The Green Side of Urban Agriculture

The author of this post is Taylor Schuweiler, a junior Biology and Environmental Science major at the University of St. Thomas.

In addition to expanding food production to help meet the needs of a growing population, urban agriculture has many other benefits. Urban agriculture has the potential to help offset environmental changes that have been caused by urbanization such as carbon emissions and nutrient cycling imbalance. In addition to providing people with fresh and local food, urban agriculture provides an opportunity to address environmental problems within our cities and try to improve our urban ecosystem.

Due to the large amount of transportation and industry that comes along with urbanization, cities are point sources of CO2. The top 20 largest cities in the U.S. produce more CO2 than the entire land area of the continental United States can even absorb (Grimm et al. 2008). This startling production of CO2 from cities is a concern as urban areas continue to grow. Urban agriculture has the potential to help with these concerns. Urban agriculture can help reduce net CO2 emissions by bringing food production and markets to the same location.

Taylor 1 1Minnesota is making the move to local agriculture. In Minnesota alone, there are 176 farmers markets selling local produce and other locally made products! In addition to farmers markets, urban farms such as Stone’s Throw ( are popping up around the Twin Cities that can reduce food transportation from thousands of miles to just a few blocks. By reducing the great distances that produce often travels, we are able to reduce transportation emissions (Deelstra and Girardet 2000).

In addition to the carbon emissions coming from our cities, it is important to keep in mind the nutrients we may be losing as well. In modern urban areas, nutrient cycling is not a circular process but rather a straight flow in and out of the city. Resources are continually funneled through cities with little thought as to where they are coming from or where they are going. This unsustainable nutrient cycle can be improved by urban agriculture through the recycling of food waste and water waste (Ackerman et al. 2014, Deelstra and Girardet 2000). Urban agriculture provides the opportunity for recycling food waste for use in compost which keeps the nutrients within the urban environment.

Taylor 1 2People in the Twin Cities are beginning to make the push for food recycling. Currently the United States only recycles about 3% of its food waste. In effort to improve that, Eureka Recycling has begun a zero-waste movement focused on bringing composting to St. Paul to reduce food waste (  The goal of the plan is to offer composting services to all St. Paul residents, either curbside or backyard, so that St. Paul may recycle or compost 75% of its waste. If all residents in St. Paul were to have access to food waste composting, we would be able to close the nutrient cycling and produce a large amount of nutrient-rich dirt to use for urban agriculture.

Together, the small environmental problems that urban areas face build up and put strain on urban ecosystems. Urban agriculture can help provide solutions to these problems and improve urban environments in addition to producing food for a growing population.

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Urban Agriculture: A Global Solution to Food Insecurity

This post is by Anisa Abdulkadir, a senior Biology major at the University of St. Thomas.

Currently, an estimated 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban cities (United Nations, 2014). This percentage is estimated to increase with growing urbanization. Consequently, city dwellers are no longer in touch with food production. Food travels extremely long distances, an estimated 1500 miles in the U.S before it arrives in grocery stores (Grewal & Grewal, 2012).

Bok choy on a 30-feet circulating A-frame in Singapore.

Bok choy on a 30-feet circulating A-frame in Singapore.

Although some may view it as a hippie trend, urban farming is proving to be a pragmatic method to solving food issues. Worldwide, a growing number of urban residents are turning to urban agriculture as a sustainable method of food production, bringing the farm closer to home.

For centuries, individuals and communities have been growing food in cities, leading to improved food security. A significant amount of urban farmers are producing food, which accounts for about 15-20 percent of the global food production (Milica, 2014).

Urban dwellers around the world are utilizing empty lots, backyards, and rooftops for food production. From Argentina to Japan, urban agriculture is playing an important role in food security. Some governments support urban food production (e.g. Argentina) and supply individuals with city lots to farm; while other governments are restricting urban farming for various reasons leading to the illegal farming on city owned land (e.g. Zimbabwe). Regardless, urban citizens all around the world are grasping the importance of food security and are willing to do anything to bring the farm closer to the city.

Some countries are utilizing an innovative approach to re-introduce farming to cities. For example, in Singapore, engineers have developed the world’s first commercial vertical farm to meet Singapore’s goals of food self-reliance (Krishnamurthy, 2015). These scaling “A” shaped vertical gardens are proving to be a feasible method of food production and a source of locally produced food.

