Why urban farming is the next agricultural frontier

By Lunathi Hlakanyane, agricultural economist 

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread its tentacles to every corner of the world, grounding economies to a complete halt and laying waste to entire supply chains, concerns are rising as to what this means for food security.  

Compulsive consumption behaviour or panic-buying is resulting in sharp stock turnover rates, gradually depressing the fresh produce supply curve, and triggering a correlated uptick in the purchase price of both staple and high-value agricultural commodities.  

This combination of food price inflation and inconsistent availability has nudged urban residents to turn to their gardens for sustenance in what appears to be a metropolitan revolution against traditional food markets in favour of self-sufficiency.   

Urban farming has long been touted as an arch mainstay of food security and a viable household income diversification strategy. In fact, it’s estimated that urban farms (from peri-urban agricultural estates to backyard gardens) are responsible for 180 million tonnes or 10% of the annual global food output and provide direct earnings to more than 100 million people, mostly women.  

The estimated value of these earnings is approximately $160 billion. This feature is precisely why urban farming is quite popular in food policy frameworks, which use it as a strategy to combat the triple burden of malnutrition in informal settlements and other destitute areas. The popularity of urban farming is also due, in large measure, to its multi-varied perks, which make it a perfect activity to pursue while in isolation.  

Briefly, such perks include: 

Low barriers to entry: Since most urban farms occupy a surface area of between 0.5 and 5 hectares, they are typically less capital-intensive on a Rand-to-Rand basis. Put simply, they have a low input cost attached to them and do not require substantial capital injections to initiate, therefore making them easily accessible to anyone with enough backyard space.  

Land use efficiency: When we compare land use efficiency, urban farms are actually far more productive than their traditional equivalents and generate a higher output per cultivated area on average, too.   

Resource optimization: For any farm enterprise to succeed, efficient application of input resources like water, seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides is a crucial prerequisite. Luckily, small farm operations like urban farms grant the farmer absolute control over resource application to guarantee minimal waste while ensuring maximum yield.  

High quality produce: Precise application and control of input resources enable the farmer to influence the most vital aspect of any agricultural commodity: quality. And since the product does not move up a lengthy distribution channel, its fresh dynamic is kept virtually intact, guaranteeing the end consumer a product of the highest quality standards. 

Household food security: Lastly, urban farms cushion households from the full brunt of disruptions in the food supply chain by supplying them with convenient, affordable substitutes when they need them the most. As an added bonus, urban farms contribute toward a well-balanced, nutritious diet, which is essential in combating nutritional ailments, like child stunting, caused by nutrition deficiency.  

While covid-19 continues to tighten its noose around world economies, disrupting the labour market and compromising livelihoods on a colossal scale, mandatory lockdowns are propelling households toward tilling their gardens for a reliable nutritional supply.  

In turn, this is uniquely positioning urban farming as the next, cost-effective agricultural frontier as the world grapples with the worst health crisis in recent memory. Though the circumstances are anything but favourable, perhaps no time has ever been more apt to turn toward food self-sufficiency.  

Original article: https://farmersinsidetrack.co.za/2020/05/04/why-urban-farming-is-the-next-agricultural-frontier/