Revolutionising Food Production: Reflections on my URSS Project.
Under the supervision of Rosemary Collier, I completed a URSS project this summer
exploring urban farming. I spent several weeks interviewing both traditional and urban
farmers, culminating in a zine, a PowerPoint presentation at the International Conference of
Undergraduate Research, and hopefully a research paper.
‘Urban farming’ is a term which can be interpreted in any number of ways, but as a general
term is pretty self-explanatory - food production which occurs in urban areas. It is an
agricultural movement which is steadily increasing in popularity within the UK and beyond,
taking on a variety of different forms: from small-scale community gardens to massive indoor
industrial units. It has been both hailed as a silver bullet for the agricultural industry and
critiqued and dissected by dissenters and its proponents vary from staunchly pro-capitalist
entrepreneurs to anarchist cooperatives.
The surge in interest in urban farming can perhaps be explained by two issues which have
been at the forefront of everybody’s minds this year: climate change and food insecurity.
These issues seem disparate, but they are deeply intertwined. Agriculture as it currently
stands is one of the biggest contributors to anthropogenic climate change, with estimates
currently attributing around 23% of worldwide emissions to the industry. Ironically, as climate
change worsens, traditional agriculture will increasingly suffer due to climate catastrophes
such as floods and droughts.
The way that the global food industry functions means that it is extremely vulnerable to
shocks in the market. Climate events are one example, but another example would be war:
the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year sparked dramatic price hikes in basic
household ingredients. The cost of groceries is expected to have risen on average by about
10% from 2021 in the UK, and in April 1 in 7 British households were considered to be “food
insecure” with 4.6% going without food for at least a whole day per month.
Hopefully all of this has started to convince you that we need to revolutionise the way we
produce and distribute food in this country. All of my research pointed me to the conclusion
that there is no singular way we can achieve this - we’re going to need a coalition of
researchers, grassroots activists, community leaders, members of the public, farmers and
proto-farmers and policy-makers in order to actualise a society in which food is produced
sustainably, and where everybody has access to food which is sufficient and nutritious.
Urban farming is just one of the many avenues in which people are pursuing this goal, but it
is the one I chose to focus my research on. You can broadly separate urban farming into
three particular categories: community gardens, vertical farms and rooftop farms. Each fulfils
its own niche and they work together as interlinking tools to shift the tide of the agricultural
Vertical farms are contained inside buildings, and involve cultivating crops in stacked layers,
without the use of soil. The absence of soil means that the process is extremely efficient as
disease and herbivory are kept to a minimum, and the spatial arrangement of the plants
increases productivity per hectare of land. Although vertical farms are capable of producing
a lot of food, as a business model it tends to be financially unstable, and a lot of initial
investment is needed to achieve the dual goals of productivity and environmental
sustainability - utilising renewable energy is essential as the plants require a lot of artificial
light, given that they are grown indoors. However, if given the proper investment, evidence
suggests that vertical farms could be an integral part of a shift to green agriculture.
Rooftop farms, however, utilise already existing space which is exposed to the sun. One of
the key benefits that rooftop farms could provide is stormwater management. When storms
happen in urban areas, the rain tends to collect on impervious surfaces - think here of
concrete pavements and metal rooftops. Here, the rain will pick up pollutants such as heavy
metals, chlorides and organic compounds from traffic and construction work, then wash
away into urban bodies of water, with the potential to spoil both natural environments and
also contaminate the water which will eventually end up in people’s taps and showers.
Green rooftops are permeable and can capture this stormwater, preventing runoff and
easing the burden on sewage management systems.
The geographer David Harvey describes the notion of “engaged citizenship” as the ability to
“change and reinvent the city after our heart’s desire.” This ideology can be found amongst
many of the people working in community urban gardens - patches of land in urban areas
where food is farmed, either distributed for free or sold in market shops. Often, these places
serve a function other than food production: for example, educating children or adults with
learning difficulties, or as a social spot to make friends, or as a place to destress and escape
from the pressures of the rest of the city. Although most community gardens don’t have the
capacity to feed vast amounts of people with the food they produce, with these subsidiary
functions they often brighten the communities they exist in and provide a chance for people
to re-connect with nature. This reconnection is important as it fosters new generations of
people interested in food and alternative food production - people able to shape their local
communities, and shift the tide of food production.
This “shifting of the tide” of the global food industry is imperative for both people and the
planet. The way in which food is produced currently is often exploitative and excessive.
When I say excessive, I’m talking about the sheer amount of food which goes to waste on
farms, in supermarkets, and the household, and then comparing that to the 2.5 million
people in the UK using food banks this year. The excess is inextricable from the exploitation
- the liberalisation of agricultural trade starting in the 1980s has meant that farming has
become dominated by monopolies on an international scale, companies which operate on a
profit-seeking motive rather than one of a circular, sustainable economy. These companies
forge ahead with destructive practices like monoculture, chemical overuse and factory
farming, taking as much from the land as they possibly can.
Urban farming - though not entirely unproblematic - presents an alternative to this: a form of
farming which is not out of sight and therefore out of mind, but one governed by and
localised to the communities which are actually being fed. Being given the opportunity to
explore its advantages and disadvantages through research, and then actually talk to the
people involved in urban farms gave me a newfound sense of hope about the power of
grassroots movements to revolutionise the way in which we produce food. From my
interviews, I gained the sense that almost everybody I spoke to was extremely passionate in
their concern for the planet, and, like me, keen to transform food production for the better. It
was an enormous privilege to be granted this opportunity from the URSS, and I would also
like to thank my supervisor Rosemary Collier, and also Leanne Williams for helping me along