How urban farming is helping to make food more sustainable – Guest post by Daniel Slater

When we think of farming we imagine rural landscapes with huge fields extending as far as the eye can see. For the most part that’s true, but it’s not the only way: urban farming in and around cities is on the rise.

What is urban farming?

Urban farming is an umbrella term that covers all sorts of farming in and near cities, including growing plants and raising livestock.1 From growing salad leaves in disused railway arches or herbs inside supermarkets, to people growing tomatoes on their balconies or keeping chickens in their backyard, urban farming can take many different forms.

In Berlin, for example, one company grows herbs and salad leaves right inside supermarkets and restaurants, cutting down the miles that food has to travel to reach you to zero.2 And in London, rooftops are used by beekeepers to produce honey specific to individual postcodes that is sold in shops throughout the city.3

While all forms of urban farming come with challenges, they also bring benefits that can help make our food systems more sustainable. A 2007 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the UN says that, on the whole, urban farming complements rural agriculture, and helps increase the efficiency of national food systems.4

The benefits of urban farming: cutting food miles and waste

With 2/3 of the world’s population  expected to be living in cities by 2050, it makes sense to grow food closer to where people will actually eat it. Researchers estimate that if cities around the world took full advantage of opportunities for urban agriculture, we could produce as much as 180 million metric tons of food a year—just from urban farms alone.5

Though it’s unlikely that any city would be able to produce enough food to entirely sustain itself, the practice also has plenty of other benefits: adding greenery to otherwise grey urban landscapes, helping us cut down on food waste because there’s less chance of crops going bad while in transit, and creating jobs in cities.

One of the other big advantages is that growing locally reduces food miles . But while cutting food miles is an admirable aim, transportation only accounts for a small percentage of carbon emissions from the food we eat, so food grown in your city doesn’t necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint  than food that’s shipped in from further afield.6

Indoor farming: increasing food security

High-tech indoor growing systems designed specifically for indoor urban farming mean that we can produce fresh food year round, not having to rely on the weather outside, which is a good thing for food security as climate change brings more extreme weather events.7

But while outdoor and rooftop farms can make use of natural sunlight, indoor farms need electricity to power artificial lights and grow their crops, increasing their environmental footprint . But technology can help keep this footprint to a minimum: for example, instead of mimicking the full spectrum of sunlight, indoor farms often use pink LEDs that include only the red and blue wavelengths of light that plants actually need to stimulate growth, using less energy.8

Another big challenge facing companies setting up farms in cities is the cost of land. High land costs can lead to high prices that mean produce is only available to those who can pay the most, not poorer communities who are most in need of affordable fresh food.9

What fruit and veg is easy to grow on a terrace?

If you live in a city, you can become an urban farmer too, and you don’t need lots of technology to get started! All you need is a terrace, a balcony, or even just a windowsill. Once you get the hang of it, you could be producing a serious amount of food. The FAO estimates that a garden plot one square metre in size can produce 20kg of produce each year – equivalent to around 160 tomatoes, or 18 cabbages.1

It’s best to start small and grow food you know you like to eat. Tomatoes and chillies do well on balconies, and herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage will cope there too.10 If your garden doesn’t have room for a full vegetable plot, beetroot, broad beans, and carrots will grow well in containers.11 And if you only have a sunny windowsill to play with, basil will appreciate being inside sheltered from the wind.

Do you grow vegetables on your balcony or terrace? What have you found works the best? Let us know in the comments!



  1. Urban Agriculture, FAO. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  2. Infarm. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  3. Barnes & Webb. Craved London. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  4. FAO (2007). “Profitability and sustainability of urban and peri-urban agriculture.” Accessed 31 May 2019.
  5. Clinton et al (2018). “A Global Geospatial Ecosystem Services Estimate of Urban Agriculture.” Accessed 31 May 2019.
  6. Weber and Mathews (2008). “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  7. Centre for Urban Agriculture. The University of Nottingham. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  8. “Vertical ‘Pinkhouses:’ The Future Of Urban Farming?” NPR. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  9. “Is urban farming only for rich hipsters?” Guardian. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  10. “How to grow vegetables on a balcony”. Guardian. Accessed 31 May 2019.
  11. Vegetables in containers. RHS. Accessed 31 May 2019.



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