On the other hand, Switzerland is taking another approach to produce food within the city. Using soil-less farming, the Swiss are utilizing aquaponics to produce vegetables and fish simultaneously. Roman Gaus and Andreas Graber have created rooftop aquaponics systems, which uses less water than traditional farming and no soil (Innovative Switzerland). By harnessing this relationship between plants and vegetables, they are able to produce tons of food and eliminate chemical fertilizers from food production.

While innovation may stimulate urban agriculture, in some countries, it emerged due to a lack of food on a national scale. Cuba is a prime example. Due to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost a major trade partner. Almost overnight, 2.2 million Cubans lost access to food (Clouse, 2014). To overcome this crisis, the Cuban government implemented a sustainable farming method. Residents used rural and urban land to produce millions of tons of food improving food access. Even to this day, Cuban national continue to farm urban land and ensure food reaches their tables.

Developing and developed alike, urban residents worldwide are utilizing urban space to subdue food insecurity. They are devising methods to grow food in their city homes by any means necessary. Governments and citizens alike are contributing to bring the farm closer to urban residents by implementing novel and traditional farming methods within the city.

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Farming What Works

The author of this post is UST senior Nick Cipoletti. The post is an assignment for BIOL 490 – Biology of Urban Agriculture. 

What remains crucial to the health of the global ecosystem is feeding the developing urban areas sustainably as they are projected to contain 95% of the global population growth (Grimm et al. 2008). It is often easy to provide a check-list of potential solutions when examining the potential to provide fresh produce to city settings through urban agriculture: install community gardens, reinforce industrial roofs to support rooftop aquaponic systems, or simply grow food on vacant lots. While these, among other, possibilities would assist in relieving the hunger found in food deserts in many urban areas, there needs to be further location specific solutions. So often it is the case that an individual finds a new technology or solution to a problem followed by uneducated statements claiming that their fix should be employed globally. Unfortunately for the practice of urban agriculture, there is not a one size fits all solution for each global urban area. Rather the potential to develop malleable solutions must be the central focus, installations that demonstrate change in response to location, climate, local food needs, and other urban agriculture parameters. Doing what works best for each region is more crucial than attempting to employ large scale semi-efficient solutions.

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, NY grows produce on 2.5 acres of commercial rooftop space

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, NY grows produce on 2.5 acres of commercial rooftop space

The local needs of a community or region must be addressed when examining the proper methods by which to establish urban agriculture. Thus the real struggle with urban agriculture, in whatever form it takes, is adapting best management practices to maximize both the profitability and resilience. In Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, urban agriculture was necessary to feed the country’s residents while also providing work for its inhabitants. Cuba farmed out of necessity and learned to adapt by growing food in nearly every urban vacant space, not only providing for their people but also doing so sustainably with minimal environmental impacts (Clouse, 2014). In Cleveland, Grewal & Grewal (2012) demonstrated that by adapting the most beneficial urban ag practices (a combination of vacant lot farming, personal lot farming, and commercial rooftop farming) to the area, the city can generate somewhere between 4.2%-17.7% (by weight) of its total food needs. Examples exist all across the world, bringing food to impoverished areas while acting in accordance with the resources and the location specific parameters. The Brooklyn Grange (pictured) grows food on 2.5 acres of rooftop in Brooklyn, NY. By producing local food the farm is able to feed the cities inhabitants while also absorbing city storm water to

Urban Organics, St. Paul, MN grows both produce and fish in an old brewery through aquaponics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, MN grows both produce and fish in an old brewery through aquaponics

lighten the load on the sewer infrastructure. By using the available space, what little exists in New York, the rooftops can be productive for multiple groups: citizens, the economy, and the sewer system. More locally Urban Organics (pictured) in St. Paul, MN takes advantage of indoor growing to avoid the unproductive winter season through aquaponics in which produce is grown with just 2% of the water necessary for conventional agriculture (Shemkus, 2014). By taking advantage of old/adandoned real estate and filling the existing markets with local and fresh produce, cities and local organizations such as Urban Organics and the Brooklyn Grange are capable of thriving based on location-specific demands to the urban agriculture market.


Urban agriculture has the potential to work in all city settings, be it through indoor growing, rooftop gardens, greenhouses, or some combination of other innovative production avenues. As described by Ackerman et al. (2014), cities have one of the highest potentials for agriculture due to the value which inhabitants place on the land. City dwellers recognize that land is a premium in urban settings, and by seeking to maximize the output of all land through agricultural innovation, cities can achieve higher levels of productivity as well as economic gain. Through an approach aimed at developing solutions that can be molded to meet the needs of specific locations, urban agriculture can play a more central role in providing nourishment to the majority of the world’s inhabitants.

