Changes Ahead In Urban Agriculture
By Geoff Wilson
International Conference and Exhibition on Soilless Culture Singapore
September 5 to 8, 2005
Up until the new Millennium urban agriculture was generally regarded as being the production of food in urban and peri-urban (city fringe) areas.
It was also mostly an activity of less developed nations, where expanding urban populations sought to grow food on any scrap of land that could be used.
This is the urban agriculture perceived by the United Nations Development Programme at the Rio conference in 1992 to be deserving of a non-government organisation to provide a network for urban agriculture professionals of various kinds.
The Urban Agriculture Network, of which I am part, is one of the outcomes from that Rio conference, albeit several years later.
The perception and facts then, and now, are that urban agriculture for the less fortunate still needs encouragement in order to provide greater food security.
It is mostly focused on using soils.
But it is also true that the more affluent nations also need urban agriculture for a better diet and lifestyle - and to focus much of it on soilless culture - in hydroponics and aquaponics that recycles urban organic wastes.
While urban agriculture has been practiced for many years in the developed nations on "common" land and in allotments or suburban backyards, there is a higher-technology underpinning now being given to it that goes well beyond soil-grown food.
Urban agriculture in developed countries, such as Singapore, now has expanding options in:
- Hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics. Indeed, aquaponics - the merging of aquaculture and hydroponics is destined, I believe the become one of the most important food production technologies suited to a world that has changed as a result of desertification and population pressures -- and a world that will change again under the pressure of climate change. Peri-urban (or city fringe) farms on poor land that utilize both inorganic and organic hydroponics can be expected to capitalize on a widening interest by people in buying fresh food locally - to enjoy seasonal changes or regional food specialties.
- Use of rooftops, the sides of buildings and the spaces in between. -- as part of green roofs - for food, climate modification, water harvesting, better insulation of buildings and a new source of rental income for building owners. These are all important factors underpinning higher-technology urban agriculture that will help create a totally new system of food security for many countries - especially those which are experiencing rapid urbanization and loss of productive farmlands close by. Singapore is an important case study in this.
- Inside buildings through the diversion of sunlight. Built-environment design is already using diverted sunlight for better internal natural lighting for reduction of energy; it's next target is hydroponics and aquaponics that can be practiced for visual pleasure of viewing plants and animals inside, and in food production systems within homes and commercial buildings.
- Underground - or in basements. Hydroponics and aquaponics underground can be expected to become an important part of urban agriculture's advance in improving the "liveability" of expanding underground systems throughout many cities.
- Around coastal areas of cities, on lakes and rivers, using innovative and efficient raceways and floating tanks that can harvest fish wastes for shore-based organic hydroponics. Australian technology on display at this conference makes this point.
- Integration with homes and integration with restaurants and food service establishments. Both hydroponic and aquaponic technologies are likely to become part of the future design of residential buildings, utilizing control technologies to ensure that food production is not a chore, but allows fullest food security to individuals - both in quantity of food produced, and its provision of good nutrition and social enjoyment.
Last April I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Kellogg Foundation's "Food and Society" conference and workshops staged this year in the United States.
I also was invited to participate in the third annual Green Roofs conference of North America soon afterwards.
The two conferences led me to conclude that future urban agriculture will be an even more important part of the changing world in which concepts such as "Slow Food," the reduction of "Food Miles" and recycling of organic nutrients within cities, and use of urban rooftops for food production will be responses by individuals and municipal authorities to such things as:
- Climate change - and all it will mean in harm to our existing food farming systems. Hydroponic and aquaponic systems with minimal water use but maximum organic matter recycling, will become vital.
- The obesity epidemic - which has, if you think about it, is firmly rooted in production of many inappropriate foods for good health.
- A search for better values and lifestyles.
- Unprecedented global urbanization - reducing areas of good soils available for farming that has minimal energy cost in transport. The world is currently about 50% urban-living; within 20 years it is expected to be 60% urban-living.
