How urban farming is taking the UK’s ‘food deserts’ to another dimension

Richard Wallace

Most of us probably don’t think twice about feeding ourselves, particularly if we live in cities. The UK has a vibrant restaurant culture, endless cornershops and supermarkets, some of the most famous markets in the world, twenty-four hour takeaways, and the fifth emergency service that is Deliveroo. But not everyone can take food for granted. As the global population grows, we face the growing threat of inequality and starvation over the world. And while our appetite for “superfoods” like quinoa is gouging the price of staple crops in rural communities in Bolivia and beyond, even in this country we have families relying on food banks due to the cost of food.

Many of us probably don’t think about how hard it can be for those with limited means or mobility to access fresh fruit and vegetables, especially in the UK’s “food deserts” — as the Guardian reports, even residents of cities like Bristol struggle to get their five a day, often due to how fresh produce is now sold mostly in supermarkets rather than local shops.

In a country like the UK, the idea that fresh fruit can be a luxury seems unthinkable. But technology is adapting to meet the changing needs of the population, and one unlikely source of the fresh food we need to keep ourselves happy and healthy is not our green and pleasant rural areas, as we might expect; cities and urban areas are fast becoming hubs for production of nutritious, locally-grown food.

“Urban farming” essentially means adding an extra dimension to how we farm. While traditional farms need acres and acres of flat, fertile land to yield their harvests, urban farms make use of the vertical—this can mean super-efficient community gardens tucked away among the concrete furrows, or complex indoor farms containing futuristic racks lined with plants rooted in soil and nutrient-enriched water, with UV lighting to artificially mimic the sun. Anyone who has recently visited an IKEA can even buy three-dimensional structures designed for the kitchen which allow small amounts of food to be efficiently cultivated at home—so clearly the idea is catching on.

And the idea isn’t limited to the UK. Here is a good roundup of other global initiatives using vertical space to bring fresh food and nutrition into urban spaces, including examples from Germany, Japan, Singapore and Brazil.

Across the pond, Urban Organics operates urban farms in St.Paul, Minnesota; the ability to control the environment enables its farmers to grow a lot more in the same amount of space. Urban Organics also use a closed-loop system called aquaponics, not just to grow your typical salad ingredients but also to raise fresh salmon. Fish waste fertilises the plants, which in turn cleans and filters the water. Urban Organics opened its first farm inside a former brewery complex in 2014, enabling it to bring food to the food deserts where organic produce is most needed; placing farms close to consumers means that fresher produce can reach tables with less reliance on delivery trucks, whose “food miles” contribute significantly to pollution and global warming. So not only is urban farming healthy for our diets, its also good for the planet too.

Despite this, urban farming is not yet widespread enough to be a panacea for the shortage of nutritious foods in the UK—at this scale, it can only ever be is largely just a shot in the arm. But it could inform a whole new wave of thinking about how to utilise urban space and revolutionise traditional farming to solve modern global crises.  There are probably no plans yet for a planet of supercities in which all farming is done in high-rise buildings—but we might well be sowing the seeds.