Environmental outcomes in the city’s agricultural landscape are far less green than widely assumed.
Commercial urban agriculture in New York provides the city with tons of green salad. Yet, according to a new study in the journal Land Use Policy, its environmental outcomes are far less green.
Indoor and rooftop farms are becoming increasingly popular. In the case of New York, which is featured in the study, the city’s commercial controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) includes large-scale rooftop farms, vertical farms, and indoor farms. In theory, they should increase food security, reduce the local ecological footprint and curb emissions connected to transporting food. Only in theory, though.
To find out what happens in practice, the researchers looked at 10 roof and indoor commercial farms, exploring how much food they produce, where it is going and what the energy demands and future expansion opportunities are. While rooftop farms did quite well when it came to their energy demands and ecological impacts, most of the indoor farms have even larger environmental footprints than conventional outdoor ones. Meanwhile, the tech they rely on, including multiple sensors and climate-control features, increase energy demands further.
When it comes to claims regarding food security, such expensive conditions result in premium prices for consumers that can afford them like luxury food stores and restaurants. These benefits, however, mean no contribution to food security for most people. Another issue is the high price of real estate in New York, which makes new indoor agriculture startups a risky bet considering the limited size of the premium market and competition from traditional farms outside the city, which have far better expansion opportunities.
However, the researchers note that no globally applicable conclusions can be drawn from the case of New York City alone. Some cities like Tokyo are global success stories of vertical agriculture and they might prove more vital for local food security. The researchers also point out that the efficiency of high-tech urban agriculture might be higher in places that require little additional heat and sunlight, while crop and vegetable choices can be better tailored to actual local needs and not just the luxury segment.
The team sees a brighter future for non-commercial urban agriculture driven by citizens, including initiatives such as community gardens. Built on values and local vision, such projects might go much further in strengthening local food security, improving community resilience and providing actual environmental gains.