Lentis/Urban Farming

Urban FarmingEdit

Urban farming is the practice of producing and distributing food around urban areas. This chapter focuses on the modern urban farming movement in the United States, first by analyzing the history of urban farming in the U.S. and then through the societal and technological motivations.


The history of farming in the U.S. shows how food production ended up being so far from the point of consumption and how modern urban farming is unique from past examples.


1879 ad for Refrigerated Freight Cars

For most of human history, urban civilizations developed around agriculture. Early permanent settlements were enabled by the switch from hunter-gathering to farming, dubbed by historians as the Neolithic Revolution.[1] In colonial times 90% of the workforce was involved in agriculture mostly small-scale urban sustenance farms. The United States westward expansion and technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution brought a change to farming in the 1800s. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged farmers to spread out by giving away free federal land out west. Inventions like the cotton gin, the fertilizer industry, factory-made agricultural machinery, and the change from hand to horse-powered farming allowed for increased yields and profitability of farming. [2] These technologies resulted in economies of scale and a trend of larger farms as many farmers could not afford the equipment. As farms required more space they continued to move further away from cities. The refrigerated freight car, patented in 1867, enabled farmers to take advantage of the intercontinental railway systems. [3] Food from California could now end up on a dinner plate in New York. By 1910, 31% of the labor force worked in agriculture and technological advancements have continued lead to less, larger farms in the US. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states less than 2% of the US workforce was involved in agriculture in 2014.[4]

The National War Garden Commission used posters to encourage victory gardens

War and DepressionEdit

There have been exceptions to the general trend of replacement of local sustenance farming to farming as a business. During periods of intense need like depressions, World War 1 and World War 2 urban farming was used to supplement food production. During the 1890s, as the City of Detroit faced a depression, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree encouraged people to turn any empty land in the city into vegetable patches. [5] While World War I was fought European men involved in farming were recruited as soldiers creating a food crisis in the continent. The United States began to export more than double the value of foods, from $193 million worth in 1913 to $510 million in 1916.[6] The National War Garden Commission used propaganda to promote the urban farms, dubbed “Victory Gardens”, to support the war effort by allowing food produced on conventional farms to be exported.[7] During the Second World War, victory gardens were again seen as a way U.S. citizens could help in the war effort with about half of all fruit and vegetables produced in the U.S. grown on urban farms.[8]


Brooklyn Grange in NYC

Recently there has been a resurgence in urban farming. Show through Google ngram, the term “urban farming” started to gain traction in the 1990s. Several projects have popped up around the country. In 2009, Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House as an example of urban farms promoting healthier eating. [9] In 2010, Brooklyn Grange, the largest rooftop farm in the world, was started New York City. The Grange provides locally grown vegetables and herbs to the New York area as well as urban farming consulting. [10] Instead of need-based these projects are driven by a cultural shift in values.

Complaints with Standard PracticesEdit

The use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics has increased dramatically since the mid-1900s. This shift has played a large role in not only increasing the size of modern farms and livestock farms but also in reducing consumer trust of "traditional agricultural products" as products like DDT are banned for endangering the Bald Eagle and the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (more commonly known as Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War) are implicated for causing health issues for Vietnamese citizens, veterans, and their children [11].

Fertilizers and PesticidesEdit

The amount of fertilizers used in the U.S. has increased dramatically since the mid-1900s with the invention of nitrogen and phosphorous based fertilizers. Total fertilizer use increased from 6 million tons applied annually in 1960 to over 20 million tons in 2014 [12], and many have begun to raise concerns about the environmental and health implications of this increased use, as discussed in Organic Foods Movement.

Around 1.1 billion pounds (12.5 billion dollars) worth of pesticides and herbicides were used in the U.S. in 2007, around 80% of which were used in agriculture [13]. Of this, most were the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate, both of which remain present on food produced from these farms and travel long distances in river systems. Both 2,4-D and glyphosate have been labelled "probably carcinogenic to humans"[14], and glyphosate is suspected of causing the rise in gluten intolerance and celiac disease in the U.S. [15]. Glyphosate has even been found in blood and breastmilk at levels 760 to 1600 times higher than the European Drinking Water Directive Allows, although this is well below the limit set by the EPA[16].

Organic fertilizers and pesticides also come with a variety of problems, as organic fertilizers can still harm wildlife, pets, and cause the buildup of heavy metals in the soil [17], while organic insecticides have been shown to have higher Environment Impact Quotients in the field [18].

