There is a movement underway that may revolutionise farming.
Nicole Buckler reports.
Currently we think of farming as something farmers do, out in the countryside, in wellies up to their thighs. Then trucks come along and disperse their produce far and wide, sometimes even to the other side of the world via cargo plane. Maybe it is time for a new way of thinking when it comes to food distribution.
Very soon, there will be 9 billion people in the world. That’s a hell of a lot of people to feed. And not only are there a lot of us, we are moving: to cities. So not only do we have to feed loads more people, we have to chase them into the city to distribute their food to them. The average vegetable has travelled 2000 miles to get to the local store in the USA, and the statistics are similar in other countries, including the EU. This all seems a bit long-winded and slightly daft. The solution in simple terms then is to move the food production to where the people are: in the big smoke. To do this, we need to get some new ideas quickly if we are going to feed everyone, as we will need 100 per cent more food than we make now in the coming years.
So how do we do this? The solution, already offered by some folks in big cities, is that we farm in urban areas.
This is not a new idea. People have been farming in urban areas for some time now in places like Cuba, where it has developed from necessity rather than as a hobby. This came about in Cuba due to fuel shortages. Such shortages meant that the transport system failed and farmers could not get their produce to market – people went hungry while food rotted. To this day in Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce come from local urban farms and gardens. While the fuel crisis might be over, people never went back to the risky old ways, and they remained urban farmers.
Cuba is a long way from Europe and the United States. However the idea can be applied anywhere. And the man who wants to make urban farming accessible to everyone, no matter where they are, is Roman Gaus.
At a fresh 32 years of age, Gaus has run the gauntlet of corporate career to social entrepreneur and then to urban farmer. A native of Switzerland, Guas enjoyed a short but steep career with companies such as Procter & Gamble, Novartis and Franke Group in the States. But he was still hung up on an idea he had seen during his time in the USA – that of urban farming.
Back in Switzerland, Roman did some investigating and discovered that the technology needed to create modern urban farms was available and ready to go. The Swiss-engineered technology was called Aquaponic; a combination of fish and vegetable farming, ideally suited to grow organic food, without soil, in the city. More or less, it is a large green house, combined with a fish tank.
The fish fertilise the plants with their poop and the plants clean the water so the fish live happily. Both the fish and the veges grow organically, quickly, and provide the owners of such “tanks” with organic clean fresh food every day. These smallish systems can be installed anywhere from your roof to your back garden.
After putting all of these ideas together, Gaus, wanting to make an economic, social and ecological impact, founded UrbanFarmers AG. It is a pioneering spin-off from the University of Applied Sciences in Wädenswil that aims to bring sustainable urban agricultural practices into cities of the 21st century.
Says Gaus, “Roof farming is not new, in fact it is springing up everywhere from Brooklyn to Cuba. The Urbanfarmers system is very efficient. It uses about 90% less water than conventional agriculture. This is all about self-sufficiency. A family can live on this system completely. Our vision and aspiration is to provide a lot of food as urban farmers for a lot of people.”
A pilot project in the city of Basel was built, and it was a roaring success. Urbanfarmers realised that they can grow about 5 tonnes of vegetables and about 800kgs of fish every year. Says Gaus, “It is food for 100 people on just one otherwise unused rooftop. In the city of Basel alone, there are 2 million square metres of idle rooftop space. And using just 5% of that would yield harvest for 40,000 people. So there is a lot of potential to grow food in the city. The time is right to consider food security. We are at a tipping point, the environment can not be scaled, we need to think of better solutions, so the next time you see an empty roof, think about the fresh food it could produce.”
It is the promise of a total change for the better that makes urban agriculture so exciting. A city could grow potentially enough food in the city to feed its entire population. It’s healthier, more convenient, and it requires little or no transport of the produce. And most importantly, it provides food security in case truckers couldn’t get their stuff to cities.
So now that we know that the experiments have worked, how will Urbanfarmers package and sell this to the average Jo with an empty roof or free garden space? They make the tank SEXY. And they are well on the way to this. With their design and product strategy partner Conceptual Devices, they have developed a unique geodesic rooftop farm design structure. It is built using natural, renewable materials such as bamboo for its central structural elements. One globe could feed a family of 4 with fresh fish and vegetables, salads and herbs, all year round. If you had one of these gadgets in your garden, you could produce anything from broccoli and Swiss chard in the winter to tomatoes and eggplant in the summer. And even better news is that you wouldn’t have to go to the supermarket and deal with that trolley with the dodgy wheel.
The geodesic-dome design allows the heavy fish tank to rest on the frame of the greenhouse. This redistributes the weight to a larger surface, so the aquaponic farm can be housed on more roofs without any structural building adaptation.
The globe will be self-sufficient energy-wise, so you won’t have to worry about a big old power bill choking up your finances. At the moment, each dome will cost the same as a small family car. But like anything that gets a mass market, these will become cheaper as they become more in demand. And think about how much money you spend at the supermarket? Say you spend €200 euro a week on groceries, by the end of the year you would have spent over €10,000. However if you bought a dome, in a few years the dome would have paid for itself and after that it is all money saving. So as long as the dome keeps producing for you, you won’t have to brave the supermarket queue while your children pull things out of the shelves and embarrass you. You will just be able to wander out into your garden or onto your roof, and get a selection of delicious veges and fish for your dinner. You will, however have to learn how to gut a fish!
For now, UrbanFarmers have shown us that farming on rooftops is both viable and profitable. Hopefully, all of our cities will have farms on the rooftops, and we can have fresh fish and produce whenever we like. Is anyone else hungry?