What’s for dinner? For that matter, what’s to eat, full stop? In a few decades time, that second question may become pressing. Mankind’s awareness of our food supplies has been heightened by massive crop failures due to millennial level floods, protracted droughts, and numerous food-borne disease outbreaks caused by microbes such as salmonella, E. coli strain 0157, toxoplasma and listeria. Consumers the world over now demand to know where their food comes from and how it is produced.
As if that were not enough to keep us up at all hours of the night, larger issues loom in the near future as our population continues to expand, placing greater pressure on the world’s agricultural industries to meet demands. As a species, we need to know whether modern farming is sustainable and compatible with the rest of the natural world, or is it causing irreparable damage to the environment that will eventually turn today’s serious problem of today into a food crisis of epic proportions in the near future?
To answer some of these questions, it’s important to recall how things got this way to begin with. In the beginning of the modern era of humankind, around 10,000 years ago, most of our earliest cities were located close to agricultural land. Cities needed crops.
In the Middle East, for example, einkorn wheat was first successfully cultivated around 11,000 years ago in the south-eastern part of what is now Turkey. Farming then rapidly spread through the whole of that region. It had many advantages, including the fact that when wheat yields exceeded demand, its grain could be stored without losing any nutritional value. These early cities – Ur, Nineveh, Jericho, Babylon – became established next to their farmland, and for a time flourished in concert with the fields that provided their sustenance. Yet despite the invention of farming, eventually all of these early cities fell into disrepair, their decaying fortified walls and crumbling buildings blending seamlessly back into the harsh, arid landscapes which gave rise to them. The cause? Desertification. Drier weather patterns caused the failure of this single crop their civilisation depended upon – a mono-crop dependent upon a constant source of water to survive. It was irrigation which allowed such large amounts of wheat to be grown – but falling water levels brought the Middle East’s first agricultural revolution to an end. Only Egypt survived in the long term, thanks to the Nile River.
Today’s cities are at risk from a different set of issues. If trends in urbanisation continue at their current rates, cities could evolve into places where intolerable numbers of people may have to live, and who are forced to live well below the poverty limit, threatening to overwhelm sanitation systems and housing. Food and drinking water would be even scarcer than in many of today’s developing cities.
But this doesn’t have to happen. Most urban centres are experiencing a re-birth of their direct connections to agriculture. Within just the past 10 years, an increasing interest in city farming has been paralleled by the creation of the slow food and locallly sourced, or "locavore" movements, a foundation for the rise of urban farming initiatives.
Bright lights, big city
Included in the mix of successful city-based agricultural projects are rooftop gardens, rooftop greenhouses (both low tech and hydroponic), above-ground planting beds, the use of empty lots as farmland, and vertical farms that occupy tall buildings and abandoned warehouses. Collectively, these examples show the validity of growing food in the city. Not only could be they be carried out efficiently – such as rooftop greenhouses giving much higher yields than outdoor farms – but they could also operate without the pollution associated with outdoor farming.