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Urban food: How agriculture is becoming an urban economic system

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes

In the future, food production will move closer to consumers – right into cities, supermarkets and restaurants. It doesn’t get fresher or more local than this!

Cities are culinary hubs. Here, lively, hip gastro scenes meet young, urban populations who are open-minded and eager to experiment when it comes to food. Awareness of issues such as climate change, biodiversity, animal well-being and healthy nutrition is also particularly high among urban populations. New catering concepts or start-ups that address these issues and translate them into new offers, products and services are becoming increasingly popular.

Modern city dwellers value quality food and pay attention to origin, growing and production conditions as well as sustainability. They use their own balconies to grow herbs and vegetables on a small scale or join forces in initiatives such as food co-ops. Communities are increasingly making city areas available for urban gardening projects or are planting fruit trees instead of ornamental shrubs. Architects and urban planners consciously create space for urban agriculture by turning large roof areas into rooftop farms and by considering possible synergy effects, such as using waste heat from nearby power plants. Shanghai is even planning an entire district where vegetable cultivation will be developed and celebrated.

More than just a garden plot

When you think of feeding millions of people, it is a drop in the ocean; however, it is also an embodiment of an urban spirit which symbolizes a new mentality. Nature needs to return to the people. We need transparency again when it comes to food. No long transportation routes or countless additives are necessary when we produce food where it is actually consumed. In the future, this will be what “city” means for most people – more than two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050, according to projections made by the United Nations. “Urban food is more than urban agriculture, and more than idyllic garden plots. Cities are changing our food culture and as a result also the way we produce food,” writes the expert Hanni Rützler in her Food Report 2020. “Urban food represents a new mindset and evolving movement that develops substantial alternatives for our food system.”

Vertical Farming food

Image: Plenty

In particular, technologies that are already causing a stir today as niche phenomena offer entirely new alternatives. According to Rützler, they not only enable efficient food production in cities, but also change the agricultural and horticultural professions along with conventional notions about nature and food.

New technologies as major levels

Perhaps future generations will rub their eyes in amazement at how inefficiently and resource-intensively humanity has been producing its food for centuries. If you look at the yield of technologically optimized vertical indoor farms, this theory starts to make sense. Food is usually grown in closed cycles under laboratory conditions. Light, water, nutrient supply, etc. are automatically adjusted exactly to the plant’s specific needs. Fruit, vegetables and the like can truly thrive, regardless of the season or weather, and without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.

The indoor farms of the American start-up Plenty, which has strategically and cleverly positioned itself close to restaurants, manage with about a fraction of the energy and water required for the conventional cultivation of fruit and vegetables. At the same time, they produce up to 350 times more yield per square foot than traditional agriculture. Smallhold’s mushroom farms resemble a refrigerator and can be found in the cellars of restaurants or even supermarkets. They produce 40 times more than traditional mushroom farms. Thanks to hydroponics, Agricool’s Cooltainer allows strawberries to grow all year round in the heart of Paris with minimal water and energy consumption – with no soil at all.

Plenty Tigris Propagation Space

Image: Plenty

Berlin’s Good Bank, the world’s first vertical farm to table restaurant, shows just how close you can bring growing and consuming lettuce. The leafy greens served there are grown on vertical farms located directly in the dining area. These eye-catching farms produce almost 100 heads of lettuce a day. Long refrigeration lines, transportation routes and packaging waste – no way! The owner’s vision is to someday develop self-sufficient production for all the food they use.

Maybe this means shrimp raised in salt water tanks. Or plants, fish and insects that support each other during the growing process through a system of cross-linked cubes. Or perhaps algae hanging gardens. Each of these futuristic sounding dreams is already coming true in German-speaking countries today. In the next few years, Rützler envisages new factories where chicken, pork, beef and fish will be created using cell culture methods. In ten to twenty years, such systems could become truly relevant components for supplying city populations and transforming agriculture into an urban economic system.

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