The Urban Agriculture Problem

These days there are a slew of reasons for wanting to grow your own food. The most obvious reason is the high costs associated with buying organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Another reason for urban farming’s rise in popularity is the alleged health concerns surrounding the widespread use of pesticides and/or GMO crops in modern agriculture. The problems are further exacerbated by recent population trends, indicating continued growth and demand for city living (i.e. more and more people are moving to urban settings). There are many startups attempting to address these concerns with complex–and expensive, equipment to meet the ever increasing demand for indoor farming and sustainable food systems. However, the biggest challenge they seem to face is the lack of horticultural education on the part of the general public.

“Grow-your-own” sounds hip and cool, but actually growing your own can be pretty daunting, especially in poorly lit, sub-optimal interior spaces. Far too often, solutions for sustainable living discount or flat out ignore the roles ancillary disciplines play in the process. In the case of indoor farming, people want to grow their own food primarily because it will save them money or make them healthier and not necessarily because they want to get into gardening. Thus the problem and the proposed solutions are frequently at odds with each other. The user experience becomes clunky and difficult with a high learning curve to boot. There’s too much in-between knowledge to be filled, shifting the burden from product to consumer. Unless we somehow automate the entire gardening process, customers are left with unanticipated responsibilities, rigorous chores, and what will feel like major time sinks. “It sucks to grow-my-own. I’ll just pay the premiums and dream of a better world instead,” they’ll say.

Not to put a damper on this hot topic, but the challenge centers around plants being actual living things. As history tells us, once humanity successfully domesticated key plant species, the Agricultural Revolution was born. Large scale agriculture enabled even larger populations over time and food quickly became a commodity. Continuous population rise, however, caused us to slowly “outgrow” traditional agriculture’s limits and the old system has now become unsustainable. Genetic engineering seems to provide us a possible lifeline (temporarily at least), but the science behind it remains controversial. Which brings us full circle. Interestingly, when problems get big enough, we tend to always return to the basics. The basics in this case are traditional farming methods, only this time they are compounded by the limitations of urban life.

Solving urban agriculture requires a shift in our population’s mindset regarding plant cultivation. Raising a bean stalk from seed to harvest requires at least some level of horticultural exposure. It is by no means rocket science, as people grow vegetables all the time in the ‘burbs. However, it is an acquired skill nonetheless, a skill mostly unpracticed today by most urbanites. On a side note, I also don’t foresee automatons running our indoor or outdoor gardens anytime soon, contrary to what buzzworthy AI proponents would have you believe. Those days will come, but not soon enough for many of us.

Gardening is increasingly popular among millennials, which is great, but basic education is still needed if we are to truly solve “grow-your-own.”  We are not quite there yet, but I am hopeful that growing plants, at least in some ways, will be the next big thing.

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