Crops take root in un­likely city spa­ces

Ur­ban farm­ing could pro­duce 180m tonnes of food glob­ally, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOSH JA­COBS, FT COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Paris is giv­ing a new mean­ing to lo­cal food as in­gre­di­ents that usu­ally travel hun­dreds of miles bloom in the heart of the city. Straw­ber­ries sprout in­side a ship­ping con­tainer near the fi­nance min­istry, en­dives grow un­der­ground in a for­mer park­ing lot pre­vi­ously plagued by drug deal­ers and pros­ti­tu­tion, and curly kale is be­ing har­vested on the rooftops of chic depart­ment stores

Paris is giv­ing a new mean­ing to lo­cal food as in­gre­di­ents that usu­ally travel hun­dreds of miles bloom in the heart of the city. Straw­ber­ries sprout in­side a ship­ping con­tainer near the fi­nance min­istry, en­dives grow un­der­ground in a for­mer park­ing lot pre­vi­ously plagued by drug deal­ers and pros­ti­tu­tion, and curly kale is be­ing har­vested on the rooftops of chic depart­ment stores.

These are a few of the dozens of farms open­ing in im­prob­a­ble places across the French cap­i­tal, many of them sup­ported by its city hall. The mayor, Anne Hi­dalgo, is leas­ing pub­lic land at re­duced rates to agri­cul­tural busi­nesses and has pledged to turn 30ha of the city into ur­ban farms by 2020.

Paris’s agri­cul­tur­al­ists are part of a global trend of city farms pro­lif­er­at­ing in re­cent years, from the Lon­don start-up sell­ing salad leaves grown in a sec­ond world war bomb shel­ter to the New York un­der­ground farms pro­duc­ing herbs for lux­ury restau­rants.

But are such ef­forts merely a fad for the lo­cal food move­ment or, as some ad­vo­cates hope, could in­ner city agri­cul­ture rev­o­lu­tionise how we feed the world’s me­trop­o­lises and re­duce cli­mate change?

“Grow­ing food with­out fields is a clear so­lu­tion to re­li­ably feed the planet of to­mor­row,” says Guil­laume Four­dinier, who co-founded Agri­cool, which grows straw­ber­ries in ship­ping con­tain­ers and opened its first Paris site in 2015.

Mr Four­dinier and his busi­ness part­ner, Gon­zague Gru, are both farm­ers’ sons and wanted the fresh berries they had en­joyed as chil­dren in north­ern France — but in cities and through­out the year. So they re­fit­ted steel ship­ping con­tain­ers with hy­dro­pon­ics and LED lights to grow fruit with­out sun­light.

To­day they pro­duce straw­ber­ries in four con­tain­ers around Paris.

Each yields about seven tonnes of straw­ber­ries a year, they say, most of which is sold to Mono­prix, a French re­tail chain.

Mr Four­dinier says ur­ban farms could be par­tic­u­larly use­ful in places with poor agri­cul­tural cli­mates, such as Dubai, where Agri­cool’s first con­tainer out­side France opened in June.

“We can grow fruits [in cities] any­where,” he says. “In China. In the desert.”

A few miles from Agri­cool’s orig­i­nal site, in Paris’s hip Marais district, an­other com­pany is go­ing fur­ther. On the roof of the BHV depart­ment store is a 600 sq m ver­ti­cal farm, which opened last year and now pro­duces straw­ber­ries, toma­toes, wheat, goji berries and sage, among other things.

This is one of 10 farms around the city set up by Sous Les Fraises (Un­der the Straw­ber­ries), since it was founded in 2014, in­clud­ing on top of Ga­leries Lafayette, the fa­mous Paris depart­ment store.

Yohan Hu­bert, Sous Les Fraises’ founder, aims not just to re­duce food miles. He says ur­ban farms will also make cities more at­trac­tive and cre­ate a clean en­ergy cy­cle that both re­cy­cles food waste and wa­ter and ab­sorbs car­bon diox­ide.

Some aca­demics have pointed to ur­ban farms’ po­ten­tial down­falls, es­pe­cially in­door farms that use a lot of elec­tric­ity and ar­ti­fi­cial light. Louis Al­bright, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of bi­o­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing at Cor­nell Univer­sity ex­plained in a 2014 lec­ture how some “pie in the sky” ver­ti­cal farms may use more en­ergy and have higher car­bon foot­prints than traditional meth­ods.

Let­tuces grown in ver­ti­cal in­door farms in New York pro­duced more than three times more car­bon diox­ide than green­house farms out­side the city be­cause of light­ing costs alone, he found, and toma­toes even more. The car­bon emis­sions from grow­ing 4,000 heads of let­tuce in an in­door farm in New York would be equiv­a­lent to the an­nual emis­sions of a pas­sen­ger car.

Paris’s agri­cul­tural en­trepreneurs are un­de­terred, and in­sist that projects can use re­new­able elec­tric­ity to re­duce their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. Some, such as Mr Hu­bert, say you can’t com­pare like­for-like en­ergy use be­cause of the so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits brought by city farms, such as re­cy­cling waste wa­ter, ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple on the source of their food and cre­at­ing ur­ban jobs.

Péné­lope Komitès, the city’s deputy mayor, re­spon­si­ble for green spa­ces, also in­sists that there are mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits. She says ur­ban farms have never sought to make Paris self-suf­fi­cient for food but be­lieves they will be of huge ben­e­fit to cities if they ex­pand in the right way.

“We are at the be­gin­ning of a new farm­ing cul­ture,” she says. “How­ever, we must not do this to the detri­ment of traditional farm­ing.” Ms Komitès adds that “ur­ban farms are not gim­micks”, but a “trend that will keep spread­ing” around the world.

A study this year by re­searchers at five uni­ver­si­ties in the US and China, as well as Google, sug­gests she could be right. One of the first at­tempts to sys­tem­at­i­cally an­a­lyse the global im­pacts of city farm­ing, us­ing satel­lite imag­ing and pop­u­la­tion and weather data, it es­ti­mates the prac­tice could be­come a $160bn in­dus­try if farms ex­pand across the world’s cities. The re­searchers see par­tic­u­lar po­ten­tial in the grow­ing cities of Africa and Asia.

The pos­si­bil­i­ties go be­yond prof­its or even re­duc­ing food miles. The re­searchers say ur­ban farm­ing could pro­duce up to 180m tonnes of food each year — about 10 per cent of the world’s pulses, roots and veg­eta­bles — cre­ate new homes for pest-eat­ing preda­tors, re­duce flood­ing and could re­duce elec­tric­ity use by low­er­ing city tem­per­a­tures dur­ing the sum­mer. Soil on rooftops can pro­vide in­su­la­tion that keeps build­ings cooler with­out the need for air-con­di­tion­ing.

“Ur­ban agri­cul­ture is not go­ing to re­place the traditional food sys­tem,” says Matei Ge­orgescu, a co-au­thor of the study and pro­fes­sor of ge­o­graph­i­cal sciences at Ari­zona State Univer­sity. How­ever, it may well re­place part of our food sys­tem, he says, and ben­e­fit the en­vi­ron­ment in the process.

“Grow­ing food with­out fields is a clear so­lu­tion to re­li­ably feed the planet of to­mor­row,” says Guil­laume Four­dinier, who co­founded Agri­cool, which grows straw­ber­ries in ship­ping con­tain­ers and opened its first Paris site in 2015

Paris mayor Anne Hi­dalgo has pledged to turn 30ha of the city into ur­ban farms by 2020

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