February 2, 2024: As urban farming gains momentum as a solution to environmental and health challenges, a recent international collaboration delves into the carbon footprint of these agricultural ventures. While touted as sustainable and eco-friendly, the study reveals a nuanced reality, emphasizing the critical role of infrastructure, crop choice, and waste management in determining the environmental impact of urban farms.
In the quest for sustainable food sources and climate-friendly practices, urban farming has emerged as a potential panacea. The belief in its capacity to reduce energy consumption, cut carbon footprints, and provide a ready source of organic food, however, is met with some skepticism. The comprehensive study measured the emissions from various urban farms, shedding light on the true sustainability of this agricultural trend.
Tracking the carbon footprint of urban farms is no easy feat, as most urban farming is a mix of local cooperative gardens, back yard home gardens, vertical farms on buildings and small-scale farms located within cities. To overcome this challenge, researchers collaborated with individual farms in France, Germany, Poland, the UK, and the US, ensuring accurate data on materials and practices.
The results show an average serving from an urban farm was associated with 0.42 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents, while traditional produce emitted only 0.07 kg per serving, indicating urban farms, on average, contribute six times more emissions.
Actual performance of urban farms
However, the study’s nuance lies in the details. Among the 73 urban farms studied, 17 outperformed traditional agriculture in terms of carbon emissions. Excluding the highest-emitting farm, the median emissions from urban farms approached the 0.07 kg per serving mark.
The type of crop proved to be a significant factor. For instance, tomatoes, known for their resource-intensive cultivation and rapid shipping requirements, demonstrated lower emissions from urban farms (0.17 kg per serving) compared to conventional farming (0.27 kg per serving).
Surprisingly, the intentions of farm operators had little impact on emissions. Even organizations with a clear mission to reduce environmental impact or those employing eco-friendly measures, such as installing solar panels, did not necessarily fare better in keeping emissions low.
Infrastructure helping urban produce
The study identified the two major influencers that determined emissions – infrastructure and waste management. Infrastructure accounted for the largest share of carbon emissions at small urban farm sites, emphasizing the importance of upcycling materials and efficient construction practices. Additionally, utilizing urban waste for farming consumables, particularly through effective composting, played a crucial role in emissions reduction.
Careful planning, the study suggests, could make urban farms effective at mitigating carbon emissions associated with conventional agriculture. This involves optimizing infrastructure, implementing sustainable waste management practices, and focusing on crops with lower carbon footprints when grown in urban settings.
While some urban farms may lag in carbon emissions compared to traditional agriculture, the study underscores that even the worst-performing produce from urban farms is significantly more environmentally friendly than traditional methods.
Social capital and urban farms
Another additional advantage that is seen is the social function provided by the many cooperative gardens, such as after-school programs and informal classes, which add to social capital beyond the environmental impact.
The study shows that the road to sustainable urban farming involves a commitment to best practices, strategic crop choices, and innovative approaches to infrastructure and waste management, ultimately shaping a greener and healthier urban agricultural landscape.
The study can be accessed here.