Urban Farming: a Response to Rural Depopulation Trend?

Since 2014 more than half of the world’s population resides in urban areas. Yet, migration into cities is projected to intensify. By 2050, estimates anticipate 66 % of urban dwellers. Consequently, this is expected to increase the demand of resources while triggering food insecurity. Hence, transforming urban food systems by using technological innovations is an integral part of a sustainable development path for cities.

In general, urban agriculture refers to the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food and other products through plant cultivation and seldom raising livestock in and around cities for feeding local populations. The most striking feature of urban farming, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system. It can reflect varying levels of social involvement and economic incentives towards sustainable development. While the global north emphasizes the social movement and community building aspect of urban farming, the developing south focuses on food security, nutrition and income generation. In either case, more direct access to fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat products is the overarching goal and remains the key motivation.

Urban agriculture projects combine the control of environmental aspects in conjunction with urban architecture or green infrastructure. Methods like vertical farming or sky farming solve the problem of limited space and unpredictable sunlight. Both methods are based on the use of hydroponic or water-based nutrient rich solutions as a substitute for soil. As any additional water input is considered energy intensive, the safe use of recycled waste water can provide the needed irrigation and fertilization for growing food. In terms of energy saving, green rooftops were found to regulate building temperatures significantly. Furthermore, rooftop gardens use 75 % less water than conventional farms. Urban agriculture would require roughly one third of the total global urban area to meet the vegetable consumption of urban dwellers now.

Since urban farming is performed under specific conditions, it requires technologies for urban farmers to overcome accompanying challenges. Such specific conditions include among others: possibilities for direct producer-consumer contacts, exacerbated pollution, high prices of urban land, and the responsible use of resources. The Internet of Things (IoT) provides the tools to implement systems which can monitor and can control the delivery of natural and artificial light, integrated pest and disease management, health risk reduction practices, and ecological soil fertility management. For instance, interconnected devices give the opportunity to remotely adjust windows from transparent to opaque or vice-versa, if sensors recommend it.

However, most available agricultural technologies need adaptation for use in these conditions whilst new technologies must be developed to respond to specific urban requirements. Therefore, research and innovation need to be stimulated to put urban agriculture issues alongside stakeholder dialogue on the municipalities’ agendas. Not only do urban farms use space efficiently, they bring with them several secondary benefits like reducing pollution and carbon emissions associated with food production and transportation, providing opportunities for employment, and promoting good nutrition. Moreover, they offer a response to the anticipated trend of rural depopulation.

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