The Next Revolution In Urban Planning
Dave Dinesen is the CEO of CubicFarms, a local-chain agtech company specializing in automated, commercial-scale indoor farming technology.
New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, London — all major cities have robust plans to organize how we commute, use infrastructure and minimize our environmental impact. But there’s one area noticeably absent: how we feed our citizens.
Consider this: By 2050, nearly 70% of the world’s population will be concentrated in major cities, and that’s a problem for the future of food security. Climate change is making it progressively more difficult for farmers around the world to increase food production, and the long supply chains we’ve become reliant on to feed a growing population are breaking at the links.
The reality is we cannot build resilient, climate-smart cities without planning to feed the people who populate them efficiently. It’s time for local food production to be a staple of urban planning and for businesses to get involved.
Rooftop Gardens: Romantic, But They Won’t Feed Cities
First, let me commend cities for the work they’ve done confronting issues like climate change and food security in recent years. Local governments are on the frontlines of global problems and have led the way on policy, with higher levels of government following behind. It’s been encouraging to see places like New York City and Boston develop urban agriculture departments within city hall, but we have to make sure their aim is in the right place.
When cities do address food sources in their urban planning, it often looks like New York City’s pledge to create more community gardens or Toronto’s bylaw that mandates new buildings to include green spaces on their roofs. While these rooftop gardens are beautiful communal spaces, they cannot meet the scale needed to feed our growing population. The World Resources Institute estimates we need to increase agricultural production by 593 million hectares of agricultural land by 2050 to support the global population adequately. That’s about twice the landmass of India. It’s impossible to build a network of rooftops and vacant lots that could reach this scale of growth.
To create reliable local food chains, we have to think bigger. The goal should be to shorten supply chains and make nutritious food more accessible. To do that, I believe that we need sustainable, commercial-scale food hubs that leverage land on the outskirts of urban centers and are capable of supporting all residents with fresh, locally grown food. As the CEO of an agriculture technology company, I can tell you that agtech has come a long way in a short time. Highly automated systems already exist that allow massive amounts of food to be grown in controlled environments, using a fraction of the land and water required by traditional agriculture.
In my opinion, the future of feeding cities lies in food being shipped short distances to shoppers soon after being harvested. It has all the convenience of the “just in time” (paywall) logistics we’ve grown accustomed to without the vulnerability of long supply chains.
A Local Solution To A Global Problem
Food security is an issue that concerns everyone — all levels of government, all citizens of this planet. While the challenges in feeding a growing population are global, I believe that the most effective pathway to a stable food supply is growing locally.
This is where businesses, investors and governments can act now. Governments around the world have shown they can solve complex problems through smart, effective planning, but they can’t do it without private partners. The Netherlands, for example, has historically been a hub for sustainable development in all sectors and has grown to become the second-largest food exporter in the world. The country has put significant funding into sustainable agriculture since WWII, but private companies like Duijvestijn Tomatoes have taken that work to the next level by developing massive operations built on clean technologies that can boost food security, provide economic benefits and reduce emissions tied to farming.
As far as business cases go, developing these sorts of food hubs is a no-brainer. Investment in agriculture technology is booming, with giant players like Walmart making massive moves in indoor growing. In my opinion, this investment cannot come at a better time, and we need to see the boom in venture funding spill over into major financial institutions. Growers we work with often report they have difficulty getting loans for innovative technology because it doesn’t have the same proof of concept as a tractor, for instance. Many watch as banks and governments pump billions into other industries but struggle to come up with the financing needed to weather-proof their crops. Investing in accessible and sustainable options like food hubs could normalize local food production and inevitably create a flywheel of funding that would trickle down to more and more growers.
If we agree we need to future-proof our cities to reduce our environmental footprint and increase food security, then we have to confront the fact that the way we eat today is not sustainable. And while rooftop gardens are a romantic idea, the reality is they won’t feed the millions of people who are at risk of food insecurity. Our urban centers need to focus on reliable, commercial-scale and local opportunities, and we need all the help we can get from private and public sources to make it happen.