Henry Gordon-Smith is a passionate pioneer of urban farming. With his company Agritecture Consulting he wants to change our urban food supply. In an interview, the sustainability strategist explains why there should also be ridesharing for fruit and vegetables in the future.
You were born in Hong Kong, grew up in Tokyo and have meanwhile lived all over the world. How is it that you are interested in farming as a child of the big city?
As a child I was particularly fascinated by the huge inner-city parks. A few years later, we moved to the Czech Republic and there we spent almost every weekend in a country house where my mother had a garden. As you can imagine, as a teenager, I didn't find that quite as exciting. I wanted to hang out with my friends in the city. During my studies, I became more and more interested in sustainability - I wanted to find solutions for the problems in food production no matter what.
What can urban farming do and why will it become more and more important in the future?
In the past, we used to plan and build our cities together with the farmers. We settled in areas that could feed us. With the growing globalization, agriculture has been outsourced more and more. This may be convenient for us, but it has its consequences: Our food production is very intransparent and our ecosystem is suffering from high water consumption and the use of pesticides. This cannot work in the long run.
Henry Gordon-Smith is a sustainability strategist who focuses on urban agriculture, water problems and new technologies. In 2011, he started the leading industry blog platform Agritecture.com, which is dedicated to the topic of Urban Farming For the last five years, he has been providing urban agricultural consulting services to customers and preparing feasibility studies and conceptual designs around the world with his company Agritecture Consulting. He grew up all over the world and has the unique ability to develop creative solutions to local and global problems.
First and foremost, it can't work if more and more people are moving to the cities, right? Studies estimate that in the year 2050 eighty percent of our food supply will be consumed in cities.
If cities are the future, we must rethink food production so that we can continue to have a reliable food supply in the future. Urban farming has great potential in this regard! My goal is to completely transform the food system in the urban environment. For me, urban farming is a door opener and an experimental toolbox for innovative agricultural technologies. However, if we want to provide sufficiently for all inhabitants, we must think and plan on a larger scale. That's why the surrounding countryside continues to play a focal role.
How much space do we need for the sustenance of one person, for instance?
To provide one person with balanced nutrition for an entire year, you need about half a hectare of cultivation area. Let's take New York with its 7 million inhabitants: The 5,000 acres of available roof space are just enough to feed 10,000 people. Outside the city there is more space and more free areas.
What percentage of the urban population are we already able to feed with urban or regional food production at present?
Worldwide, we are already producing ten percent of our vegetables in or near urban areas. A study conducted by Google Earth estimates that we could reach about 15 percent - calculated in accordance with the size of the land that could still be used for urban farming. An American study assumes that most US cities could produce 70 percent of their vegetable needs within a 100-miles radius.
Vertical, Indoor, Outdoor: How can we think of urban farming?
There are very different variants of urban farming. They cover the complete range: from small systems that can be maintained in supermarkets or at home, to roof gardens, vertical farms on facades, greenhouses, floating agricultural areas, to cultivation on oil platforms or yachts. Urban farming means thinking about farming in 3D: Where could we integrate food production in the city? Where can we find unused land areas? For this, we have to think outside the known rectangular cultivation area. Really great ideas also come up when mobility and agriculture are considered together.
Can urban farming reduce our CO₂ footprint?
Well, the long transport routes are eliminated. Here, too, it's about the technology: Vertical farming has a larger CO₂ footprint due to intensive lighting. The benefits of this high-tech farming are the high yields per square meter and the low water consumption. The traditional low-tech farming on agricultural land leaves a comparatively low CO₂ footprint, but also a lower yield. If we want to make our food climate-friendly, according to my calculations, greenhouses are the best solution: There, we can grow a variety of different and pesticide-free products. But, in the end, we always need a mix of low tech and high tech.
What kind of mobility is needed for logistics and how could Daimler contribute to this?
In urban farming, we have to think about the last kilometer: How will the products reach the consumers? As a small or mid-size farmer, I am not able to and maybe don't even want to afford to buy my own truck. Many producers also don't want to have to worry about distribution at all. A flexible delivery service for all urban producers would therefore be a great initiative - and would create value added for customers and enterprises.
What would be the TOP 3 requirements for such a mobility solution?
On demand, climate-friendly and scalable in size. We must be able to pick up on call and to deliver efficiently - in the ideal case, electrically, with zero emissions. Flexibility must not be lacking: A gourmet farmer might want to deliver only a small batch of quality products to a star restaurant, whereas another city farmer wants to deliver a truckload of salad to the supermarket.
What challenges do we still have to solve?
The biggest challenge is that thus far few cities have realized how important urban farming will be in the future. The land utilization plan of metropolitan areas frequently only provides for commercial or residential space as an option - and not for agricultural land. As a result, urban farming can sometimes feel like an underground guerrilla movement. Thus, the first step is that agriculture can quite officially become a part of the city again, as it used to be. Pioneering cities for urban farming are for example Paris, Atlanta and New York.
How can companies support your vision of urban farming?
Large, innovative companies have a decisive advantage: They have the opportunity to accelerate innovations with young visionaries - for example through innovation labs, collaborative work or pioneering projects. Conversely, large companies also benefit from the fresh wind of innovation and change that is sometimes lost to them due to their size.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to make urban mobility more sustainable and more efficient. How do you use AI and Big Data for urban farming?
For example, we use sensors to record the plant environment: Climate/air conditioning, water supply, ventilation, lighting. We then use the data to identify the ideal growth conditions and test these conditions in different scenarios. In this way, we collect the knowledge that has thus far been in the hands of the farmers and make it accessible to everyone. Of course we also use the data for agricultural work with robotics, automation and other technologies.
Have you already optimized an entire city for urban farming?
In Toronto, we have planned eleven urban farms that don't take up valuable floor space. This is exciting and is the future!