Why urban food production makes sense and how to make it happen

    Press/Media: Expert Comment


    Interview for International Urban Food Network 

    Greg KEEFFE – Why urban food production makes sense and how to make it happen

    IUFN // In the discussion on how to make cities more sustainable, the sectors construction, energy, and transport appear to be cited as the top-three promising areas of action (e.g. UNEP 2011). Could you please elaborate to what extend food is actually relevant to a city’s resource use?

    The interesting thing about food and the city is that obviously there is no chance that a city could ever feed itself. To feed London, one needs about 140 x the area of London. So food is always going to be a global issue. Therefore, it is obviously different from those other areas. For example, in terms of energy, one probably only needs something about 30 x the area of a city at the moment to produce enough energy. As a result, food seems to be the bigger problem. To put that in perspective, a study estimates that energy and transport only make up 10% and 5% of the ecological footprint of Londoners. The lion’s share comes from materials & waste (44%) and food consumption (41%). Think about it, 2/5 of the average Londoner’s impact on the environment comes from what we eat! Not surprisingly, the biggest hitter here is our meat consumption, and the diet of our four legged friends in form of pet food (City Limits 2002: p. 19; p. 25, table 15).

    In fact, a meat-base diet is a rather inefficient manner of providing energy for ourselves as human beings. From a chemical perspective, we are not as efficient as many creatures or animals in digesting food. As a convinced vegetarian I have to say the fact that we humans, or creatures, are eating other creatures is not really an efficient way of getting energy. I invite you to a little thought experiment: The average size of a McDonalds in the UK is 381 m². If we calculate the amount of space in global hectares required to produce all the food consumed within a year in this very restaurant this becomes more evident. Assuming we would stack the productive space on top of the restaurant floor by floor, we would get a productive skyscraper. To produce the full menu, including beef, pork, and chicken, this skyscraper would be 30,39 km high, reaching into the stratosphere. A passenger plane flights at an altitude of 10,5 km by the way. In comparison, if the restaurant would produce only its vegetarian items, the tower would be 1,16 km high, some 30 times smaller.

    IUFN // Carolyn Steel argues in her book that in the urban context, despite its omnipresence, food appears to be a somewhat invisible topic. When food consumption is so relevant, why does it receive so little attention when talking about urban sustainability goals?

    Well, the problem is that in the West food is always there and has always been there: from the day we are born, there is always food on demand, on the table, tins in the cupboard, things in the fridge. We have no understanding where it comes from. It is so embedded in our lives, we barely see it.

    So one thing I ask my students at the beginning of a design studio is: Who has eaten a banana today? Usually all 15 of them raise their hands. Then I ask: How many have you eaten this week? On average that is 3-4 per person, summing up to about 60 in total. Then I let them calculate how many people live in Belfast and how many fruits a tree produces. So how many fit in one container, and how much tons of bananas is that? – and suddenly, just from one fruit, they realise the impact from just having one banana. That example demonstrates the whole problem with food. We never see the banana boat, we never see the banana lorry driving along, and we never see the bananas growing. Actually, they are always in the shop, ripe and ready to eat! It is just amazing isn’t it.

    IUFN // So one could say that for the average shopper, they seem to just appear “out of nowhere?”

    Exactly. This is incredible, and also one of the biggest challenges for food: It is so omnipresent yet so invisible – exactly as Steel says. In essence, there is an amazing conveyor belt of just-in-time supply of food continuously providing our cities that just goes unnoticed. We have a sophisticated supermarket system, where everything arrives just in time. It just arrives at the right moment.

    The United Kingdom produces around 40% of its food demand, but some of it is exported, so position is quite precarious we actually import around 80% of our food. Carolyn Steels book says quite a bit about that. Something like 200,000 pigs come to England, and 150,000 pigs leave England. It’s absurd. So obviously the Dutch think English bacon is really good, and the English think Danish bacon is the best. It is actually crazy. It is similar to cattle, which goes to Italy. In turn, all our Prosciutto comes from Italy. There is an incredible amount of movement going on, which makes it a global market.

    IUFN // Being embedded in a global markets does allow to provide city dwellers with a wide choice of foodstuffs all year round. At the same time, you argue that modern cities are very vulnerable. Could you please explain what you mean by that?

