Urban vs. Industrial Agriculture

By: Dan Burke-Perez

Today, we largely rely on industrial agriculture to produce our food. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on chemical inputs and uses monoculture—dedicating huge areas to only one crop—to grow food. Today, most of the food in the world is produced, packaged, shipped, and sold through a global food system with industrial agriculture at the base. David Tillman and Michael Clark of the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul say industrialized agriculture is a “major cause of environmental degradation”1, not to mention waste. The way food is preserved and distributed, 33% of all food produced by industrial agriculture is destroyed pre-distribution for the sake of profit2. Recently urban agriculture has gained traction as a possible alternative to industrial agriculture that can meet the needs of an increasingly urban world and that can begin to regenerate the urban ecological environment.

One team of international researchers has gone as far to say that a ‘radical change’ from industrial agriculture towards a more regional scale is necessary3. They believe this radical change will include a shift to a City-Region Food Systems model in which food is produced on a smaller scale that keeps food local to cities and their surrounding towns, a model several cities have already adopted3. According to supporters, the City-Region Food Systems model has the potential to increase access to food, generate jobs and income, increase a region’s resilience, foster rural-urban linkages, promote ecosystem and natural systems management, and support participatory government3. This model promotes agro-ecological—rather than industrial—farming because agroecology can better reduce the negative impacts of climate change on cities1,2,3.

Two researchers from McGill University argue that urban agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of environmental harm and food insecurity. Their study4 set out to estimate the ability of urban agriculture to feed city dwellers in a number of real world countries by using average urban population densities, available land, poverty rates, target vegetable intakes, and potential vegetable yields per acre as variables. The results of the study showed that there are big differences between countries’ abilities to feed their residents with urban agriculture. According to these calculations cities in countries like Chile and Canada would be able, in theory, to at least supplement a significant amount of their populations’ diets with urban agriculture. Countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia on the other hand would only be able to feed a fraction of their people this way, even if they dedicated an impossible 400% of urban land to food production4. Other researchers have noted that urban agriculture, though celebrated in certain circles, is often not as effective in practice at combating food insecurity as many would like to believe. Due to social and economic power dynamics, the limited availability of urban land, and a general lack of government support, the authors suggest that urban agriculture is not exercised to its full potential5. However, they also argue that urban agriculture encourages horizontal exchanges of knowledge and is more adaptive to local changes in the environment than conventional agriculture5.

Urban agriculture also improves the health of urban soils6. Many things affect the ability of a farm to improve soil health, including its habitat type, pesticide and fertilizer application, tilling or digging practices, and the history of the site’s development6. Regenerative agriculture—a rising method of food production that seeks to regenerate good soil and reduce harm to ecosystems—has gained popularity as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Many environmental benefits are associated with regenerative agriculture. Tillman and Clark argue that converting the world’s crop production to use regenerative techniques would reduce annual carbon emissions by 5-24% by trapping carbon in soils2. Additionally, the use of regenerative methods—such as composting, cover crops, and reduced tilling—decreases the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and generally improves soil health2. Between 13% and 74% of annual greenhouse gas emissions could also be eliminated if pasture and livestock operations were run using regenerative practices2.

As the effects of climate change continue to worsen, people and cities must look for places in the food system to intervene. With more and more of the world’s population living in cities, it is in our best interest to question a food system that is so far removed from where most of us live. The transition from industrial agriculture to urban regenerative agriculture will be crucial if we are to overcome the challenges of climate change and urban food insecurity.

  1. Clark,M. and Tilman,D. “Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice.” Environmental Research Letters. 2017.
  2. Quarles, W. (2018). “Regenerative Agriculture can Reduce Global Warming.” The IPM Practitioner, XXXVI (1/2). Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  3. Blay-Palmer, A., Santini, G., Dubbeling, M., Renting, H., Taguchi, M., & Giordano, T. (2018). “Validating the City Region Food System Approach: Enacting Inclusive, Transformational City Region Food Systems.” Sustainability, 10(5), 1680. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su10051680
  4.  Badami, Madhav G., and Navin Ramankutty. “Urban Agriculture and Food Security: A Critique Based on an Assessment of Urban Land Constraints.” Global Food Security, 25 Oct. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912414000431.
  5. Chihambakwe, Michelle, et al. “Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture as A Pathway to Food Security: A Review Mapping the Use of Food Sovereignty.” Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 20 Dec. 2018, www.mdpi.com/2078-1547/10/1/6/htm.
  6. Tresch, Simon, et al. “A Gardener’s Influence on Urban Soil Quality.” Frontiers in Environmental Science, 18 Apr. 2018, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00025/full.


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