Food and The City - A New Love Story?

 By Cristina Michelini

“There is nothing that we do, as human beings, that has a bigger impact on our environment than food” - Pol Fabrega, Rooftop Republic

To understand how true this statement by Pol Fabrega is, we need to grasp just how much of our precious planet goes into making our food. 

Take water: Our limited resource.

Of the freshwater that is used for human activities, 70% is used for agriculture. Agriculture is also responsible for most of the world’s water pollution. Chemicals like pesticides, fertiliser, fungicides, and the waste generated by animals we farm, all end up in our water resources.

And then there’s land. 

Put all of the cities together and you’ll cover barely 2% of the total land area available on our planet. Do the same with all agricultural and farm land and you’ll cover 45% of it. Since it requires so much land, agriculture is the biggest cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. In fact, in some cases, we are literally losing entire ecosystems so that we can make space to grow food. Take palm oil plantations for instance, tropical rainforests are being burned down to make space for them, eating into the natural habitat of the Orangutans. 

Finally, the air.

Agriculture is responsible for up to one third of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere. And even cows’ flatulence counts. No, I am not having a brain fart (pun intended): gassy farm animals - cows but also goats and sheep - are the result of a digestive process with a fancy name: Enteric Fermentation. Ruminant animals have microbes in their guts that decompose fibrous food like grass and start a process of fermentation. This fermentation produces methane, and methane has a planet warming effect 30 times more powerful than carbon. The process in itself is not the problem: it’s the monumental amount of animals farting that is putting too much pressure on the planet. It’s like living in a room full of mischievous younger siblings with no windows. 

“The footprint of our food is monumental”

Goats or Unicorns?


Last week we wrote about how we all connect to food differently across cultures and how food connects to many aspects of our life.

While we have a strong connection with the act of eating food, we are increasingly detached from its origins. If you don’t think that’s true, listen to Pol tell the story of how one school kid thought that a goat was a unicorn! 

Although this makes for probably the cutest school anecdote I’ve ever heard, it also shows how oblivious we became to how food is made. 

When we introduce our students to issues of food sustainability we often start with the saying: 

“Out of sight, out of mind”.

Excerpt from Livin Farms Lesson - Food Waste Processing Part 1. Download a sample lesson here.

It is difficult to think about things that you don’t see. And for those of us that grew up in cities, farming is one of those things that you don’t see. 

Hong Kong produced 50 to 60 % of its own food in the 60s. Now it produces less than 5%. Hong Kong has a lot of agricultural farmland (way more than more self-sufficient places like Singapore) but 84% percent of it is not used for that.

Often owners of that land find it more profitable to use it for storage then using it for farming and producing it for food.

Unawareness of how food is made makes us ignorant on the environmental impacts of farming. Similarly, we are generally unaware of the impact of food waste, as we do not see, and therefore think, about where our leftovers end up.

So, how can cities bring us closer to food?

Cities without ground

At this point you may be tired of hearing about it, but we want to make sure that you realise just how quickly this is going to happen. We are converging towards cities at an incredibly fast pace. According to the Ellen McArthur foundation, by 2050, 80% of all the food will be consumed in cities. 

This can be seen as a great challenge, but we are here to present it to you as one of our greatest opportunities. In fact, contrary to what you may presume, cities have enough space and the right landscape for us to grow our own food, get closer to our neighbours and community, and build first-hand our future cityscape. 

When you think of a big city, your mind probably wanders to scenes of buzzing metropolises like New York, Shanghai, London, and the like. High rise buildings, crowded neighbourhoods, traffic, noise and pollution, as well as small apartments and, well, not a lot of nature. A city probably does not sound like an ideal place for agriculture. 

What if I told you that there is plenty of space for farming right in the middle of the city, right on the residential land? What if I told you that you could get to your farm in less than five minutes, using a lift, and take a look for yourself at how your food is growing? 

Yes, that’s right. 

Rooftops, my friends. 

They are not just the ultimate outdoors party venue, romantic spots for an al fresco dinner, and they are definitely not storage space for your hoarding collection (that’s right, I am watching you, neighbour!)

A city like Hong Kong has 6 million square meters of what we will now call Rooftop Farmland available. A study by the University of Hong Kong analysed all buildings that have a suitable rooftop for setting up urban farms and excluded the ones with non suitable infrastructure all over the city to uncover this amazing number.

I am sure you have now a million questions. 

How does it work? How about the soil? Where would you get the water from? Who takes care of it? 

Pol Fabrega broke it down for us. Welcome to the Rooftop Republic. 

Urban Farming - tales from a city’s Rooftop

Urban farming is the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around urban areas. Whether from a geographical, cultural, political or economic perspective, urban agriculture will take different shapes based on the city and the conditions of the particular city it takes place in. 

There are many different types of urban farms. One could say there are at least 6 shades of urban farms.

