COMMENTARY: Urban farming is an urban myth

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Editor’s Note by Rich Keller: This opinion article below is written by Maurice Hladik, author of Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork. He grew up on a farm in western Canada and was an active farmer into his early adult years. He earned two degrees in agricultural economics, served as an agricultural diplomat in several countries and also worked for an international agricultural company. Hladik explains how some activist are completely off base to suggest growing food in urban settings will have real impact on feeding the world as the population increases. It would require a widespread starvation situation in the U.S. and Canada before those who think it would be good for urban gardens to actually try to grow 1/16 of an acre of food crops, and then most of them would fail miserably.

By Maurice Hladik

I recently read an article that waxed eloquently about the virtues of urban farming in the U.S. and Canada, using the example of someone who was growing lettuce in the saddlebags of a rusted, old bicycle leaning against a garage. True, this was the delightful handiwork of a resourceful and imaginative gardener, but the author got carried away and used this as yet another example of how the urban farming movement has a meaningful impact on the nation’s overall food supply.  As if four heads of lettuce were really going to have an impact on feeding the world!

First a little disclosure – I spend many happy hours in my half-acre urban garden attempting to grow raspberries, cherries, pears, apples, hazelnuts, kiwis, tomatoes, zucchinis, etc. with varying degrees of success where I once had lawns.  Unfortunately, natural maples (I also harvest the syrup) have matured and rendered my fruit trees unproductive in recent years.  Furthermore, squirrels, groundhogs, and birds, including gold finches and the occasional wild turkey, share my harvest. As enjoyable as my hobby is, highlighted by more tomatoes than we can possibly eat or preserve over six weeks, my efforts have little impact on our family’s food requirements, although relatives, friends and neighbors do appreciate my fleeting bounty. This year has been a disaster; a hail storm has left my veggies a tattered mess. Indeed, to compare my gardening effort to farming would be akin to elevating a stamp collector to postmaster.

Taking a look at the big picture of national land use places the movement in perspective. The US landmass is classified at 2.1 percent urban and 19.5 percent cultivated farmland (pasture and rangeland are not included). While the farmland is 100 percent dedicated to and capable of producing food, the urban landscape was originally selected because of a natural harbor or other factors usually related to convenient transportation.  Thus, the quality of the urban terrain is often marginal for food production.  Indeed, the world is a better place where cities do not spring up on prime farmland. Then there is the clutter of houses, schools, hospitals, roads, railways, office buildings, historic sights, universities, airports, etc. where nothing can be planted. Realistically, I would be surprised if the food production potential of the available urban land would amount to even one percent of that available on conventional farms utilizing open fields, pastures and rangeland.

Then there is the question, ‘where are all those urban dwellers with the skills and the inclination to seriously grow food?’ I maintain there has been plenty of hype and encouragement in recent years for city folk to get out and grow food.  It would be surprising if there is a latent population of closet gardeners who might spontaneously become active and tear up their lawns and make a go with veggies or fruit trees. It is doubtful if even this one percent of potential urban land resource could ever be utilized, given the lack of enthusiastic and capable gardeners.  However, it should be noted that in developing countries food security issues, land use patterns, the presence of recent migrants with farming skills and household labor ability are quite different than in North America and, in such an environment, significant quantities of food are produced in urban settings.

What about the sustainability of urban farming in North America?   At any garden center there are mountains of topsoil available in convenient plastic bags and by the truckload. That soil does not just “happen;” it was once farmland that has forever been removed from productivity in its natural setting.  For example, as my urban home is located on a stony ridge, the original owners of the house brought in black soil by the truckload so they could have a lawn and plant some foliage and flowers.  This is a classic case of urban land that was unsuitable for agriculture being made somewhat arable at the expense of productive farmland.  Does anyone worry about “soil miles?”

Another often overlooked factor with urban farming is the water requirement. The water we get delivered to our homes by pipelines is potable and from a sophisticated and costly treatment system that is has little excess capacity for irrigation. For good reason, watering of lawns is frequently banned or restricted during dry periods. Furthermore, the gardener with the saddlebags (where did his soil come from?) and indeed all plants growing in containers face accelerated evaporation and require a lot more water to thrive than those plants growing in conventional soil.

Rooftop gardens for food production are also water guzzlers, given that the thin layer of soil on a cement surface requires much more than naturally provided by rain.  This is because such a base for plants leads to higher soil temperature levels, accelerated evaporation and an inability to develop subsurface moisture reserves. Yes, household grey wastewater is a potential resource, but how many homes are realistically capable of capturing the water from showers, washing machines and the kitchen sink? In Toronto, to enhance city beautification, to reduce air conditioning energy requirements and to control waste water run off, all new commercial, industrial and public buildings with a flat roof of over 2,000 square feet must be developed (city bylaw) into some sort of garden. Because of the water issue, food production is out of the question and sedums, with their drought-tolerant waxy leaves, are the plant of choice.  The cost of such gardens run at $270 a square foot or over $11 million per acre, which is about 3,000 times more expensive than some of the very best prime farmland. Not much promise here to feed the world.