Meat IndustryEdit

Hog confinement barn interior

Over 95% of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms, which notably neglect animal welfare, despite the fact that in polls 94% of Americans agree that animals raised for food should live free from abuse and cruelty[19]. On these farms, animals are often fed cocktails of antibiotics to avoid rapid spread of disease due to cramped conditions, not only increasing the risk for the consumer of unintended antibiotic consumption but also leading to drug-resistant strands of infections[20]. Organizations like PETA and the ASPCA lobby against "factory farming" for causing harm to animal and human health as well as the environment[21], and many Americans are turning to vegan, vegetarian, or majority plant-based diets over this issue.

Environmental CostsEdit

The environmental cost of transportation is often a motivation for the opposition of globalization of food. In establishing the global food trade, seasonal foods are now accessible year-round. However, there are severe environmental costs to this system, including water and air pollution. The commonly quoted statistic, "food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate" in the U.S., has been used as a rallying cry for the Food Movement. Although this statistic is misleading, it does bring awareness to the environmental costs of transporting food.[22] According to the U.S. Department of Energy more than two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, was emitted from transportation in 2007. [23] Cutting down on the food miles of a meal can drastically decrease the carbon footprint of food.

Map depicting food deserts in the United States by counties in 2010

Food DesertsEdit

The USDA defines food deserts as "parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas". [24] With conventional food distribution, many people in cities live in food deserts preventing them from maintaining a healthy diet. They are more likely to have diabetes, higher BMI, and higher healthcare costs.[25] Urban farming can supplement these areas with fresh produce so people with low income eat healthier.

Complementary MovementsEdit

The rising popularity of urban farming was heavily impacted by other movements that took off in tandem.

Social MediaEdit

Social media has been heavily implicated in influencing public opinion and reflecting social values[26]. Online platforms such as YouTube and Pinterest have been especially beneficial in distributing knowledge about urban farming practices. YouTube provides visual representations in intuitive ways[27], while Pinterests presents ideas to foster creativity and pique interest[28].

Healthy EatingEdit

As a result of increased social awareness of the issues with industrial farming, healthy food choice has become an important social value. Vegetarian and vegan diets have also become increasingly common in the US[29]. There has also been a considerable movement towards organic food sources. This Organic Foods Movement has led to an increased demand for produce grown and maintained without harmful chemicals or hormones. This, in addition to the increasing social awareness of the environmental impact of food production and transport, calls for a stronger push for locally-based food.

With increasing distrust in industrial farming, communities began searching for food sources with smaller environmental impact and higher quality maintenance. Sources of interest include foods that were locally obtained and also cultivated without the use of harmful chemicals. This shift away from industrial farming towards anti-consumerism is heavily supported by the Local Food Movement. Local food has made considerable efforts to develop more self-reliant and resilient food networks, and has also stimulated local economies and community building[30]. It also expands to include university communities like that of Utah State University. As citizens in urban areas began to adopt the ideals of the Local Food Movement, interest in developing urban farming practices continue to rise.


In places where arable land is unavailable (such as urban areas), technological innovations spearhead local food production. Vertical farming lowered the water requirement more than 50%, and also saved a considerable amount of space and soil. Techniques applied in urban vertical farms include hydroponics and aeroponics.[31] In hydroponics, the roots of plants are submerged in a circulated solution of nutrients instead of cluttering, more expensive soil. Aeroponics on the other hand involves growing plants in a moist environment where nutrients and water are sprayed on the roots regularly. Aquaponics combines plant and fish farming, where fish wastewater from indoor ponds provide nutrients for plants, and they in turn purify and filter the water to be sent back to the ponds.[32]

There are a number of applications of the above farming techniques in cities all over the world. The plantscaper proposed by Plantagon in Sweden employs the concept of green infrastructure by creating space for agriculture in urban areas. It is projected to produce at least 550 tons of vegetables every year.[33] VertiCrop has also been developed as a growing method that yields up to 20 times more than normal field crops, and requires just 8% of the water used in soil farming.[34] ModularFarms also developed a system that is flexible enough to be able to produce plants in virtually any climate and location in the world.[35] Cubic Farms uses conveyor rotation and LED lighting to regulate their produce to have higher consistency, longer shelf life, and higher nutritional content.[36] Vertical farms like these are built to be incorporated into urban infrastructure, and they have become increasingly popular in the US.[37]


Like Screen-Free Child Rearing, Urban farming is a case study that demonstrates how social values can change the way people use technology.

This chapter emphasizes the history and motivations behind the Urban Farming movement, but much attention should be paid to the current responses.

Companies and non-profits have sprung up throughout the U.S. in cities like Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore[38] supporting the positive social, economic, and environmental effects of Urban Farming. In opposition, the chemical manufacturing company Monsanto, conventional farmers, and even some local governments oppose Urban Farming for reasons including a loss of market shares and enforcement of regulations banning local gardens and livestock[39].

Urban Farming is a growing movement, but its viability on a large scale and other factors still need to be explored.


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