What might be the best future hedge against supply chain disruption issues and help deliver more sustainable growing of fruits and vegetables without worries of pandemics, wars and other challenges?
According to a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, cities and suburban areas across the world should work toward producing 30 per cent of the nation’s crops by 2030. They say it is possible, given the emergence of new technologies which eliminates factors such as health of soil and weather.
“It is estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities and will consume 80 per cent of all food produced,” authors write. “Cities must leverage technological innovations – particularly indoor vertical farms, greenhouses and precision-farming tools – to feed their growing populations.”
The Blair Institute says far too many efforts looking toward the future focus on clean energy or transportation when they could be put toward self-sustainability initiatives such as urban farming. If the government were to invest in strategies to fund urban farmers and repurpose derelict buildings and turn them into vertical farms, that could help feed portions of city dwellers.
The Institute says the idea already has taken root in places like Singapore, which is on track to grow 30 per cent of its fruits and veg by 2030, and in the United Arab Emirates, which has its own initiative to become food secure by 2051. They say nations are too reliant on imports, where variable factors and costs have made it more challenging every year. Even if they were to still continue to bring in food from abroad, the Institute says city centers are growing in size so there will need to be more ways to feed them.
The Blair Institute lays out in detail how cities can take to embrace vertical farming, robots, crop breeding and artificial intelligence. Here are 10 steps they suggest cities take, although much more information is packed into the report:
1. Grow 30 per cent of produce by 2030. Cities should aim to grow 30 per cent of the fruit and vegetables consumed within their borders and the peri-urban area by 2030 to create a “buffer” against supply-chain disruptions, use land more efficiently, decrease food miles, and attract investment and good jobs, among other benefits.
2. Treat urban space as an agricultural asset. City officials can maximise the potential of urban spaces by connecting gardeners and entrepreneurs to vacant lots, buildings and rooftops.
3. Update land use and permit regulations. Ambiguous and overly complicated permit requirements can stymie would-be entrepreneurs. An explicit new land-use category for indoor farming would help.
4. Incentivise crop growing in new and existing commercial buildings. Commercial buildings are a rapidly expanding sector and can be leveraged to produce food.
5. Attract commercial investment by sharing capital risk. Two of the primary barriers to adoption of indoor vertical farming and other urban agtech are high upfront capital costs and the long-term horizons for return on investment. Government support is necessary to bridge the gap until these endeavours become profitable.
6. Support research and development to optimise technology and bring down costs. Funding and other support is needed to further urban agtech and supporting tech, such as more efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Doing so will reduce energy use and therefore increase the cost-effectiveness of urban agtech overall.
7. Educate the next generation of urban-agtech entrepreneurs. Urban farming provides an excellent solution to the decline of the agricultural workforce, but scaling urban farming will also require new kinds of skills and talent. Internships, school initiatives, masters programmes and a greater awareness of urban-agtech careers can help.
8. Update labelling requirements. Often, produce grown indoors can’t be labelled as organic even if pesticides have not been used because it is not grown in soil. Appropriate labelling is necessary to increase transparency for consumers and improve consumer confidence in these products – either a new “controlled-environment agriculture” label, or expansion of the “organic” label.
9. Ensure controlled-environment agriculture lives up to its environmental promise by establishing appropriate benchmarking and addressing the energy-intensity problem. Vertical farms are energy intensive but there are steps city leaders can take to help ensure this energy comes from renewable sources. This includes making subsidies and other support contingent on showing that best practices, such as those that will be published by the Resource Innovation Institute, are being followed. Policymakers can also explore the potential of microgrids and should encourage controlled-environment agriculture companies to take part in demand-side response markets.
10. Preserve existing urban produce. Many urban and peri-urban areas already have thriving, diverse local food systems that are at risk and must be preserved.