  1. The Residential Farm - this is your building’s farm, the farm of the home growers. Basically, any farm that is incorporated into a residential property or complex.
  2. The Community Urban Farm - whether you are renting a communal space to grow your food, or you are teaming up with your neighbours to support local agriculture, the community urban farm is a team effort beyond your own home.
  3. The Institutional Urban Farm - it sounds really official, but really, this is a farm that is set up by organisations like schools, hospitals, churches, even community centers, to engage their stakeholders and their community members in activities related to urban farming.
  4. The F&B - farm to table at its best, these urban farms are set up to, at least partially, to provide ingredients for dining, such as in restaurants and hotels.
  5. The Retail Urban Farm - shopping malls are often at the forefront of re-thinking the retail experience, and urban farms are being used not only to add a bit of nature and food in their patrons shopping afternoons, but also as a way to associate with a concept and a certain image. 
  6. Production focused urban farms - like the name gives away, these are farms made to provide food, exactly like all other farms, but located in urban spaces.

So, what is the promise of urban farming and how can it address some of the challenges that we see in the food system?  

Urban farms can address many of the problems associated with the way we are currently growing, consuming and wasting food.

Growing food right where we live and are consuming it means cutting out all those food miles that not only pollute, but also damage and therefore waste our food.

This may not be a straightforward association with urban farms, but they also attract biodiversity in the city, and tackle pollution and heat effects. 

Urban farms also create opportunities to recycle food waste in the city, for example through composting.

And if the environmental benefits of farming did not convince you, or you are sceptical about it working in your city, let us bring in the $$$.  

Urban farms are a great way to promote a local, easily accessible and wholesome economy of food. Take a tour of Instagram and you’ll soon realise that healthy, local, and organic food is sexy right now. There’s our opportunity to create jobs (and revenue) locally!

Not to ignore, the proximity and transparency of the supply chain, which would make access to fresh food much easier, as food will be harvested much closer to the time of its consumption, maintaining all its nutrients! Who doesn’t want a healthier urban community? 

Last but not least, it helps us re-connecting to food. 

If, like me, you forgot what is supposed to be in season at this time of the year and are confused by nutritional labels, try home growing your own food. It’s a perfect catalyst for educating yourself on healthy and sustainable eating. In fact, Pol swears by it as a perfect way to engage the community in an even wider range of health and social issues. 

Do cities really need any more reasons? Urban farming as the future of food

Illustration of the urban food environment, MUFPP, A menu of Actions to shape Urban Food Environments for Improved Nutrition

Fortunately, some cities are leading by example and can inspire other urban spaces to embark on the same journey. 

Versailles, outside of Paris. 

Paris has a policy aiming to turn 100 hectares of city rooftops, walls, podiums and others into green spaces. One third of these green spaces will be devoted to urban agriculture. 

This is a great example of how cities can fully integrate urban farming into their policies and into their urban planning.

Singapore is a great example too. 

By 2030, Singapore wants to supply 30% of its own food. To achieve that, the government is promoting local urban agriculture through subsidies and by providing the space. 

Singapore could exemplify how cities can become much more food secure and less dependent on imports.

“Every time we are opening our fridge we are entering and we are participating in the food system”

Pol Fabrega’s fridge image, adapted from his presentation for Misplaced series by Livin Farms. 

At this point into our series of blog posts, you already know what we are going to talk about next. Yeah, that’s right. This is the point where we talk you into taking some action!

Let us lay it out for you in simple steps: 

  1. Be curious - Become aware of the challenges and problems of food supply in your city - dig deeper in that fridge, and try to learn more about this food that we often don’t think twice about. 
  2. Vote with your fork - we often feel very helpless and useless in tackling climate change, but we, as consumers, have immense power and we can decide which food systems to support. Buy local, buy organic, buy seasonal.
  3. Get your hands dirty! Look for a space, look for a community garden and get to grow your own. It’s an extremely gratifying experience. And remember, you don’t need a rooftop, any space can be converted into a growing space. We can have farms on podiums, balconies, backyards, even storage rooms. With the use of technology, we can now grow pretty much anywhere indoors. And not only plants! We, at Livin Farms, have been in the business of growing alternative proteins at home for quite some time. 
  4. Reduce and recycle your food waste - you are less likely to let go easily of things that you worked hard for. You’ll definitely think twice before letting that carrot spoil, after it took you so long to farm it! And you’ll definitely want to spare those coffee grounds from going to landfill, and use it to fertilise your blueberries or to give your mealworms an extra kick before a Hive Explorer party. 
  5. Take a stand - no matter what you do as a consumer, we need governments to get on board. Use that democracy privilege the right way and start advocating for governments to protect us and our environment. Take a look at cities that have already taken a stance during the 2015 World Expo. More than 200 cities committed to the The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which just recently celebrated its 5 years milestone. This is a good start for cities to rethink issues of access to healthy food and sustainability of the food chain.

Pol Fabrega’s 10 reasons for growing your own food, adapted from his presentation for Misplaced series by Livin Farms. 

And remember, your farm is your learning ground. Farming can spark learning about maths, science, language, arts and also food, sustainability, the environment… The possibilities are endless. 

Be patient and enjoy the ride. 

“Learning about farming is like learning about Chinese: it’s a lifelong learning experience and you never stop learning”

No one is born with the green thumb and it is along the journey that you will regain that connection with food and truly make an impact. 

Did you enjoy this? Check out similar blogs by Livin Farms:

What is our Connection to Food? | Road to the SDGs
Our Dystopic Food System | Misplaced Episode #1