    Food is not only a sustainability issue, but also a security concern. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK imports an incredible amount of food by air obviously. So when the famous Ash could of the Eyjafjallajökull-Volcano happened in 2010, the Shops got empty in quite a short amount of time. There is a quote by a government minister: “The UK is nine meals away from anarchy.” That equates to three days! There is only three days worth of fresh food in the UK at any time. That is why food security is such an issue.

    The vulnerability is really acute, but also really invisible. Climate change too is going to have enormous effects. Along with The Netherlands, Britain is one of the most intensively farmed landscapes, with the highest input of chemical fertiliser, the highest densities. So there is actually not really much more arable land to develop to produce more. So in fact, there is currently no answer to that problem. And what happens politically is that we just carry on and rely on the global market to provide the supply.

    Furthermore, what has happened in the UK is that we have seen an increased amount of food related poverty, which is partly due to the austerity policies of the current government. Over the last four years, we had a more than tenfold increase in the number of food banks where waste food from supermarkets is donated to the poor because food has become so expensive. It’s quite a challenging situation we are in.

    So that is actually a wicked problem. We have no more space. Agricultural production has reached its maximum yield. Furthermore, there is a big pressure on the chemical industry as the current food system relies on those inputs. The question is: Will these inputs be available in the future? Fertiliser is being wasted. Our sewage system is a one-way street into the ocean. We need better way of recuperating the minerals from human waste. That is also an interesting question to consider.

    At the moment, the UK is producing food at its maximum capacity. There is not really anywhere else to turn to. There is a thing called “peak soil”, meaning that mineral fertiliser is a finite resource and soils start to collapse. In the UK, I think we are past peak soil already. There is no more capacity in the system: no more space, no more increases in fertility, and even no more water. At the same time, there is a big pressure on the chemical industry. We rely on these inputs, but will we still get them in the future?

    IUFN // To address these problems, you propose to re-localise food production in order to increase resilience and overcome these vulnerabilities. But wouldn’t relocalisation – or the production of food within the city – not only produce marginal outputs, but also go against the efficiency-principle of freely exchanging goods produced as comparative advantages and in economies of scale? How would you respond to such criticism?

    All capitalist systems rely on the invisible hand of the market. And they seem to work really, really well. Until a catastrophe hits that is! We saw that in the banking sector, all it takes is a bit of pressure. Capitalism relies on a growth rate of about three percent to function. And the problem is that we have a limited amount of space and resources.

    So I do not think the global food system is efficient. It is very wasteful actually. About 30% of all food is wasted. But it is incredible effective in its own terms of capitalism. But even then it is very interesting that the money is not made by the farmer, but the money is made by the people who know when the banana is arriving at the market. So the money is not made by the producer.

    Local food production changes the market and makes it a local one. It allows you to compete. The profits in the food business are so big, so by cutting out the middle man, the futures market, and large scale distribution that relies on refrigeration and fossil fuels you can find a way in. So by beating those, even though you are not as efficient in terms of production, it is possible for local food to compete and realign the market.

    Local food obviously cannot compete in products like wheat or soya beans, but it can compete in other bits in the market. Those are particularly leaf crops, things that do not travel well. It think also, the other advantages of urban food is that is often sited near the end product of food, which is waste. It is much easier to recycle and create closed cycles if you are producing things locally. I suppose, once you start to use those waste streams instead of fossil based fertilisers, you can compete on a different scale.

    IUFN // In one of your projects in Manchester you tried to set up exactly this. You and your team have built a roof garden and aquaponic system in an abandoned factory.

    Yes that is right. We have tried a few things in Manchester. One of the projects there is The Biospheric Project. We wanted to get some expertise on how large-scale building-based food systems might work. With this research, we wanted to know what the issues are if we come into a completely random building and try to produce food. What are the technological and social issues? Also, it was a laboratory in the sense that we had no idea about this whole matrix of food production. We did not know how much we could produce, how much effort it would take and how much resources we would need. We were keen on producing these data because we wanted to extrapolate and see what happens if we retrofitted it in the whole of city.

