Study says: Carbon reductions made possible by urban farming are much smaller than many had assumed


It’s not apples and tomatoes that are responsible for most of the diet’s greenhouse gas emissions; it’s animals. Meat and dairy products contribute 54 percent of the American diet’s potential impact on climate change.

By Deena Shanker
June 21, 2017


There are many reasons to embrace urban agriculture. Greater access to produce could help improve the diet of city residents, and replacing pavement with soil could help abate water runoff, for example. But slowing climate change isn’t one of them. The potential economic benefits of urban farming are also less promising than proponents had hoped, the study found.

Even if Boston-grown vegetables were sold within the larger metropolitan area, the value would still be less than .5 percent of regional gross domestic product. And while some of that growth would go to low-income neighborhoods, the majority would flow to areas with poverty rates below 25 percent.

“I am positive about urban agriculture,” says Benjamin Goldstein, of the Technical University of Denmark and the lead author of the study. “I just want to make sure it’s done for the right reasons.”

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Research Paper: Contributions of Local Farming to Urban Sustainability in the Northeast United States

Benjamin P. Goldstein , Michael Z. Hauschild, John E. Fernández, and Morten Birkved
Technical University of Denmark, Quantitative Sustainability Assessment Division, Produktionstorvet, Building 424, Kongens Lyngby, 2800, Denmark
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, 5-419, Cambridge, 02139, United States


Food consumption is an important contributor to a city’s environmental impacts (carbon emissions, land occupation, water use, etc.) Urban farming (UF) has been advocated as a means to increase urban sustainability by reducing food-related transport and tapping into local resources. Taking Boston as an illustrative Northeast U.S. city, we developed a novel method to estimate sub-urban, food-borne carbon and land footprints using multiregion-input-output modeling and nutritional surveys. Computer simulations utilizing primary data explored UF’s ability to reduce these footprints using select farming technologies, building on previous city-scale UF assessments which have hitherto been dependent on proxy data for UF. We found that UF generated meagre food-related carbon footprint reductions (1.1–2.9% of baseline 2211 kg CO2 equivalents/capita/annum) and land occupation increases (<1% of baseline 9000 m2 land occupation/capita/annum) under optimal production scenarios, informing future evidence-based urban design and policy crafting in the region. Notwithstanding UF’s marginal environmental gains, UF could help Boston meet national nutritional guidelines for vegetable intake, generate an estimated $160 million U.S. in revenue to growers and act as a pedagogical and community building tool, though these benefits would hinge on large-scale UF proliferation, likely undergirded by environmental remediation of marginal lands in the city.

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