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Can Urban Farming help solve global food security? - TNK Green

Can Urban Farming help solve global food security?

Since the pandemic started in 2020, we have noticed food shortages once distribution networks became interrupted. We saw food spoiling on docks while people in large cities across the globe struggled to find necessities.

The UN still predicts that by 2050 almost 68% of the world population will live in high density urban and suburban areas.

Decentralising food production with the addition of small to medium farms in urban and suburban hubs like Singapore has proven to help relieve the pressures on the environment and distribution networks while also minimising food waste and creating new jobs and food security.


The Food Crisis

Food disparity and the future of food are topics we all should be concerned about. A staggering 7.7 million tons of food (up to 50%) end up in landfills as food waste, while 10% of the world’s citizens live in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day.

With the world’s population set to grow to 9.8 billion people by 2050 and changing global weather patterns and widespread land degradation, the future of farming might look bleak.


The state of farming

Large scale farming dominates the current food market. This means that large swaths of soil are planted with a single species (monoculture)  that most smaller-scale farmers can’t compete with. Bad soil management and overproduction can lead to soil degradation, erosion and fertiliser runoff. Relying solely on these farms is unfeasible for permanent, long term food security.

With farms set to increase food production by 70% by 2050 to provide enough food for the global population, the higher demand could further strain farmland. It would necessitate the destruction of untouched or fallow land, leading to further loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation unless we can find a better way to feed the world.


This is where urban farming can help. With an estimated, 23 000 acres of unused roof space in New York City alone, the equivalent of 51 average-sized farms, these unused urban spaces can be converted into a variety of gardens for all kinds of crops while helping to combat the urban heat-island effect in inner-city hubs.


What is Urban Farming?

Urban farming, in its simplest definition, is utilising urban space to grow food for local distribution. The majority of Urban farms are on converted roof space, but it can be as expansive as large scale vertical indoor farming or even livestock.

The benefit of Urban farming is that locally produced food has a much smaller carbon footprint since it can be sold directly to local consumers at small farmer markets, supermarkets or even to restaurants looking for fresh produce. This could lead to less reliance on conventional farming and distribution networks.

Although urban farms can’t replace conventional farms completely, they can help alleviate demand and limit further environmental destruction. The benefits of Urban farming are that most smaller gardeners also tend to grow more diverse crops and heirloom species that aid food/crop diversity.

During the Second World War, the UK launched its ‘Dig for Victory campaign encouraging citizens to grow food on allotments that finally ensured that the people survived the long war when distribution networks failed. This practice of keeping allotments is still in wide use today in most of northern Europe.

Due to largescale urbanisation since the 1960s, urban and suburban areas have become increasingly dependent on supermarkets and international distribution networks for food. Although this has opened up the consumer to an astounding array of cheap products all year round, it negatively affected nature and society.

The increased popularity of farmers’ markets in recent years and the ever-increasing demand for organic food might signal a longing for a return to a more localized and integrated society.

Of course, depending on local environmental conditions, not all cities will have the capacity to grow food outside all year round, so a combination of strategies may have to be used. Let’s briefly inspect the different urban farming options available and list their positives and negatives.


Kinds Of farms

City Farms

Utilising abandoned and unused urban land, city farms can produce a wide variety of food. Grown predominantly in the soil or raised beds, this type of farm can be combined with beekeeping, livestock and chicken coops providing honey, meat or eggs for the community. Depending on available land, production limits are directly connected with available land.


Vertical Farming

This high tech farming solution employs tiered growing space with LED Grow light, generally in warehouses or other converted industrial sites. Energy-intensive, this type of urban farm can produce food all year round, especially in cooler climates. The true advantage of vertical farms is the output being able to produce up to 5 x the crop of the same acreage of conventional farmland.


Community Orchards,

Whether Permaculture or Food Forestscommunity orchards can provide much needed seasonal fruit to both man and wildlife in urban spaces. Trees need room to grow and flourish and need seasonal pruning to give the optimal crop, but if properly planned and maintained, an orchard can provide a succession of fruit for the community all year round.


Hydrophonic and Aquaponic greenhouses

Hydroponics refers to growing vegetables in highly nutrient water substrate. Most Vertical farms make use of a hydroponic system but not all. By removing the substrate, more plants can be grown in tighter configurations. Unfortunately, not all plants can be grown hydroponically, but crops that flourish in these conditions yield more produce than conventional farming.

Aquaponics adds fish farms to the water tanks of a Hydroponic system intern creating the optimal fertiliser for the plants and adding product, a sustainable source of fish. The most successful fish species are cod, tilapia, bass, trout, etc.


Rooftop Gardens

Rooftop gardens can be implemented on almost all unused inner-city flat roofs by introducing raised beds or converting them into green roofs. Even in a smaller city like Pretoria, approximate 1000 acres of land can be reclaimed if rooftop gardens and farms can be implemented on all urban roofs. This is equal to several conventional farmlands but can yield more crops.

The only limitation to rooftop gardens is the climate. But adding a greenhouse or a grow tunnels, the growing season can extend by several months in cold temperatures.


Benefits and building better communities

We have become increasingly isolated from our neighbours. At least in South Africa, whether due to crime or fear, most of us don’t know our neighbours. We see them in the hallway, on the lift or on the street and wave politely.

Urban gardens offer many benefits and can help build better communities by gardening together. Imagine cities where every apartment building or neighbourhood had a place to retreat to after a long day and relax. Where children can learn where food comes from while the elderly can still feel helpful.

Recent studies have proven the health benefits of gardening as a form of therapy, and more and more doctors are prescribing garden therapy for patients. As humans, we crave being in nature and connecting with living things, and for good psychological health, we need to have natural spaces to retreat to.

Above all these benefits, a community garden can also be highly profitable if run like a business. Small scale organic farms of only an acre big can make a 70% profit on invested capital and, if combined with speciality products like mushrooms and snails, can gross even more.

Community gardens can also help alleviate poverty. Just look at the success of Streetscapes and their inner-city gardens in Cape Town, which currently create income for the homeless.

Lastly, Community gardens can help rejuvenate cities all across the globe while restoring habitats for birds and insects. Finally, community gardens can ease the strain on commercial farmers and even if international distribution networks are disrupted, every person will still have reasonable access to fresh fruits and vegetables.



If Covid and the past two years have taught us anything, it would be how fragile our centralised global system truly is. That a single ship stuck in the Suez canal could halt international shipping lanes to a halt and cause havoc and shortages in everything from computer chips to food.

In times of need, communities can support one another. If we use all these opportunities, we can create a more stable world where our cities can be as productive agriculturally as it is economically. Creating new opportunities and new jobs in our cities brings us closer together.

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