    We wanted to generate some numbers so we know that these numbers are about right. You find hundreds of projects about community and urban farming in books, but they very seldom have numbers. They never tell you how successful or unsuccessful they are. If they for example say “we produced 400 carrots”, you still do not know what the inputs or the manpower to that system were. So one think we wanted to find out some useful metrics. After measuring for one year, we are now starting to model the city using all sort of systems. It is interesting to see how much you can actually produce in the city. For example in Manchester, even though a lot of the roofs are pitched roofs that we have no data on and cannot use yet, we can do an amazing amount of production on the remaining flat roofs. So we are mapping these roofs, and trying different greenhouse- or water-bases systems in our model.

    Additionally, the nearness to the place of consumption is incredible. Almost every roof is within a 100 metres of a food outlet. So actually the problem of food miles can change incredible quickly.

    Andy Jenkins, one of my PhD students is at the mapping all sorts of factors within the city: light levels, suitability of roofs for different sort of systems, how much they might produce, and how many jobs they would create.

    Another of my other PhD students, Tilly Hall, is looking at the in- and outputs of the systems. You get nothing for free. You need to get the nutrients into the systems, and that is quite a challenge. There is no point of swapping from one unsustainable system to another one. If you have aquaculture-based systems, you need a 30% protein-intake for the fish. Protein is quite expensive and so you need to think about where your protein comes from. She is looking at possible sources such as beans, maggots, worms and so on.

    What you start to realise is that the food system is linked to the other systems. It is linked to ecosystem services, energy systems and so on. The city is the one most complex thing we designed. Because it emerged we do not understand its complexity, so we’ve started to look at it, analytically. For The Biospheric Project we still do not know if it was energy neutral. We are currently still trying to figure that out. So for example in our system we had fish food for our fish. We have to trace where that comes from. It had other fish in the food. So we were feeding fish to fish, which seems to make little sense at some level. So we are still trying to work that out.

    IUFN // So how expensive were your products compared to what one finds on the market? How did you figure your production costs out?

    The deal we did with the restaurant was: “Tell us the price you would pay in the market” and we match it. Obviously a lot of people earn money with what you buy on the market. We sold it to the same price, but basically cutting out the middle man and taking that share. I also realise now that we could have had a quite a lot bigger system. Thinking about the amount of time it takes to run it, I think if you have two people with different skill sets you could operate three to four urban farms that size working full time.

    One thing about agriculture is that it is quite labour intensive. Even the part-automated systems require quite a lot of human intervention. You need to plant seeds, prck them out, check for bugs, clean filters, pack the produce, and deliver it by bike and so on. In our project, we were working with unskilled people learning by doing. We had volunteers and unemployed people who had very little knowledge about urban farming. That was quite a challenge as well.

    IUFN // You came up with the idea of a hardware-software-interface when looking at food systems. What do you mean by that?

    The hardware-software-interface thing is a simple way to explain this complicated network to people. We are obviously used to computers: computer hardware, operation systems and apps and the interface in form of the windows, mouse, and keyboard. You understand how that might work and the food systems is similar. You got hardware, that could be the soil, or a greenhouse, or an aquaponic system with pumps and all those sorts of things. Then you can choose the sort of crops that you grow in there – that is the software. And finally, the interface – the people and their interactions around it. For example: Have you got a market for your products? You cannot compete with large scale food producers if you going to sell it in the same place they are selling it. We made a special deal with a restaurant to take our produce there every day by bike, so it was very fresh.

    In The Biospheric Project we experimented with this hardware-software-interface approach to urban agriculture. Despite the hurdles we faced – high production costs due to untrained labour, technology in its infancy that did not allow us to have completely closed cycles – I think in essence we have found a viable way to go.

    IUFN // In one of your articles you point out that hyper-localised systems are not efficient but effective (Keeffe, G. 2014b). What do you mean by that? You already mentioned the possibility to establish closed cycles in order to catch nutrients. Could you please explain further?

