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How 16 initiatives are changing urban agriculture through tech and innovation

From high-tech indoor farms in France and Singapore to mobile apps connecting urban growers and eaters in India and the United States, here are more than a dozen initiatives using tech, entrepreneurship, and social innovation to change urban agriculture.

The United Nations estimates (PDF) that nearly 10 billion people will live in cities by 2050. According to a recent publication by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, urban eaters consume most of the food produced globally and maintain more resource-intensive diets including increased animal-source and processed foods — rich in salt, sugar and fats. At the same time, many urban populations — particularly in low-income areas and informal communities — endure acute hunger and malnutrition as well as limited access to affordable, healthy food.

But there are countless ways that cities can feed themselves and create better linkages between rural and urban food systems. In Mexico City, the organization CultiCiudad built the Huerto Tlatelolco, an edible forest with 45 tree varieties, a seed bank and plots for biointensive gardening. In the United States, City Growers uses New York City’s urban farms as a learning laboratory for children to reconnect with nature. And in the Kalobeyei Settlement in northern Kenya, urban agriculture represents a tool for empowerment by improving food security, nutrition, and self-sufficiency among refugees.

"Agriculture and forestry in the city… answer to a variety of urban development goals beyond the provision of green infrastructure and food, such as social inclusion, adaptation to climate change, poverty alleviation, urban water management and opportunities for the productive reuse of urban waste," says Henk de Zeeuw, senior adviser at the RUAF Foundation.

And thankfully, hundreds of entrepreneurs and organizations are using this opportunity to improve urban agriculture and satisfy the demands of an increasingly urban population. From high-tech indoor farms in France and Singapore to mobile apps connecting urban growers and eaters in India and the United States, Food Tank highlights 16 initiatives using tech, entrepreneurship and social innovation to change urban agriculture.

There are countless ways that cities can feed themselves and create better linkages between rural and urban food systems.

1. AeroFarms, Newark (United States)

AeroFarms builds and operates vertical indoor farms to enable local production at scale and increase the availability of safe and nutritious food. The company uses aeroponics to grow leafy greens without sun or soil in a fully controlled environment. The technology enables year-round production while, they say, using 95 percent less water than field farming, resulting in yields 400 times higher per square foot annually. Since its foundation in 2004, AeroFarms aims to disrupt conventional food supply chains by building farms along major distribution routes and in urban areas. The company also won multiple awards, including the 2018 Global SDG Award, for its environmentally responsible practices and leadership in agriculture.

2. Agricool, Paris (France)

Agricool is a start-up that grows strawberries in containers spread throughout urban areas. The company retrofits old, unused containers to accommodate both an LED-lights and aeroponics system making it possible to grow strawberries year-round. The Cooltainers are powered by clean energy and use 90 percent less water than conventional farming. Agricool also works on building a network of urban farmers through the Cooltivators training program, aiming to open up job opportunities for city residents to work in the agricultural sector. The start-up works on expanding operations to other cities, an effort made possible by the replicability of the container’s design.

3. BIGH Farms, Brussels (Belgium)

BIGH (Building Integrated Greenhouses) Farms, a start-up based in Brussels, works on building a network of urban farms in Europe to promote the role urban agriculture can play in the circular economy. BIGH’s designs integrate aquaponics with existing buildings to reduce a site’s environmental impact. The first pilot — above the historic Abattoir in Brussel’s city center — includes a fish farm, a greenhouse and over 2,000 square meters of outdoor vegetable gardens. It started in 2018 producing microgreens, herbs, tomatoes and striped bass. BIGH Farms also partners with local businesses and growers to make sure the farm’s production is complementary to the existing food community.

4. Bites, Phoenix (United States)

Bites is a mobile platform working to help connect urban farmers, chefs and eaters in Phoenix through farm-to-table dining experiences. Eaters and chefs sign up and meet through the app to organize an in-home dining event. Chefs gather the ingredients from urban growers registered on the platform in an effort to promote local, small businesses. Bites was launched in 2017 by Roza Derfowsmakan, founder of Warehouse Apps, to improve accessibility to farm-to-table experiences and support urban farmers. By using technology to build culinary communities, Bites aims to change consumer choices from shipped-in, trucked-in produce to locally sourced food — involving people in the solution itself.

5. BitGrange, Multiple Locations (North America)

BitGrange is an urban farming tool and learning platform working to help educate children on food and agriculture. The BitGrange device, a hydroponics and internet of things-based system, produces edible plants with little water and energy. BitGrange’s software evaluates environmental variables in real-time and notifies growers through a smartphone app to take necessary actions, such as adding more water or plant food. Founded in 2015 according to its philosophy, Plant-Connect-Sync-Play, BitGrange aims to inspire youth to engage in farming by gamifying agriculture. The nano-farm’s design is available for download at BitGrange’s website for potential growers to 3D print the device in their own location.

Chefs gather the ingredients from urban growers registered on the platform in an effort to promote local, small businesses.

6. Bowery Farming, New York Metro Area (United States)

Bowery Farming, an indoor farming start-up, uses software and robotics to grow produce inside warehouses in and around cities. By controlling every aspect of the growing process, the start-up is able to produce leafy greens and herbs using a minimal amount of water and energy per square foot. The technology also makes it possible to grow customized products for chefs and restaurants, such as softer kale and more peppery arugula. Since its establishment in 2017, Bowery Farming is expanding operations beyond its New Jersey warehouse to build vertical farms in other cities and, ultimately, bring efficient food production closer to consumers.

