Commercial urban agriculture in New York City has provided questionable environmental gains, and has not significantly improved urban food security.
By Emma Bryce
Apr 5, 2019
These are the findings of a recent case study of New York City which shows that, despite the fanfare over commercial urban farming, it will need a careful re-evaluation if it’s going to play a sustainable role in our future food systems.
The rise of commercial controlled-environment agriculture (CEA)–comprised of large scale rooftop farms, vertical, and indoor farms–is a bid to re-envision cities as places where we could produce food more sustainably in the future. Proponents see CEA as way to bring agriculture closer to urban populations, thereby increasing food security, and improving agriculture’s environmental footprint by reducing the emissions associated with the production and transport of food.
But the researchers on the new paper wanted to explore whether these theoretical benefits are occurring in reality.
They focused on New York City, where CEA has dramatically increased in the last decade. Looking at 10 farms that produce roof- and indoor-grown vegetables at commercial scales, they investigated how much food the farms are producing, who it’s reaching, and how much space is available to expand CEA into.
They found that the biggest of these 10 commercial farms is around a third of an acre in size. Most are on roofs spread across New York City, and some are inside buildings and shipping containers. Mainly, these farms are producing impressive amounts of leafy greens such as lettuce, and herbs; some also produce fish.
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is an emerging form of farming increasingly found in cities worldwide. Advocates promote CEA as the future of food production, arguing for its potential to address challenges ranging from climate change to food insecurity. Detractors state that CEA’s narrow focus on high-end produce, along with its intensive capital and energy needs, limit its meaningful contribution to the urban food system. Over the last seven years, New York City has become an epicenter for urban CEA, offering planners an in-situ setting in which to evaluate its impact. The following case study examines the current state of CEA in New York City, its composition, requirements, and future. The authors identify CEA’s relative contributions, which include providing a small number of green-sector jobs and increasing access to produce in low-income communities. In parallel, they question if CEA provides sufficient benefits to warrant public-sectorsupport. Recommendations for cities considering CEA include critically analyzing its purported benefits; evaluating the environmental, economic and social potential of projects located on publicly-owned rooftops and land; and focusing incentives on nonprofit and institutional production that show clear community benefits.