The writer is an adjunct professor at the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, University of Arizona.
Urban agriculture is the cultivation of vegetables and plants, and the raising of animals, poultry and fish within and around city limits to provide fresh food, create employment, recycle waste, and strengthen cities’ resilience to climate change.
Urban agriculture alleviates poverty and reduces food insecurity resulting from urbanization, at the same time improving the health of city residents and conserving the environment.
At the onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many countries imposed lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus, resulting in the disruption of the food supply chain, food shortages and panic buying.
Consequently, countries including Saudi Arabia have strengthened their food security. Readily available fresh food within city limits has been seen as one of the solutions to providing food for citizens and residents.
Many governments have encouraged their populations to harness urban agriculture. Some countries have distributed vegetable seeds to enable people to grow vegetables in their community, while Singapore has allotted $30 million for urban agriculture practices such as vertical farming for food security.
Saudi Arabia is no exception: The leadership has allocated SR100 million ($27 million) to develop and localize vertical farming technologies.
The crucial importance of urban agriculture emanated from the Saudi leadership, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, launching a development strategy to transform the city of Riyadh into one of the top 10 leading economies in the world; currently, Riyadh ranks 40th.
Leading the Riyadh city implementation strategy is the Royal Commission for Riyadh (RCRC), by monitoring and measuring more than 50 performance indicators, based on benchmarks from the world’s leading cities.
The paradigm shift encompasses the pillars of Saudi Vision 2030: A vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation, to achieve a sustainable economic, social and environmental society.
Under the Riyadh city development strategy, by 2030 the anticipated population will double from the current 7.5 million to 15 to 20 million inhabitants, and there is expected to be an increase in the number of visitors to 40 million.
Riyadh’s competitive edge is that it possesses a well-built infrastructure ranging from the most advanced modern information technology to modern roads, a literacy rate of 97.59 percent and an educated young population, and is a key contributor to Saudi Arabia’s economy.
Regionally, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is already 64 percent urbanized. Much of the region’s future urban growth in absolute terms is projected to occur in the region’s primary cities, although faster growth in relative terms is projected to occur in its secondary cities.
Conflict and climate-driven migration as well as cross-border movement driven by the search for economic opportunity are unique considerations in the region and have been overriding some secular urbanization trends in a subset of countries, according to the World Bank. Globally, migration is over 54 percent, according to the UN.
One of the critical contexts of the rapid increase in urbanization is that it tends to increase urban poverty and urban food insecurity, and the number of people requiring clean water and sanitation.
Urban agriculture could improve the availability of a sustainable supply of fresh and healthy food for all residents within a city’s limits, for a short period of time.
Urban agriculture creates opportunities for employment. It enhances food security and subsequently national security, with Saudi being a food-secure country.
During times of crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic, country lockdowns, civil war, or restrictions on imports, it plays a significant role in providing emergency food supplies.
The international community is beginning to recognize the important role of urban agriculture in improving the economy, environment and health of cities.
Harnessing urban agriculture from all the stakeholders’ perspectives, including institutions, entrepreneurs, supply chain, consumers and producers is potentially beneficial for all the key players.
There are several types of urban agriculture that can be classified as follows: Vertical farms, hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and backyard, rooftop gardens, animal husbandry, urban beekeeping, and greenhouses.
- Vertical farming: An agricultural process in which crops are grown in vertically stacked layers rather than spread out horizontally in traditional rows in fields.
- Hydroponics: This allows the roots of plants to grow in water solutions instead of soil.
- Aquaponics: Combines plant cultivation with aquaculture for fish farming.
- Aeroponics: A method that allows for potentially better oxygen access for plants, even less water usage and a lower chance of transmitting diseases.
- Backyard or rooftop garden: This is the growing of food in people’s homes or properties.
- Animal husbandry: Rearing animals for food in urban settings, such as poultry, goats, rabbits, or sheep.
- Urban beekeeping: Bees are important to the ecosystem as they not only produce honey but act as pollinators and promote biodiversity.
- Greenhouses: The practice of agriculture in residential, commercial, and communal urban spaces. It gives farmers the ability to grow a crop all year round as they provide a controlled environment where crops can be subjected to specific conditions required for their growth.
Benefits of urban agriculture
- Generates income: Urban agriculture leads to the establishment of new businesses, and not only provides income to the owners but also creates employment opportunities for people in the cities or communities.
- Local government benefits: Enables the local government to raise revenue.
- Provides education and training: Skills’ improvement and training for job opportunities.
- Needs a minimum amount of water to grow vegetables and plants, and raise animals, poultry and fish.
- Creates community participation: Urban agriculture provides opportunities to local communities to participate in related activities.
- Maintaining of cultures: Cultural practices are also shared. Continued local interactions through urban agricultural activities create intergenerational bonds and people from different age brackets get to share significant information about certain food crops, vegetation, indigenous herbs, and domesticated animals such as poultry.
- Health, nutrition and food accessibility benefits: Availability of a variety of fresh food, and food security.
- Improved urban environment community: Supports biodiversity and improves air quality.
- Reduction of the local carbon footprint: Helps in reducing the carbon footprint of the farms, especially emissions from transportation mediums. The green plantations also go a long way in acting as carbon sinks, particularly through the practice of urban forestry.
- Crop preservation and new crop development: Urban agriculture creates homes for pollinators to increase the chances of preserving indigenous crops, which may not fare well under other conditions. It also leads to the breeding of new crops by sharing seeds.
Urban agriculture’s diverse activities create opportunities as well as challenges:
- Requires minimum packaging, storage and transportation of food at it is closer to city limits.
- Provides jobs and incomes.
- Ready availability of fresh food.
- Waste recycling and re-use possibilities.
- Environmental and health risks from unacceptable agricultural and aquacultural practices.
- Increased competition for land, water, energy and labor.
- Reduced environmental capacity for pollution absorption.
The need for a holistic and multi-sectoral approach to understanding and responding to urban agriculture is important, in particular where the growing populations in cities need to have an alternative or supplemental income to meet their expenses.
Strategic ways of dealing with the competition for water and land, as well as other environmental concerns, must be developed.
A research center of knowledge equipped with the technical capabilities to evaluate the appropriate place for urban agriculture for sustainable agricultural and urban food systems is required.
The application of technical knowledge with sociological and economic expertise, as well as practical experience, would be an innovative and timely initiative for sustainable urban agriculture to meet the needs of those living within city limits with easy access to fresh food.
Urban agriculture not only provides food, which is important; it also entails food security that enhances the national security of a country.