As hobbies go, gardening arguably tops the list of activities that provide exercise, exposure to nature and a sense of pride in producing fresh nutritious food. Furthermore, as all human indulgences have some impact on the environment, the guilty pleasure of using some topsoil or water from the hose to grow a bit of food is perfectly acceptable.  However, the bottom line is that urban farming is a myth when it comes to being a significant contributor to the nation’s food supply.  

Gardeners everywhere - just get out there and enjoy yourselves and the bounty of your efforts. The burden of feeding the world, or even your community, should not be your concern.

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Paul Hughes    
Calgary  |  July, 27, 2012 at 04:38 PM

Kudos, AgProfessional, for your effort to provide readers with some comedic relief. In my 10+ years of involvement with community food, food security, food justice & right to food issues, I have never read anything so outrageously misinformed.

Ysidro Avila    
Martinez California  |  July, 27, 2012 at 04:46 PM

Wow... This person is clearly mis educated. Has the author looked into the Growing power model? Or how about Cuba and organiponicos? Further the central valley of California which was once prime land for food is turned into a urban collapsing mess... He also forgets to include rain water harvesting and the use of compost and mulch which is widely available in all urban areas. Don't beleive the large ag hype... Enjoy your gardens etc.

Hank Herrera    
Oakland, California  |  July, 27, 2012 at 04:44 PM

Whose burden is it to feed the world? Much of what I read from agribusiness suggests that it is the burden of agribusiness, often presented with a dismissive nod to urban farming. In this piece, the author additionally confounds urban farming with urban gardening. From a food sovereignty, food justice, and community food security perspective, the burden of feeding the world is an illusory claim that diverts attention from the capacity of each community in the world to feed itself and to thereby enjoy the local economic benefits of the production and exchange of healthy local food. For those who claim that such a localized system is highly inefficient, let's celebrate that inefficiency--which leaves more local cash in local pockets. The global consolidated system would otherwise extract this cash from local communities for the exclusive benefit of a small number of shareholders.

Ysidro Avila    
MarTinez ca  |  July, 27, 2012 at 04:47 PM

Good points!

Wendy Schroeder    
Sundre  |  July, 28, 2012 at 09:09 AM

You must not have ever heard of a country called Russia where small family gardens are producing 51% of all their agricultural goods... 14 billion bucks worth a year. Who do you work for, Mr. Hladik?

Texas  |  July, 28, 2012 at 05:34 PM

Go on Facebook and look up Occupy The Dirt group, Mr. Hladik. I think you have a bad case of 'going about it the wrong way'...or just really don' t want to mess with the whole deal. Just because you can't seem to get the hang of it or can afford to pay high prices for groceries, there are those of us that are filling in those food gaps. You go piddle in your garden sir while I feed my family with mine. By the way, I am doing this in drought conditions using mulching practices, stored rain water, and gray water.

ken hargesheimer    
lubbock TX USA  |  July, 28, 2012 at 08:38 PM

I have never read so much mis-information in one article. I will mail a free gardening/minifarming dvd to anyone who request it from

dhijana scott-harmony    
Charlotte NC  |  July, 28, 2012 at 08:52 PM

I too use my half acre urban property for food production. On this land, we have placed four small greenhouses made almost completely from recycled materials, a high tunnel, a chicken house, a duck house, three ponds with waterfalls (topped off with creek water from a nearby creek), a rainwater collection system with five 350 gallon tanks which provide us with water to keep our crops from dying in this hot climate, a multitude of raised bed boxes. We build our own soil with compost from our municipal center, chicken manure, vermiculite, etc. and with this system feed ourselves high quality organic food and have enough to sell at a local farmers market to the tune of another $12K yearly to supplement our income.

Daniel Botkin    
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill MA  |  July, 29, 2012 at 05:18 AM

How many innovative, small plot, permaculture-influenced, urban and suburban farms did you visit to write this? Fortunately, you are mistaken, urban farming is no myth...

