16 Initiatives Changing Urban Agriculture Through Tech and Innovation
By Andrea Oyuela
The United Nations estimates that nearly 10 billion people will be living in cities by 2050. According to a recent publication by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, urban eaters consume most of the food produced globally and maintain more resource-intensive diets including increased animal-source and processed foods — rich in salt, sugar and fats. At the same time, many urban populations — particularly in low-income areas and informal communities — endure acute hunger and malnutrition as well as limited access to affordable, healthy food.
But there are countless ways that cities can feed themselves and create better linkages between rural and urban food systems. In Mexico City, the organization CultiCiudad built the Huerto Tlatelolco, an edible forest with 45 tree varieties, a seed bank, and plots for biointensive gardening. In the U.S., City Growers uses New York City's urban farms as a learning laboratory for children to reconnect with nature. And in the Kalobeyei Settlement in northern Kenya, urban agriculture represents a tool for empowerment by improving food security, nutrition and self-sufficiency among refugees.
"Agriculture and forestry in the city… answer to a variety of urban development goals beyond the provision of green infrastructure and food, such as social inclusion, adaptation to climate change, poverty alleviation, urban water management, and opportunities for the productive reuse of urban waste," said Henk de Zeeuw, Senior Advisor at the RUAF Foundation.
And thankfully, there are hundreds of entrepreneurs and organizations using this opportunity to improve urban agriculture and satisfy the demands of an increasingly urban population. From high-tech indoor farms in France and Singapore to mobile apps connecting urban growers and eaters in India and the U.S., Food Tank highlights 16 initiatives using tech, entrepreneurship and social innovation to change urban agriculture.
1. AeroFarms, Newark (United States)
AeroFarms builds and operates vertical indoor farms to enable local production at scale and increase the availability of safe and nutritious food. The company uses aeroponics to grow leafy greens without sun or soil in a fully controlled environment. The technology enables year-round production while, they say, using 95 percent less water than field farming, resulting in yields 400 times higher per square foot annually. Since its foundation in 2004, AeroFarms aims to disrupt conventional food supply chains by building farms along major distribution routes and in urban areas. The company also won multiple awards, including the 2018 Global SDG Award, for its environmentally responsible practices and leadership in agriculture.
2. Agricool, Paris (France)
Agricool is a start-up that grows strawberries in containers spread throughout urban areas. The company retrofits old, unused containers to accommodate both an LED-lights and aeroponics system making it possible to grow strawberries year-round. The Cooltainers are powered by clean energy and use 90 percent less water than conventional farming. Agricool also works on building a network of urban farmers through the Cooltivators training program, aiming to open up job opportunities for city residents to work in the agricultural sector. The start-up now works on expanding operations to other cities, an effort made possible by the replicability of the container's design.
3. BIGH Farms, Brussels (Belgium)
BIGH (Building Integrated Greenhouses) Farms, a start-up based in Brussels, works on building a network of urban farms in Europe to promote the role urban agriculture can play in the circular economy. BIGH's designs integrate aquaponics with existing buildings to reduce a site's environmental impact. The first pilot — located above the historic Abattoir in Brussel's city center — includes a fish farm, a greenhouse and more than 2,000 square meters of outdoor vegetable gardens. They started in 2018 producing microgreens, herbs, tomatoes and striped bass. BIGH Farms also partners with local businesses and growers to make sure the farm's production is complementary to the existing food community.
4. Bites, Phoenix (United States)
Bites is a mobile platform working to help connect urban farmers, chefs and eaters in Phoenix through farm-to-table dining experiences. Eaters and chefs sign up and meet through the app to organize an in-home dining event. Chefs gather the ingredients from urban growers registered on the platform in an effort to promote local, small businesses. Bites was launched in 2017 by Roza Derfowsmakan, founder of Warehouse Apps, to improve accessibility to farm-to-table experiences and support urban farmers. By using technology to build culinary communities, Bites aims to change consumer choices from shipped-in, trucked-in produce to locally sourced food — involving people in the solution itself.
5. BitGrange, Multiple Locations (North America)
BitGrange is an urban farming tool and learning platform working to help educate children on food and agriculture. The BitGrange device, a hydroponics and Internet of Things-based system, produces edible plants with little water and energy. BitGrange's software evaluates environmental variables in real-time and notifies growers through a smartphone app to take necessary actions, such as adding more water or plant food. Founded in 2015 according to their philosophy, Plant-Connect-Sync-Play, BitGrange aims to inspire youth to engage in farming by gamifying agriculture. The nano-farm's design is available for download at BitGrange's website for potential growers to 3D print the device in their own location.
6. Bowery Farming, New York Metro Area (United States)
Bowery Farming, an indoor farming start-up, uses software and robotics to grow produce inside warehouses located in and around cities. By controlling every aspect of the growing process, the start-up is able to produce leafy greens and herbs using a minimal amount of water and energy per square foot. The technology also makes it possible to grow customized products for chefs and restaurants, such as softer kale and more peppery arugula. Since its establishment in 2017, Bowery Farming is now expanding operations beyond its warehouse in New Jersey to build vertical farms in other cities and, ultimately, bring efficient food production closer to consumers.
7. Farmizen, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Surat (India)
Farmizen is a mobile-based platform renting farmland to city residents to grow locally grown, organic produce. The app allocates its users a 600 square foot mini-farm in a community nearby. Users can visit the farm anytime to grow and harvest chemical-free produce. Farmworkers look after the plots when the users return to the city, making a fixed and stable income — up to three times more than that of conventional farming. The app is live in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Surat with 1,500 subscribers and 40 acres of land under cultivation. Farmizen was founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Gitanjali Rajamani, driven by the need to create stable livelihoods for farmers and reconnect city-dwellers to agriculture and nature.
