COMMENTARY: Urban farming is an urban myth

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.