City dwellers are increasingly turning to agriculture and loving it! Gardens are popping up everywhere, from balconies, terraces to rooftops and community gardens; any type of space is suitable for renewing with the ancient tradition and know-how of growing food. Even if the end results are hardly ever optimal, the benefits are many: Developing skills, beautifying the environment, as well as the positive impacts on public health and the social fabric, just to name only a few.
There is also large-scale commercial urban farming that is the brainchild of entrepreneurs who took advantage of the consumer’s enthusiasm for locally grown foods. There are, in fact, some very good business opportunities that can benefit us all since urban production helps reduce the number of kilometers food must travel, thus reducing its environmental footprint while also providing products with guaranteed freshness.
Unlike rural farming, urban agriculture is often above ground since land is often limited and urban soil is frequently contaminated. Agriculture in small surfaces often resorts to commercially prepared soil – an inert base that, let’s admit, when it is enriched with compost or any other type of live material, year after year, can result in an interesting substrate material.
As for commercial agriculture however, hydroponics is clearly the preferred medium. Soil is replaced by another substrate material (clay granules, gravel or coconut fibre, for example), in which circulates nutrient rich water. Hydroponics is very productive: It seems that the yield easily exceeds that usually obtained in the field. The technique is obviously water efficient since it operates as a closed circuit. The water is recovered at the end of the circuit, recharged with nutrient rich ingredients and sent back into the circuit to feed the plants. There is nothing new about this technique, but it is becoming increasingly sophisticated and efficient.
We can delight in these new urban initiatives. We need every kind of agriculture to feed the planet satisfactorily. In fact, according to some estimates, nearly 80% of the world’s population will inhabit cities in 2050. Fortunately, hydroponics will be able to substantially contribute to the global offering while also defying urban limitations such as lack of space and soil.
And yet, in France, farmers are worried about the growing possibility of competing with urban agriculture. In an article published in this year’s April 26th issue of the magazine Reporterre, they touch upon the fact that the city of Paris spent some 2.5 million EUR to prepare the metropolitan environment to embrace urban farming entrepreneurs and spent 400,000 EUR more to help them… Meanwhile the Paris region continues to slowly devour 1,400 ha of real farmland every year, land that, in its natural state, is home to a biological microcosm suitable for growing a variety of crops.
“Strengthened by their media success and public funds, are urban farms damaging farmland?” asked reporter Maxime Lerolle. As for the Fédération départementale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FDSEA), they are sounding a word of caution: “In the eyes of certain urban planners, the fantasy of urban farming being able to feed the city could justify the takeover of agricultural land.”
Fortunately, we have not reached that point in Québec. Urban agriculture is not a threat. However, preserving agricultural land is indeed a real issue, because cities here are also land hungry. That’s why we need to explore all kinds of means to ensure, either privately or collectively, the integrity of our farm land that, allow me to remind you, only represents a mere 2% of our province. Land trusts, servitudes, cooperatives, legislation, every option is being examined with some urgency. There is no surprise: It’s a question of food security and of protecting our most precious asset, our biodiversity.