8. Fresh Direct, Abuja (Nigeria)
Fresh Direct is an impact-driven start-up using vertical farming and hydroponics to promote locally grown produce and the involvement of youth in agriculture. When young entrepreneur Angel Adelaja started engaging in eco-friendly farming, she faced multiple challenges with conventional farming practices, including access to land, water, and technology. As a response, Adelaja founded Fresh Direct in 2014 to make urban agriculture more accessible to everyone, especially youth. Fresh Direct installs stackable container farms in the city, growing organic produce closer to the market. In the future, Adelaja aims to eradicate the notion among young professionals that agriculture is a line of work for the older generations.
9. Gotham Greens, Multiple Locations (United States)
Gotham Greens builds and operates data-driven, climate-controlled greenhouses in cities across the U.S. The greenhouses, powered by wind and solar energy, use hydroponics to grow salad greens and herbs year-round using fewer resources than conventional farming. In addition to its goal of sustainable food production, Gotham Greens also partners with local organizations, schools, community gardens and businesses to support urban renewal and community development projects. Gotham Greens is also the company behind the country's first commercial rooftop greenhouse, a partnership with Whole Foods Market to operate the greenhouse located above their flagship store in Brooklyn, New York.
10. GrowUp Urban Farms, London (United Kingdom)
GrowUp Urban Farms works on developing commercial scale, Controlled Environment Production (CEP) solutions to grow fresh food in communities across London. The CEP farms use aquaponics to farm fish and grow leafy greens in a soil-less system, turning previously unused brownfield sites into productive areas. The GrowUp Box — a community farm developed together with sister organization GrowUp Community Farms — produces over 400kg of salads and 150kg of fish each year. Over the long run, the company aims to replicate the aquaponics system to build urban farms in other cities, opening employment opportunities for youth, and using agriculture as a means to make communities more self-sustaining.
11. InFarm, Multiple Locations (Europe)
InFarm, a Berlin-based start-up, develops modular indoor farming systems to bring agriculture into cities. Designed to combat the long distances food travels, the InFarms produce leafy greens and herbs using 95 percent less water than traditional farms and no pesticides. The technology, the company claims, can reduce food transportation up to 90 percent. In 2013, the company pioneered the modular system in restaurants, schools, hospitals and shopping centers. Operations have now expanded to distribute portable farms in neighborhoods and supermarkets across Germany, Denmark, France and Switzerland. The expansion, AgFunder reports, can be attributed to InFarm's decentralized, data-driven model.
12. Liv Up, São Paulo (Brazil)
Liv Up works to deliver healthy meals and snack kits prepared with locally grown food to residents of the Greater São Paulo region. The start-up sources organic ingredients from family farmers in peri-urban areas, in an effort to shorten value chains and better connect small producers to the urban market. A team of chefs and nutritionists prepares the meals, which are later deep frozen to maintain the food's integrity and extend its shelf life. Liv Up was founded in 2016 by a trio of young entrepreneurs driven by the lack of access to healthy foods in São Paulo. The start-up now operates in seven municipalities of the metropolitan area, rotating its menu every two weeks.
13. Pasona Urban Ranch, Tokyo (Japan)
Pasona Urban Ranch, an initiative of the Pasona Group, is a mix of office space and animal farm located in the heart of Tokyo's busy Ōtemachi district. The initiative aims to raise interest in agriculture and dairy farming among city residents by bringing them in close contact with farm animals. The ranch houses eight animal species, including cattle, goats and an alpaca, which are cared for by specialized staff. Visitors and employees of the building can attend seminars on dietary education and dairy farming. Previously, the Pasona Group gained worldwide acknowledgment for Pasona O2 — an underground office farm built by Kono Designs in 2010 growing 100 regional crops in downtown Tokyo.
14. RotterZwam, Rotterdam (The Netherlands)
RotterZwam, an urban mushroom farm, raises awareness on the potential of the circular economy for addressing environmental issues. The farm's closed-loop system works with used coffee grounds — collected from local businesses — to turn residual flows into food. The mushroom nursery, built out of old containers, uses solar paneling to power the farm's operations and the e-vehicles used for product delivery. The farm's team offers tours to educate citizens on circular systems and trains entrepreneurs wishing to start a mushroom farm. RotterZwam's second location in the Schiehaven area opened in mid-2019 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign to bring back the farm after a devastating fire in 2017.
15. Sustenir Agriculture (Singapore)
Sustenir Agriculture is a vertical farm working to promote high quality, locally grown, and safe food with the lowest possible footprint. The farm — located in the heart of Singapore — uses the latest technology in hydroponics and smart indoor farming to produce leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries and fresh herbs. Starting as a basement project in 2012, Sustenir now produces 1 ton of kale and 3.2 tons of lettuce per month in an area of 54 square meters.
16. Urban Bees, London (United Kingdom)
Urban Bees is a social enterprise working with communities and businesses in London to help bees thrive in the city. Through education and training, the initiative raises awareness on how to create bee-friendly communities and on how to become responsible beekeepers. The first training apiary was established together with the Co-op Plan Bee in Battersea, South London. The enterprise also advises urban gardening initiatives, including Lush's rooftop garden, to ensure that green areas install the right forage and create healthy bee habitats. Co-founder Alison Benjamin said that city residents often suffer from nature-deficit disorder and urban beekeeping is one path to reconnect with nature in the city.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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