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Can organic agriculture feed the world?

This post is an assignment for BIOL 490 – Biology of Urban Agriculture. The author is UST junior Parker Hewes.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

As humanity’s population expands exponentially, food is one common good that will always be required. Despite the availability of a McDonald’s on every New York street corner, food is not so common in many countries of the world. Currently, a billion people are chronically malnourished; bluntly, starving (Foley et al. 2011). With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, food production must double in order to sustain our rapid expansion (Foley et al. 2011). While increasing production by maximizing crop yields (intensification) and increasing cropland area (extensification) are inevitably required, reducing food waste, changing diet, refining sustainable technologies, and improving the quality of food are also vitally important for the sustainability and nourishment of our world and species. One proposed solution points to organic agriculture.

Parker 1 2Organic agriculture contends with conventional agriculture in regards to waste management, biodiversity retention, soil nutrition, and overall environmental impacts. Although the organic market has been gaining popularity among wealthy consumers, the concerns with organic farming seem to have been lost with all the hype. Namely, in regards to the global food crisis, the feasibility of organic agriculture is questioned. Even though the organic method may seem viable on a local scale, agricultural solutions should be targeting global impacts (Markowski et al. 2014). It is easy to support organic practices that seem practical at a small scale since starvation is often far removed from the areas where organic agriculture is thriving. However, when applying these methods on a global scale, a more in-depth investigation is required. Consequently, while organic farming presents a more sustainable approach to agriculture, some say that it may be most effective as a fringe activity for the wealthy, occupying only a fraction of worldwide production (dePonti et al. 2012).

Granted, if organic methods make a significant impact on even the smallest of scales, there must be some transferability toward a worldwide solution. Organic techniques such as composting, drip irrigation, crop rotation, increasing cropland biodiversity, and restricting pesticide and herbicide use significantly benefit environmental aspects that conventional agriculture has exploited (Cavigelli et al. 2013). Through organic agriculture, we have seen a significant decrease in soil runoff, soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, water and nutrient waste, biodiversity loss, and overall environmental impact (Pimentel et al. 2005). Consequently, the general public sees that a healthier, locally grown crop has been produced and is willing to pay higher prices for the “freshness and quality” of organic products. Since organic agriculture is still developing, the demand for these products enables inflated prices compared to the products of supersized agribusinesses. But what would happen if organic agriculture began replacing conventional farmland?

Considering yield statistics alone, if global agriculture shifted to primarily organic methods, the demands of an exponentially increasing population would require even greater efforts to intensify and expand production. The average yield of organic crops is 80% of the average conventional yield (dePonti et al. 2012). Furthermore, pesticides and herbicides success increases, the yield gap between conventional and organic agriculture increases, since organic methods have fewer successful methods for pest and disease control. Consequently, organic agriculture must occupy more land in order to account for the gap. Also, since we must see a 100% increase in food production by 2050 and projected conventional agriculture yields do not meet this criteria (Ray et al. 2013), the land requirement to increase organic yields is even greater. Finally, if the land used for human crops increases, the land used for livestock and for growing their feed must decrease. If a dietary shift does not happen voluntarily, it will be a necessity under organic agriculture’s rule (dePonti et al. 2012). And since organic agriculture relies on manure for natural fertilization, as livestock production decreases, that manure will soon become a limiting variable (Connor et al. 2013).

In order to sustain ecosystem services and our expanding population, decreasing environmental impacts must be emphasized as much as improving yields. By creating a hybridized method that includes the successes of each method, a temporary solution may be applicable. With organic agriculture’s environmental prowess and conventional agriculture’s elimination of pests and diseases, the methods that are already present in agriculture may provide the knowledge for future advancement. Albeit, extensive research is required to motivate the necessary technological and educational advances, but each small improvement in food production is a step towards global food security. With a unified, global effort, these efforts will maximize our impact for the world and minimize our impact on it.

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Can sustainable food lead to sustainability overall?

What is the route to get people thinking about sustainability? If we could answer this question, then maybe we could direct our efforts more towards that route and we could get ourselves moving in the direction of sustainability a little bit faster.

I would like to propose that food is the route we want to take, the one that will have the greatest impact. Through this route of food, I believe the economy will begin to change with it. There are many other factors that are going to have to change to see a sustainable economy, but I would like to argue that food is the perfect place to start.

