Many decades back, urban agriculture was largely treated as a hobby rather than a measure to help address food insecurity.
But with dwindling land and water resources and climate change badly affecting smallholder farmers and fisherfolk, urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) is becoming a viable option to help secure the food needs of urban communities. UPA is also a solution supported and endorsed by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which placed at 800 million those who practice it worldwide.
FAO stated that UPA helps low-income urban dwellers grow their own crops and save on food purchases. Urban agriculture, however, is still largely informal and is not even allowed in some cities.
I also chanced upon a blog titled “Why urban farms and gardens should rule the agriculture scene,” dated April 30, 2019, which stated that among the advantages of urban farming are less fuel spent for delivering food to consumers and produce being more healthy for human consumption, like not being treated with chemicals.
The blog mentioned that Chicago is converting the Englewood district into an urban farming and agribusiness hub. Also, countries like Sweden are taking urban farming to the next level by designing multi-level farming systems.
In the Philippines, urban agriculture is slowly gaining ground but still has a minuscule contribution to overall crop production. The most popular concept today that can support urban agriculture is “edible landscaping” that is being pushed by the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
So what is the future of urban farming in the Philippines and worldwide?
Should be profitable
Any type of undertaking in the farming/fisheries sector should be profitable to be sustainable, especially over the long-term.
For urban agriculture, vegetables are highly recommended since they can be grown over a shorter period.
On its web pages on UPA, the FAO also recommends planting vegetables since they have a short production cycle or can be harvested within 60 days. It adds that urban garden plots can be up to
15 times more productive compared to rural lands, and that 1 square meter of an urban plot can produce as much as 20 kilograms of food per year.
More importantly, according to FAO, urban farmers can earn more as they are closer to the market, thus eliminating the middleman.
The FAO also states that urban agriculture provides employment and incomes for poor women and other disadvantaged groups in the urban areas, citing that a 100-sqm of horticulture can generate one job in production, input supply, marketing and value addition.
From what I have read from the FAO webpages on urban agriculture, the organization refers more to growing crops in un-utilized urban plots without incorporating activities like aquaculture.
Thus, going “hi-tech” in urban agriculture can further increase productivity and profitability.
Among the most popular technology options for increasing urban farming productivity are vertical farming and incorporation of hydroponics, or growing without soil. Another option is aeroponics, or growing with no soil and with little water.
However, hydroponic and aeroponic systems could be costly for adoption by urban poor communities, which are among those that can improve their status through urban agriculture.
So, for the urban poor, a less costly system of vertical farming like using recycled plastic containers with soil or compost to grow crops could suffice. In fact, this type of system has been widely adopted by schools in the rural areas.
Also, the poor engaged in urban agriculture can go into vermicomposting so they can produce quality organic produce that could command a higher price from health-conscious consumers.
Vermiculture activities in the urban areas can also help communities get rid of their organic wastes in a sustainable and useful manner, instead of the wastes ending up in landfills or, worse, in the sewage system.
Although it is best to jump start urban agriculture activities using the “low-tech” approach, the next step should be the adoption of technologies to increase both the productivity and profitability of urban agriculture.
Aside from using hydroponics and incorporating aquaculture, the other technology options for urban agriculture are using artificial light for growing crops indoors, tapping solar energy to power the artificial lights and harvesting rainwater.
I even see in the not too distant future the establishment of technology-driven indoor farming production systems in cities, and the application of Fourth Industrial Revolution (ID4) technologies like robotics, data analytics, block chain and artificial intelligence in such facilities.
The big advantage of urban-based indoor farming is it is almost immune to extreme weather disturbances and pestilence, making year-round food production possible.
But before we start dreaming of establishing multi-level indoor farming production systems in the cities, we should first have the policy environment to expand and level up urban agriculture in the Philippines. Also, the negative issues towards urban agriculture should be addressed.
According to FAO, among the negative issues from urban agriculture that needs to be resolved are: use of contaminated land, inappropriate use of inputs like chemicals and raw manure, and discharge of contaminated water.
Also, air pollution can contaminate crops of urban farms that are near busy roads.
On policy recommendations, FAO said urban agriculture should be incorporated into national and local strategies.
“FAO supports the transformation of UPA into a recognized urban land use and economic activity, integrated into national and local agricultural development strategies, food and nutrition programs, and urban planning,” it said.
I must state that we must start exploring the vast potential of urban agriculture and indoor food production in the cities, and not wait for the time when food production in the rural areas gets badly affected by rapid urbanization and extreme weather events.
Definitely, urban agriculture is also the way forward in helping secure the country’s food needs.
This article first appeared in The Manila Times. Click here to go to the original.