7. Farmizen, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Surat (India)

Farmizen is a mobile-based platform renting farmland to city residents to grow locally grown, organic produce. The app allocates its users a 600 square foot mini-farm in a community nearby. Users can visit the farm anytime to grow and harvest chemical-free produce. Farmworkers look after the plots when the users return to the city, making a fixed and stable income — up to three times more than that of conventional farming. The app is live in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Surat with 1,500 subscribers and 40 acres of land under cultivation. Farmizen was founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Gitanjali Rajamani, driven by the need to create stable livelihoods for farmers and reconnect city-dwellers to agriculture and nature.

8. Fresh Direct, Abuja (Nigeria)

Fresh Direct is an impact-driven start-up using vertical farming and hydroponics to promote locally grown produce and the involvement of youth in agriculture. When young entrepreneur Angel Adelaja started engaging in eco-friendly farming, she faced multiple challenges with conventional farming practices, including access to land, water and technology. As a response, Adelaja founded Fresh Direct in 2014 to make urban agriculture more accessible to everyone, especially youth. Fresh Direct installs stackable container farms in the city, growing organic produce closer to the market. In the future, Adelaja aims to eradicate the notion among young professionals that agriculture is a line of work for the older generations.

9. Gotham Greens, multiple locations (United States)

Gotham Greens builds and operates data-driven, climate-controlled greenhouses in cities across the United States. The greenhouses, powered by wind and solar energy, use hydroponics to grow salad greens and herbs year-round using fewer resources than conventional farming. In addition to its goal of sustainable food production, Gotham Greens also partners with local organizations, schools, community gardens and businesses to support urban renewal and community development projects. Gotham Greens is also the company behind the country’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, a partnership with Whole Foods Market to operate the greenhouse above its flagship store in Brooklyn, New York.

10. GrowUp Urban Farms, London (United Kingdom)

GrowUp Urban Farms works on developing commercial scale, Controlled Environment Production (CEP) solutions to grow fresh food in communities across London. The CEP farms use aquaponics to farm fish and grow leafy greens in a soil-less system, turning previously unused brownfield sites into productive areas. The GrowUp Box — a community farm developed together with sister organization GrowUp Community Farms — produces over 400kg of salads and 150kg of fish each year. Over the long run, the company aims to replicate the aquaponics system to build urban farms in other cities, opening employment opportunities for youth and using agriculture as a means to make communities more self-sustaining.

11. InFarm, multiple locations (Europe)

InFarm, a Berlin-based start-up, develops modular indoor farming systems to bring agriculture into cities. Designed to combat the long distances food travels, the InFarms produce leafy greens and herbs using 95 percent less water than traditional farms and no pesticides. The technology, the company claims, can reduce food transportation up to 90 percent. In 2013, the company pioneered the modular system in restaurants, schools, hospitals and shopping centers. Operations have expanded to distribute portable farms in neighborhoods and supermarkets across Germany, Denmark, France and Switzerland. The expansion, AgFunder reports, can be attributed to InFarm’s decentralized, data-driven model.

The farm’s closed-loop system works with used coffee grounds — collected from local businesses — to turn residual flows into food.

12. Liv Up, São Paulo (Brazil)

Liv Up works to deliver healthy meals and snack kits prepared with locally grown food to residents of the Greater São Paulo region. The start-up sources organic ingredients from family farmers in peri-urban areas, in an effort to shorten value chains and better connect small producers to the urban market. A team of chefs and nutritionists prepares the meals, which are later deep frozen to maintain the food’s integrity and extend its shelf life. Liv Up was founded in 2016 by a trio of young entrepreneurs driven by the lack of access to healthy foods in São Paulo. The start-up operates in seven municipalities of the metropolitan area, rotating its menu every two weeks.

13. Pasona Urban Ranch, Tokyo (Japan)

Pasona Urban Ranch, an initiative of the Pasona Group, is a mix of office space and animal farm in the heart of Tokyo’s busy Ōtemachi district. The initiative aims to raise interest in agriculture and dairy farming among city residents by bringing them in close contact with farm animals. The ranch houses eight animal species, including cattle, goats and an alpaca, which are cared for by specialized staff. Visitors and employees of the building can attend seminars on dietary education and dairy farming. Previously, the Pasona Group gained worldwide acknowledgment for Pasona O2 — an underground office farm built by Kono Designs in 2010 growing 100 regional crops in downtown Tokyo.

14. RotterZwam, Rotterdam (The Netherlands)

RotterZwam, an urban mushroom farm, raises awareness on the potential of the circular economy for addressing environmental issues. The farm’s closed-loop system works with used coffee grounds — collected from local businesses — to turn residual flows into food. The mushroom nursery, built out of old containers, uses solar paneling to power the farm’s operations and the e-vehicles used for product delivery. The farm’s team offers tours to educate citizens on circular systems and trains entrepreneurs wishing to start a mushroom farm. RotterZwam’s second location in the Schiehaven area opened in mid-2019 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign to bring back the farm after a devastating fire in 2017.

15. Sustenir Agriculture (Singapore)

Sustenir Agriculture is a vertical farm working to promote high quality, locally grown and safe food with the lowest possible footprint. The farm — in the heart of Singapore — uses the latest technology in hydroponics and smart indoor farming to produce leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries and fresh herbs. Starting as a basement project in 2012, Sustenir produces 1 ton of kale and 3.2 tons of lettuce per month in an area of 54 square meters.

16. Urban Bees, London (United Kingdom)

Urban Bees is a social enterprise working with communities and businesses in London to help bees thrive in the city. Through education and training, the initiative raises awareness on how to create bee-friendly communities and on how to become responsible beekeepers. The first training apiary was established together with the Co-op Plan Bee in Battersea, South London. The enterprise also advises urban gardening initiatives, including Lush’s rooftop garden, to ensure that green areas install the right forage and create healthy bee habitats. Co-founder Alison Benjamin says that city residents often suffer from nature-deficit disorder and urban beekeeping is one path to reconnect with nature in the city.

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