Many people point to means of transportations such driving less, flying less, using public transportation. Other people say that people need to buy less or live simpler, maybe even self-sufficient lives. While still others suggest moving to renewable energy sources is the solution to the problem. These are good, but I think they all pose strong obstacles with little incentive to motivate the majority of people to consider their ecological footprint in these ways. They only experience the inconveniences and don’t see the benefits anywhere in the near future. These will each come with time, but I think food is the way to get the wheels turning in people’s heads to think about sustainability and how their actions have a great effect on the world we live in.

With this blog I would like to show why food is the best route to sustainability over all. There are two points I am going to use to make my point. First, food is central to every person, and secondly, food plays a huge role in our economy and environment and therefore, plays a crucial role in transforming our unsustainable world into a sustainable one. The economy plays a huge role in this transformation towards sustainability and food markets can even begin to change other markets in the economy.

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The Looming Risks of Climate Change

The climate is changing and with these changes come risks.  Risks that factories and homes will be destroyed by flooding, droughts will result in lost crops, sea levels will consume the homes of many humans and species, and many other possible outcomes.  Given the potential losses due to climate change and severity of these events, something must be done to prevent further climate change.  Risk management is a tool which helps individuals, communities, corporations, and governments to understand the implications that climate change has on the future and how each person will experience the negative consequences of these changes.

One way to asses risk is to analyze the impacts of exposure and probability of an event occurring.  In the case of climate change, exposure and vulnerability greatly vary depending on the region and society involved.  Measuring exposure involves analyzing how much a community, country, or world has to lose if the climate continues to change.  Events such as droughts, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and other climate-related disasters all impact a communities ability to produce goods and shelter for the people living in the area and those who rely on the resources provided.

After analyzing potential risks, the next step in risk management is examining how to manage these risks.  One option would be to avoid the risk altogether; however, humans have already been depleting the earth’s fossil fuels, emitting carbon, and interacting harmfully with the environment for many years.  Thus, we cannot avoid climate change because it is already happening.  Another option is to transfer or share in this risk; however, the whole world is affected by climate change, and no outside party has the ability to take on the risk of climate change.  Thirdly, one could accept the risk, but this option would allow for negative outcomes such as rising sea levels, droughts, and other disasters to continue to become bigger and more frequent due to the negative interactions between humans and the environment.  As a result, simply accepting the risk of climate change creates a bigger risk.  Through approaching the risk of climate change by working to reduce the probability and impacts of negative climate change, human beings can work to reduce the economic and ecological costs of climate related disasters.

As sea levels rise and ocean waters warm, species who depend on these ecosystems for food and shelter will suffer.  Likewise, people who depend on these ecosystems for food or income (such as fishing) will feel the negative impacts of climate change.  Additionally, the species and humans who live in coastal areas face the risk of rising sea levels overtaking their homes and habitats.  Here, we see the large exposure humans and animals have to the risk of ocean change.  Once this impact has been analyzed, we see how climate change affects the world here and now because both depend on the environment to survive.  Unless communities and humanity at large work to lessen human interaction (such as living) along delicate areas such as coast lines, then we are only increasing the probability of climate change.

Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, uses risk management to work to prevent negative climate change, and they encourage others to do the same.  With insurance contracts all over the world, Munich Re understands how they are exposed to a large amount of the climate interruptions resulting from climate change.  Once Munich Re began to understand the magnitude of their exposure to the negative consequences of climate change, they established a program called RENT (Renewable Energy and New Technology) which works to develop – and insure- new energy technologies which do not rely on fossil fuels.  When new technologies or projects are created, those projects need insurance and warranty coverage in order for investors to manage the risk of a potential downfall; however, with limited loss data on these new technologies, insurance companies may hesitate to work with such technologies.  Nevertheless, Munich Re has taken an active role in working with energy companies to provide insurance and warranty coverage so that potential investors have a backing on their investments.  By providing such warranties and insurance options, Munich Re allows for energy companies -and investors- to create new technologies such as solar and wind energy.  In doing so, Munich Re has recognized their exposure to the negative consequences of climate change and has begun to work to lower the probability of a disaster by developing and investing in energy that would reduce carbon emissions and not deplete the earth’s finite source of fossil fuels.

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Ecotourism: Beneficial or Destructive to the Environment?

Shannon 1Ecotourism is a form of tourism that was developed to be mutually beneficial for the environment and the local people living in the area. There are many definitions of ecotourism but one of the most widely used definitions is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Ecotourism destinations are built on five main principles: minimizing the environmental impact of tourism, building environmental and cultural awareness, providing direct financial benefits for conservation, providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people, and raising sensitivity to the host country’s cultural, political, social, and environmental climate. Ecotourism is a way for the local community to benefit financially for conserving their environment.

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