Urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Hydroponics at work. Image: Getty.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.


Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about $6.9bn worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

They grow up so fast. Image: Mandy Zammit/Grow Up/author provided.

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

A simplified hydroponic frame in Portsmouth. Image: Silvio Caputo/University of Portsmouth/author provided.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

The ConversationAs with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.

Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.