Food currently produced generally by large-scale agriculture often fails to provide healthy diets for humankind, and keeps many farmers and farm workers in many countries in the interlinked bondage of low prices and low wages.
In place of much "industrialized" agriculture food production can be expected to move towards myriad seasonal or regional polycultures of appropriate plants and animals in urban and periurban areas, or on farms within short distances of where people live.
I also believe that a most important innovation for global urban agriculture lies in global biotechnology in current development typified by an Australian company, BioChip Innovations Pty Ltd (BCI).
At the conference of the Aquaculture Association of Queensland two weeks ago the BCI Chief Executive Officer, Dr Graeme Barnett said the company is working on a rapid DNA-array test kit that will allow a laboratory, and in time a fish or a plant farmer, to test for the presence of any one of a 1,000 diseases in a sample, and obtain a result in less than 1 to 2 hours -- for less than A$25 a test.
This kind of advance in disease identification ad fast, accurate treatment has enormous implications for:
- Better management of all urban food production.
- Improved administration of urban health regulations aimed at disease control and minimisation of food contamination.
- Maintaining clean urban water supplies, especially when roofwater is harvested and grey or black water is renovated.
- Food quality assurance in marketing and retailing food produced from urban farms.
The low-cost, and fast DNA array testing will be an enormously useful tool for the world's animal and plant breeders, and to importers and exporters of food.
Rooftop greening and rooftop food production are likely to become interlinked parts of post-Kyoto Treaty agreements of many nations moving in unison.
I think it is now obvious that these twin technologies can be expected to play a big role in creating an advanced soilless culture of food that brings aquaculture into a vital synergy with horticulture based on recycling urban organic wastes currently polluting waterways and seas --- and contributing the Greenhouse gas, methane, to the problem of global climate change.
Foreseeable urban agriculture based on existing advances in science and technology will thus contribute greatly to humankind's sustainable future.
But it is also important that we also continue this gift to our children, grandchildren, and the yet to be born, through continued scientific advances that take hydroponics and aquaponics much further down the path to substantial nutrient recycling within our expanding cities.
It is my belief that the City State of Singapore could be the first city of the world to achieve this desirable objective.
I hope that history yet to be written proves me right.
Background on Geoff Wilson:
Geoff Wilson has been a food and agriculture journalist and communicator since graduating from agricultural college in 1958. He has written for most rural newspapers and magazines in Australia and New Zealand since then, and for newspapers and magazines in Asia, Europe and the United States. He currently writes on aquaculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, aeroponics, probiotics, urban agriculture and microfarming for "Aquaponics Journal" (US) and "Fish Farming International" (UK). Wilson is now launching "UrbanAg Online" with colleagues in the United States, Canada and Singapore. It will be an urban agriculture news service to about 2,000 editors and journalists around the world. For 10 years to the late 1980s Wilson was agribusiness contributing columnist for "The Age" daily newspaper in Melbourne. He was managing editor of "Australian Dairy Foods" magazine for 12 years and "Caseus" the cheese magazine for 2 years; managed and edited "Australian Forest Grower" magazine for 8 years, and "Riverlander" magazine for two years (these being concurrent activities in freelance journalism and publishing during the 1970s and 1980s). He also worked in South East Asian countries on food industry and forest industry magazines such as "Asia Pacific Forest Industries" and "Asia Pacific Food Industries" (living in Singapore). He is President of the Urban Agriculture Network Inc - Western Pacific. The parent organization was established under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1996, and operates as an NGO from Washington DC. Wilson is now Australia's representative on a group of 16 national organisations moving to set up an international Green Roofs organisation, and is convening both the establishment of Green Roofs for Healthy Australian Cities and Aquaponics Association Australia for urban enthusiasts. Wilson is a committee member of the Aquaculture Association of Queensland.
Disclosure: Geoff Wilson is a foundation shareholder in BioChips Innovations, an Australian startup company with research and production links to the University of Queensland.
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