Alabama  |  July, 29, 2012 at 01:40 PM

Urban Ag, its feats, and its potential are not a myth. Could urban ag feed the US today? Of course not. Could it one day feed the entire country? Of course not, and I hope no urban farmer hopes for it to do so. Our relationships with farmers outside the city is vital in creating networks, cooperatives, policy changes, etc that will help change our food system. As an urban farmer, education and community outreach coordinator, urban ag has several different niches it fills: feeding the hungry, educating urban populations about where their food comes from, examining and changing food policy, and environmental remediation to name a few things. At the same time, urban Ag operates in the same markets conventional farming does by supplying local restaurants, grocery stores, etc with fresh produce. Urban ag is a lot more of a complete package than what conventional farmers have traditionally been engaged in, which has been to perpetuate (willingly or unwillingly) the problems of our food system.

Devon G. Peña    
Seattle, WA  |  July, 29, 2012 at 04:26 PM

For a comprehensive critique of Hladik's commentary, please visit the Environmental and Food Justice website (if you dare):

Rufus Walker    
Durham, NC  |  July, 30, 2012 at 08:23 AM

Man, this guy is trying to farm his book sales! I think this view point comes from a fair amount of Class privilege, he misses the whole idea of the need for control or engagement in ones food and health system. He mentions, so casually that he owns his own half-acre plot in an urban area, wow just a half acre? Well he has his food security, no need to worry about anyone else : ( Hladik just sees the urban areas as suburbs/real-estate and has a limited view on what possibilities exist for urban areas and the people who live in those areas. We should read the information he offers, and then shred it, and send it where it belongs to the compost.

Mary Jane Leach    
Ewing NJ  |  July, 30, 2012 at 09:38 AM

bad journalism, just poor.

Lake Worth  |  July, 31, 2012 at 09:25 AM

“Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it” Chinese Proverb As many have stated urban agriculture enthusiasts are not claiming to feed the world; that would be as ludicrous a thought as believing Big Ag can do the same. No matter how much those attempt to force the issue through monoculture and field crops; nature will insist on providing what she can, when she can under the conditions she has been given, combined with those she creates herself. Urban agriculture activists simply contribute to a stellar example of Food Solidarity. Learning to work together to each provide a solution to the puzzle of our food security issue is admirable. Consistently searching for innovative methods that help (not hurt) the ecosystem is brilliant. Kudos to those unwilling to be deterred by yet another naysayer who's time and words are wasted on those willing to take the chance and offer a unique approach to not just feeding the public but educating them as well so they might learn to feed themselves. Sorry Mr. Hladik - in the name of Food Solidarity we remain unswayed - next!!

Roger Horne    
South Florida  |  July, 31, 2012 at 10:51 AM

Urban Ag is primarily about educating low income/nutritionally disadvantaged communities about the health benefits of eating locally grown produce. We encourage residents to garden at home and to support local farmers and farmers markets. Urban Ag is one initiative in a food security model that is continually adjusting to the needs of the community. Ardent supporters of big ag are fooling themselves to think that they're the only model for feeding the world. Big Ag should be our 2ndary food option with the 1st being resident & community gardening. If Big Ag was the only solution then there would be less hunger in America & worldwide. All the best,

k. rashid nuri    
atlanta  |  July, 31, 2012 at 11:02 AM

Balderdash! This article may salve the conscience of the AG Professional market and readers. While true that urban ag cannot feed the world today, it does not mean we should not create alternative systems of production. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas. We will continue to build local food economies to feed ourselves. Havana provides 90% of its food, locally. I am sorry the magazine finds it necessary to publish articles like this not based on actual facts, just personal ruminations. If you want to see a model that works, chek out Truly Living Well in Atlanta or Growing Power in Milwaukee. Peace

Maggie Whiteside    
Marana  |  July, 31, 2012 at 11:33 AM

The writer has forgotten how many modern neighborhoods are located on what was farmland not too long ago, and yet he says that the soil in urban settings is not suitable for growing vegetables. Also, he admits that in other countries, people grow a significant amount of produce in urban settings. There is no reason why, in America's future, our living circumstances could change to make urban ag. more suitable to our lifestyles. I can see the movement growing to the point where I could totally see urban ag a reality. I think the writer just hasn't been involved in the movement so he can't see it.

New Haven, CT  |  July, 31, 2012 at 03:28 PM

Even if we want to call it "urban gardening" it produced 40% of the food eaten by American during WWII. And gosh, "The cost of such gardens run at $270 a square foot or over $11 million per acre, which is about 3,000 times more expensive than some of the very best prime farmland. Not much promise here to feed the world." The cost of $270.00 per square foot includes the cost of the roof (something every building needs) as well as the cost of the "garden." Retrofitting an existing roof can be a lot cheaper, in some cases just the cost of the garden. Let's try to be reasonable. Cities have lots of leaves and some grass clippings, good ingredients for city soil. In pluvial climates, little watering is needed.