    Even though localised systems may not be able to generate economies of scale through heavy specialisation, they can be effective in several terms and yield non-food related benefits. Aside the possibility to design closed resource flows, urban farming provides jobs for trained and untrained labour. Furthermore, it simply makes people feel good. In our project in Manchester, the residents in the neighbourhood felt really proud that food was produced there. This is a very poor neighbourhood and the project really changed the way they felt about their block. They felt that something good was happening. After all, greenness is a good thing, you know? We have been farming for 6,000 years or maybe longer. I suppose it is only in the last 100 years that we have become dislocated from farming. I think somewhere in our genome is some sort of belief that growing something is good. Somehow a neighbourhood that grows things is a happier neighbourhood. So people relate to it on a very deep level. That is why I think there was also less crime, along the fact that by being present in an abandoned mill results in street surveillance.

    About the effectiveness: I always think about the famous strawberry yoghurt story. You know, strawberry yoghurt is generally produced in Germany, with milk from the north of Germany, cream from the south, plastic cups from the east and foil lids from Norway and so on. As a result, a yoghurt has about 400 times the energy in its making, delivery, and refrigeration than it has in its pot in terms of calories. That is incredible. So for me this is quite interesting. Having all those specialised factories, one could say that this is a really efficient system for producing yoghurt. But actually, yoghurt produced in Germany and sold in England is really stupid, is it not? The yoghurt is three months old when you get it, it might be in a really efficient fridge, but that is not an effective way in distributing those products. So I think localised stuff is really effective. For example, there used to be dairies in every neighbourhood, even a 100 years ago. So that is what I really mean between by the difference of efficiency and effectiveness.

    IUFN // If I understood your articles right, you mention that the interface – the people that stand in interaction – are at the core issue. You argue that technological fixes – the hardware and software part – are not sufficient. Rather, rethinking or creating this kind of interface or new market situations is key.

    Yes, I really do think that and I am curious how this can be done. So obviously there are problems in poor neighbourhood with people having poor education and unhealthy diets where localised systems provide a solution. Then in rich areas, the idea of productive gardens and houses, is a different issue again. Here, the question is who is going to do this work. A lot of urban farming activities are volunteer based. I would like to see more businesses doing it. We have got to make sure to make bigger a difference than just a few wealthy people doing good things. So to come back to the idea of the interface: We need different models of how that might happen. Who is going to farm an office building owned by Siemens for example? Is it going to be Siemens or their employees who do that? Are they going to invite someone in, or do they lease out their roof and facades? Could it be that another specialised company comes around, maybe only during the weekend? So the possible models are quite interesting.

    It may be that in the futue you might say “I want to build a new office building, and I am going to build everything apart from the facade. I do let another company setup a façade that they will then farm it while we sit on the other side of it in our offices. So I save money because I do not have to build the façade.” There can be loads of economic models about productive facades. Most of facades costs money. But when they can make money, they become a different thing. And how much money they can make will also change the way they are made. This sort of financial connection of that interface to existing food networks is very interesting.

    Furthermore, I think there is already an interest in local food all over Europe and the World actually. In the supermarket you used to find South American apples. By now, if it is from South America, it does not tell you. Instead, you find more local apples, English apples – they carry a premium, not the SA ones. Actually, there is a real engagement with the idea of local stuff. This idea of place-named products, “appellation contrôlée” and so on, is not only for Champagne or Prosecco, but catching on a wider set of products. The other day I saw Cumbrian hazelnuts in the shop. Cumbria is an English lake district. Before then I don’t think I’d ever seen a hazelnut that came from somewhere before. They were just a bag of nuts. I think this is going to change the value system of food. I think local food is going to be worth more than blunt industrial food from a generic greenhouse in Europort in Holland for example.

    IUFN // So you are seeing an increasing demand in regional food then? I am asking because you address this as one of the challenges, that you need an actual demand for these products for local production to work.

    Yes, it is really growing. Just near my house is now a cooperative supermarket where 50% of their vegetables come from a 50km radius from the shop. There it is busy, busy, busy all the time because people see that as being a good thing. We got so used to everything being part of a global market. Considering the complexity of the systems we have to ask how to bypass the global market beyond bartering?  The future is going to be quite interesting, indeed!


    Interviewer: Robert Gundlach for IUFN


    Period29 Jan 2015

    Media coverage


    Media coverage

    • TitleWhy urban food production makes sense and how to make it happen
      Degree of recognitionInternational
      Media name/outletIUFN
      Producer/AuthorRobert Gundlach
      PersonsGreg Keeffe