Recycling Lost Space To Grow Food

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April 1, 2019

This article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine UK26 and US24.


With the increasing urban sprawl, food to feed city dwellers must be produced far away from where it is consumed.

Food must be transported to cities by air, rail or truck, generating significant amounts of pollutants and greenhouse gases. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the food that makes up a typical American plate must be transported an average of 1,500 miles before being eaten.

The transportation and storage of food also force farmers to cultivate varieties of fruits and vegetables that are firm and low in juice with a very thick peel. This way, the produce is better able to withstand frequent handling, shocks and temperature differences.

Furthermore, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 45% of all fruits and vegetables produced around the globe are lost or discarded before they can be eaten, partly because of transport, storage, and handling.

Add an increasing fear of GMOs and chemical pesticides to the mix, and young, urban citizens have decided to grow their own food in order to eat it in its most organic form. They have developed very original ways to produce healthy fruits and vegetables, locally, in the heart of cities.

Farms in old buildings

Rather than growing edible plants in the ground as it is usually done in conventional agriculture, urban farmers must be creative and find ways to grow food on rooftops and inside buildings. In recent years, the number of projects for growing edible plants on roofs has boomed in North America.

Some urban agriculture projects involve renovating and insulating old buildings in which fruits and vegetables are cultivated in vertical hydroponic systems under artificial lighting.

This is the case for Metropolis Farms located in a Philadelphia building and for AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey. Approximately US $30 million has been invested in AeroFarms to transform a former steel mill into a cutting-edge urban farm.

Aerofarms Technology
The founder of AeroFarms estimates that his cultivation method uses 95%
less water than conventional farming in open fields with a yield 70 times higher!

Food inside shipping containers

Another creative way of growing edible plants in urban areas without soil has recently been developed in North America. It involves producing fruits and vegetables in old shipping containers with vertical hydroponic systems. The Boston-based companies Corner Stalk Farm and Freight Farms have had great success with this method.

Recently, Kimbal Musk, the brother of Tesla founder Elon Musk, created a company called Square Roots. This urban farming company grows GMO-free, pesticide-free produce in shipping containers right in the heart of Brooklyn. The produce is sold at local grocery stores around NYC. 

Farmers working at Square Roots
In addition to supplying citizens of New York City with healthy food, the Square Roots team also aims to train people who want to start careers in urban agriculture through their unique Next-Gen Farmer Training Program.
Square Roots Farm Tour
Square Roots farm tour.
Image courtesy of Square Roots

This question certainly deserves to be asked: although it is free of GMOs and pesticides, can vertical hydroponic culture – done without soil and microorganisms – be considered organic?

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Albert Mondor

Biologist and horticulturist at Les Jardins d'Albert inc.
Passionate about environmental horticulture, urban agriculture, and extreme landscape design, Albert Mondor has practiced his craft for over 30 years and created numerous gardens in North America. In addition to teaching courses and lecturing at conferences across Canada, his weekly gardening column appears in the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec since 1999. Albert recently published his tenth horticultural book, Le nouveau potager. He is a regular guest and contributor to radio and TV programs and hosts The Trendy Gardener spots broadcasted on Météo Média and online. In May 2014, Albert was awarded the prestigious Henry Teuscher Award, presented by the Montreal Botanical Gardens for his exceptional contribution to the advancement of horticultural knowledge in Canada.
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