East Coast  |  August, 03, 2012 at 01:29 PM

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this 'article.' What is the message here? Is the message that people should not grow anything? Is it a not-so-subtle PR piece for the corporate control of food? Does the author realize how many people are out of work & hungry? Does the author know that WWII Victory Gardens produced up to 40% of the food people ate during that time? Is he really arguing AGAINST independence for Americans? Amazing. A good rebuttal here:

Laura Titzer    
Seattle  |  August, 04, 2012 at 10:15 AM

I agree with so many of these comments. I was flabbergasted by the author's comparison of "saddle bags" to urban farming. I agree that it is not agribusiness role to "feed the world". It's everyone's responsibility as neighbors, community members, and citizens to feed people. A distinction needs to be made between feeding the world and feeding our communities. Furthermore, feeding the world should be about empowerment and sovereignty of individual countries and communities to be able to feed themselves instead of dependent on strangers from thousands of miles away. Speaking of sustainability, if it's hardly sustainable to keep our water tables (which is not simply a city gardener's fault, but more of an indicative consequence of our industrial food system), it's definitely not sustainable to spray massive pesticides, utilize GMO's, and make thousands of people dependent instead of independent.

Annika Burholm    
Sweden  |  August, 06, 2012 at 01:27 AM

If so, some percents are not so ”only”. Add to that the regional, closely grown vegetables plus food according to their season, and you have lessened the food-transportations a good deal. Large-scale import of exotic fruits for example hinders earth-reforms, homegrown fruits and food-security. Add to that the enjoyment and social values of growing your own food. Mattias in northern Sweden

Philip Solman    
Vancouver  |  August, 06, 2012 at 10:44 AM

The giant corporations of the industrial food system don't want people to grow their own food, or in any way rebuild communities around food. They know that a population that actually knows more about food, will not swallow the very profitable, heavily marketed crap they sell. Urban agriculture threatens them, not because it can replace rural agriculture (unlike the writer, I have met no-one who claims it can), but because it helps to educate and inform the massive urban populace about what real food is, and why it should be valued. The 'feeding the world' talk is pure spin. Industrial agriculture has created way more crops, but has patently failed to feed the world. You don't feed the world by growing massive excesses of environmentally damaging commodity crops, then dumping them in foreign markets, which drives local farmers out of business. Urban farming is not THE answer, but it is part of the answer, and for this reason it will continue and grow. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win. - Ganghi (I think!)

Houston, TX  |  August, 22, 2012 at 10:52 AM

What a strange article. I'm really stumped by what the message was here. It betrays a shocking lack of experience with the real world. The author also seems to completely deny the possibility of cultural change, as if the hobbies and interests of the population are entirely stagnant. The greatest short term potential for urban farming in North America has always been to increase the consumption of fresh produce in cities, particularly in places where it is commonly unavailable. In food deserts, the simple prospect of throwing a handful mustard seeds in a makeshift container with whatever kind of medium is available would provide fresh greens in places where a true fresh market might be impossible to access or pay for. For the cost of a single family-size box of pre- washed salad mix, I could easily grow several baskets worth of whatever greens were appropriate for the season. At least for the moment, no one is suggesting that we can grow the vast quantities of grains and legumes that our diets depend on on city rooftops. But vegetables? It's almost comical that the author ignores the many, many developments in container gardening that have made his objections about concrete and irrigation irrelevant. Seriously, an article disparaging urban gardening in a magazine for professional agriculture? It's nails on a chalkboard cliche.

Canada  |  January, 09, 2013 at 10:56 AM

While I don't agree at all with Hladik, I do wonder just what portion of inner city folk could be bothered with food gardening, even with much help and encouragement. The demographics have changed greatly, and I don't think the present bunch are that interested in growing things. If they were, they'd cobble together the resources for at least a small garden. The number of citizens doing this is small. In Africa, some populations are given seed,equipment and supervision, and their gardens do well. Remove the constant supervision and assistance, and it goes to h*ll.

CT  |  April, 09, 2013 at 12:47 PM

Wyandotte-- In your estimation, are "inner city folk", aka " the present bunch" homogenous in their views about farming/gardening? If so, that's a pretty blanket statement.

san miguel de allende, mexico  |  June, 20, 2014 at 03:15 PM

I agree with many of the comments. I had my own urban agriculture business in in the late 90's through the 2000's, before it got popular. I retrofitted homes with drip irrigation systems, rainwater catchment and greywater that was diverted to the garden. San Francisco has mandatory composting. It's a joke to think that topsoil is being taken from productive farmland for urban hobby gardens. Most bagged soil is byproduct of industrial organic waste from poultry and municipal composting to name just two. Bad journalism.

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