It may have spent years as the niche sidekick to traditional rural farming, but a new report by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has confirmed that urban agriculture has grown to be a major player in how the cities of the world are fed, with city farms worldwide now covering an area similar to that of the entire EU – 1.1 billion acres, or 456 million hectares.
‘This is the first study to document the global scale of food production in and around urban settings and it is surprising to see how much the farm is definitely getting closer and closer to the table,’ said Pay Drechsel, a scientist at the IWMI and co-author of the study, which was published in the November 2014 issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters. The IWMI is a non-profit, scientific research organization focusing on the sustainable use of water and land resources in developing countries.
While most urban farms are found outside the centre of cities, there are still 67 million hectares (166 million acres) of city farms within the very centre of cities around the world. And unlike their more rural counterparts, city farms tend to lean away from cereals like wheat or rice, and instead focus on valuable and highly nutritious crops such as fresh vegetables.
One of the core conclusions from the study is that many cities around the world have higher food securities than commonly believed, and are therefore less reliant on long-distance shipping of food from rural regions, or from other countries. However, it did find significant differences in attitudes between developed and developing nations, when it came to whether city farming was a positive characteristic for their cities.
‘We see this dichotomy where urban farming in wealthy countries is praised for reducing emissions and enhancing a green economy, while in developing countries, it can be regarded as an inconvenient vestige of rural life that stands in the way of modernization,’ says Drechsel. ‘That’s an attitude that needs to change.’
The study also highlighted problems in sub-Saharan Africa where urban farms are being used a method of recycling used, untreated wastewater, which has the unfortunate impact of spreading pollution and pathogens amongst urban populations. For example, in urban areas of Ghana, there are nearly 2,000 urban vegetable farmers supplying greens to 800,000 people every day. But in Accra, up to ten per cent of household wastewater is indirectly recycled by urban vegetable farms.
However, the IWMI believes these health concerns can be significantly reduced with proper education for urban farmers, whose produce then provides essential nutrition for the developing cities of Africa.