/562/1/012006

8El-Chichakli, B., von Braun, J., Lang, C., Barben, D. & Philp, J. (2016). Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy. Nature 535, 221–223 (14 July 2016). Available on http://www.nature.com/news/policy-five-cornerstones-of-a-global-bioeconomy-1.20228

9Global Bioeconomy Summit (2020). Communiqué des International Advisory Council. https://gbs2020.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GBS2020_IACGB-Communique.pdf

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