As a researcher of city agriculture, I used to be shocked to see a current information article bearing the headline “Food from urban agriculture has a carbon footprint six times larger than conventional produce, study shows.” I had spent 5 years researching and publishing peer-reviewed articles and ebook chapters about city agriculture throughout my Ph.D. with the Berkeley Meals Institute, and this conclusion appeared to fly within the face of all that I’d learn. How may this be? 

The researcher and passionate city gardener in me couldn’t resist digging in deeper and dealing to light up a fuller “fact” round this current consequence. Spoiler alert: Keep away from carbon tunnel imaginative and prescient, as specializing in a single emissions metric misses the numerous different advantages that may get us out of the disaster we’re in. 

Again up a step: What’s city agriculture? City ag is any type of meals manufacturing area inside a metropolis, inclusive of business farms that develop and promote on to customers, non-profit farms that serve a broader mission, group gardens, college gardens and even vacant heaps become thriving private gardens or homesteads. 

Higher but, why do some researchers, farmers and activists want the time period “city agroecology?” From 2017 to 2019, my analysis group helped to define and elevate “urban agroecology” within the US as a greater approach of acknowledging the multifunctional advantages of city inexperienced areas. These farms and gardens aren’t “simply” rising meals, they’re additionally constructing group, performing environmental providers (suppose stormwater mitigation and decreasing city warmth island impact), offering habitat for biodiversity and educating city residents. It’s typically one of many solely methods children and adults alike can work together with nature, see the place their meals comes from and witness the magic of a seed sprouting. City rising areas are additionally typically led by ladies and BIPOC farmers (greater than 60 % in my investigation of the East Bay in California’s Bay Space), serving as necessary grounds for empowerment, culturally related meals manufacturing and therapeutic of racialized patterns of agricultural work. 

Oxford Tract analysis farm at UC Berkeley. Photograph submitted by Laney Siegner.

So, I had alarm bells going off when studying about this new research. The analysis from the College of Michigan-led research appears to indicate that fruit and greens grown in city ag have a carbon footprint six occasions bigger than that of “conventionally grown” meals (that means, on rural farmland). 

The selection to match greenhouse fuel depth of soil-based city agriculture methods with standard farming methods brings up an inherently unfair comparability. When taking a look at standard, large-scale farming methods, that are largely monocultures designed to maximise yield per acre by way of software of fossil-fuel based mostly fertilizers, pesticides and different chemical compounds, we have already got a big physique of proof that these are carbon-intensive manufacturing methods with a number of different detrimental environmental impacts (land, air and water air pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat and biodiversity loss throughout billions of acres of “standard farmland” globally). 

Nonetheless, once you divide a big quantity (i.e., carbon emissions) by one other giant quantity (yield per acre), you get a small variety of carbon emissions related to every serving of lettuce, for instance. When taking a look at city group and college farms and gardens, we frequently see extremely diversified plots which are extra sparsely planted, with some weedy edges. They’re not precisely “yield-maximizing” practices on show. So, once you divide a comparatively small variety of carbon emissions, which the researchers within the research attributed to issues similar to backyard infrastructure (raised beds, paved paths, instrument sheds and others)—so, oblique emissions—and divide it by one other very small quantity (yield per acre), you find yourself with a comparatively bigger quantity than your standard allegory “lettuce serving.” The mathematics right here doesn’t level the finger in direction of the system that actually wants altering in carbon and local weather phrases. 

This research disregards the much more urgent situation of the sheer amount of emissions that come from standard farming. Moreover, the conversations solely circled again in direction of the tip to incorporate or acknowledge the numerous local weather “advantages” of getting areas the place metropolis dwellers can join with their meals system and with nature within the metropolis. These much less quantifiable advantages are main, not secondary; they’re important to convey into collective societal focus, reasonably than obscure behind a conclusion that units up a sense of confusion or uncertainty about whether or not city ag is or isn’t a “local weather resolution.” City farms, particularly when properly managed and resourced with constant staffing and metropolis assist, are important items of the local weather options puzzle. 

It brings me again to this unsettled feeling that the research is asking the unsuitable analysis query, if the conclusions and headlines level us in direction of some plan of action round “fixing” city farms to allow them to have a decrease carbon footprint, whereas saying nothing in regards to the carbon-intensive standard farming system that urgently wants to alter to handle the overlapping local weather and public well being disaster. To cite one of many leaders of my city ag analysis challenge, Dr. Timothy Bowles, a professor of Agroecology at U.C. Berkeley: 

“This is a matter with metrics… on this case, utilizing effectivity because the metric (i.e., quantity of meals produced per unit of GHG emission). Effectivity metrics will be problematic for numerous causes, and numerous research have demonstrated extra ‘environment friendly’ meals manufacturing from standard methods in comparison with varied options from a strictly GHG standpoint, largely as a consequence of greater yields, even when complete emissions are excessive. Typically, we want multifunctional views for a extra holistic methods comparability.” 

To make certain, we want standard farming methods proper now that create effectivity and economies of scale to develop and distribute giant volumes of meals to feed a rising inhabitants. There isn’t a switching to diversified farming and regenerative agriculture in a single day, similar to there isn’t any transition to purely photo voltaic and wind energy for our electrical energy system with out correct planning for this modification. I’m not saying we will feed the complete metropolis from the merchandise of city farms (though there have been researchers earlier than me who modeled that that is theoretically possible, inside a 50-mile radius, of a US midwestern metropolis). What we want is for the traditional meals system to alter dramatically: to scale back reliance on fossil-fuel-based inputs, be extra adaptive to local weather extremes, undertake climate-friendly practices similar to cowl cropping and compost software, and in doing all this grow to be a greater supply of wholesome meals. 

I’m additionally all for bettering city farms, growing recycling of supplies and waste streams in cities and resourcing them to be viable websites of meals manufacturing, because the research authors level out as motion objects. I simply discover the impetus for doing so to be restricted if we’re primarily speaking about decreasing the carbon footprint of those websites. City farms are able to educating the ideas of photosynthesis, soil well being and carbon sequestration even when they aren’t sequestering carbon in giant portions. And this data is highly effective. 

The place will we go from right here as researchers, as eaters and producers of meals? The meals system of right now is in disaster. It has prioritized price and yield over all else. The consequence? It doesn’t work for farmers, it doesn’t produce nutritious, wholesome meals for individuals and it’s a catastrophe environmentally. Nonetheless, the way forward for meals will be diversified, plentiful and rooted in soil well being practices, fostering social fairness and farmer well-being. I see that shift occurring already on farms each city and rural, massive and small. It takes schooling, each farmer to farmer and farmer to client, in addition to coverage change to assist the shifts already in movement. By reconnecting with meals, with ecology, with residing soil, we hook up with local weather options and assist to reverse the damages of local weather change.


Laney Siegner is founder and Co-director of Local weather Farm College, with a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley Power and Assets Group. 


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