Cultivating Innovation in the Context of Urban Food Systems

By Emma French

Like many cities around the world, Atlanta has recently experienced a surge of interest and investment in urban agriculture (UA). Two examples of how this trend is being institutionalized in the Atlanta context are the the passage of a zoning amendment in 2014 making urban gardens an official land use, and the City’s hiring of an Urban Agriculture Director last year. According to Atlanta’s Director of Sustainability, Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield, the city “aims to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020.”

Urban agriculture can be defined simply as the cultivating of plants, animals, or other food products within a town or city. While a number of studies have found the potential to grow significant amounts of food in cities, most experts agree that UA will never replace traditional rural agriculture, but rather will be “a complementary strategy to reduce urban poverty and food insecurity, and enhance urban environmental management.”

Growing food in urban areas is far from new. Food shortages during the Great Depression and both World Wars led to urban and peri-urban farming to help curb food insecurity, provide jobs, and boost morale. By 1943, there were 18 million federally-sponsored Victory Gardens around the country, 12 million of which were located in cities.

From Modern Farmer
From Modern Farmer

Another historical example of urban farming is “guerrilla gardening,” where community members turn derelict public or private land into productive, aesthetically pleasing gardens. A prominent example of this is Green Grounds, founded by Ron Finley, which turns urban gardens and parkways in South L.A. into edible landscapes and urban farms.

More recently, urban agriculture has been the focus of research on sustainability and resilience. Urban farms and gardens are now serving as the site of experimentation, not only for technology, but also for policy, planning, and management. As climate change makes the future increasingly uncertain and potentially unstable, the need to understand how our food production, consumption, and waste systems interact with other vital systems such as water, energy, and transportation is becoming urgently apparent. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently solicited proposals for their Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water (FEW) Program, which aims to “catalyze well-integrated interdisciplinary research efforts to transform scientific understanding of the FEW nexus in order to improve system function and management, address system stress, increase resilience, and ensure sustainability.” Total funding for this program is expected to be between $50 and $75 million a year.

Researchers at Georgia Tech are helping set the national agenda around this topic. In 2014, the NSF awarded an interdisciplinary team of Georgia Tech researchers, including CUI Director Jennifer Clark, a $2.5 million grant to “develop the theory that infrastructure systems, with their many interdependencies and complex adaptations, have many similarities to ecological systems.”

Last year, this team was awarded a supplemental grant to host two expert workshops on this nexus, with the new addition of food systems. The first workshop took place at Georgia Tech last December, convening a diverse group of stakeholders from the Atlanta area, including representatives from the City of Atlanta, Georgia Organics, Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, Atlanta BeltLine, Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), Georgia Department of Economic Development, and Southern Company, among others. The workshop sought to identify gaps and failings in our current food system, envision a sustainable system, and map out how to get from our current system to the ideal one and areas that need further research.

The second workshop was held earlier this month in Washington, DC and explored examples of innovation at the FEW nexus and the scalability of such efforts. The second workshop included many of the same faces, but also brought in entrepreneurs from around the country. Ryan Cox, founder of HATponics, presented his model for building portable hydro-aqua-terra farms and transporting them to places in need around the world. Last year HATponics claimed to have fed a million people, including a number of Georgians — and HATponics has over 40 farm installations in DeKalb County.

“Ryan Cox’s HATponics produces portable, high-density farms using aquaponics, which is the hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture. Hydroponics is soilless agriculture, and aquaculture is the farming of fish.”

Rethinking Innovation

While technological innovations are necessary, it is clear that they are not enough on their own. In order for us to maximize the potential benefits of these technologies we need to be equally innovative with our policy-making and organizational management. If our vision is too narrow, e.g., to produce as much food as possible in the smallest possible space, we may very well miss the target of creating more equitable and sustainable food systems. As one expert at the NSF workshop in DC noted, our generation’s obsession with all that is “local” may be misdirected, if our goal is indeed to reduce the carbon footprint of our food consumption. The well-known statistic that food travels on average 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate, omits the fact that over 85% of emissions produced from the food cycle come from the production of the food itself, while a mere 4% is from to the final transportation stage. Taking into account the fact that a third of all fresh produce in the United States is is thrown away before it even reaches our plate, perhaps that vision shouldn’t be producing more food locally, but rather shifting the distribution of fresh food within urban areas, reducing waste through composting, and consuming less meat.

Nathan Burnell of Compost Wheels transfers some compost from ‘compost cubes,’ made out of former shipping pallets, at a site along the railroad tracks north of Line Street.”

Advances in production technology could lead to more equitable distribution and sustainable outcomes, but only if advocates make it a condition of implementation and expansion. Such efforts will require innovative policies and planning. Proponents of sustainable urban food systems would do well to explore the potential for policies like the one passed early this year in France, requiring supermarkets that are 400 square meters or larger to donate all unsold food to food banks or charities. Collaboration with social enterprises like Compost Wheelsa company that collects compostable food waste from over 500 residents on bike and then distributes it to urban farms and parks around the city—could greatly reduce the amount of food ending up in landfills around Atlanta. By connecting these seemingly disparate parts of our food system, we can reduce some of the inefficiencies in our current food production system, while simultaneously addressing uneven access to fresh food, creating jobs, and revitalizing communities.


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