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How Urban Farming Can Transform Our Cities—And Our Agricultural System
by Adam James
As concerns mount over the accessibility and quality of meals in cities, urban agriculture is becoming a practical solution to give communities more choice—all while helping address greenhouse gas emissions from centralized agriculture.
With more than 80 percent of the American population living in metropolitan centers, urban farming has the ability to dramatically enhance economic growth, increase food quality and build healthier communities.
The Problem: Carbon Intensive Meals
“Would you like some CO2 with that?”
The globalization of food has dramatically increased the amount of carbon emissions in our meals—particularly in America.
For example, food related emissions in the U.S. account for 21 percent of total emissions, or 6.1 tons of CO2 per year. Additionally, 15 percent of personal transportation emissions, 20 percent of home energy use emissions and 23 percent of the aggregate remaining activities are food-related as well. Add it all up and you find that our food choices make up a very large portion of our overall footprint.
Consumer activities like traveling to the grocery store, eating at restaurants, and cooking make up 46 percent of total emissions from food.
The other 54 percent of emissions come from the production, distribution and selling of food. This includes activities like packaging, storage and transportation. The average meal has traveled 4,200 miles just to get to the table. And at the end of the line, food related emissions account for 28 percent of all U.S. landfill gas emissions.
So what can be done?
The Solution: Urban Farming’s Wide Range of Benefits
There are already plenty of resources on the energy intensity of food and how to calculate the emissions from a given meal. But people—particularly those in cities living in “food deserts”—can’t act on this information if they don’t have the resources.
This is where urban agriculture comes in. Urban agriculture is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as:
“[A]n industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel, largely in response to the daily demand of consumers within a town, city, or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intensive production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban wastes to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.”
Basically, urban farming allows individuals or groups to establish gardens or mini-farms on small plots, using creative techniques to maximize, output, meet local needs and help make efficient use of the land. Gardeners are finding all kinds of ways to grow food: On rooftops, in abandoned buildings and on deteriorating plots of land.
These operations can help consumers lower their food emissions by giving them the choice to eat food grown within their communities, not thousands of miles away.
But that’s not all. In addition to offsetting emissions, there are at least three concrete benefits to urban farming: economic growth; community building; and improved health.
The economic benefits realized through urban farming are localized, thus keeping dollars circulating through the community. These urban farms also have a fantastic return on investment, with every $1 invested in a community garden generating $6 worth of vegetables.
And these community food enterprises are actually competitive with big-box retailers. As one report puts it:
“In recent years CFEs have discovered that they actually have unique advantages over bigger companies. They have a deeper awareness of local tastes and markets, they can obtain consumer feedback more quickly, and they can tweak their business models more swiftly. They can deliver goods and services faster, with shorter distribution links and smaller inventories. They can rely more on word-of—mouth advertising that costs nothing.”
These projects can be structured in unique ways to encourage greater economic impacts in communities. For example, Food From the ‘Hood turned an abandoned football field into a 2 acre farm, with 25 percent of the proceeds going to a scholarship fund for local youth in South Central Los Angeles. To date, $250,000 has gone to sending youth in the community to college.
Furthermore, in low-income communities, where food costs can be as much as 30-60 percent of income, localizing food can help stabilize food costs.
Community health is, as one report describes it, “the social and economic capacity of a community to create an environment that sustains the visions, goals and needs of its residents.” Increased food security is a crucial component to realizing this vision.
The social organization required for most urban farming projects can forge stronger community bonds by creating “stakeholder interactions” that give individuals a sense of responsibility and productivity. By harnessing two sources of capital—social capital and the existing built environment—urban farming uses the inherent strengths of cities to solve some of their most serious problems.
Food Quality and Health
Studies have shown that nutrition, exercise, and mental and physical health are all augmented with urban farms.
In temperate climates, a 10’ x 10’ garden can feed a family of four year-round and meet almost all basic nutritional requirements. This solves the directly related problems food insecurity and poor nutrition. The act of gardening is also great exercise that improves physical health: reducing risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The act of cultivation has significant impact on mental health as well—assisting with social skills, self-esteem improvement and stress reduction.
Bringing It Home
The impact of urban farming on local communities and families is undeniable. While this activity gains traction in cities across the country, the potential for reducing our food related emissions continues to grow—all while helping improve the economic and social dynamics of the urban environment.
Adam James is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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