Unexpected discovery shows some crops grow better in cities than on farms

(ORDO NEWS) — Yields of crops such as cucumbers, potatoes and lettuce can be up to four times higher if grown in urban rather than rural areas, a new study has found – and an important finding for the future of agriculture.

It is currently estimated that 15-20% of the world’s food is grown in cities, including 5-10% of all legumes, vegetables and tubers. But we need a lot more data to understand whether sprawling cities can feed themselves.

As urban life becomes more prevalent around the world, the team behind the new study set out to explore the viability of urban agriculture as a way to increase food security, resilience and stability.

“Despite its growing popularity, there is still a lot we don’t know about urban farming, such as whether yields are similar to conventional farming, or even what crops are commonly grown,” says environmental scientist Florian Payen from Lancaster University in the UK.

By reviewing 200 previous studies covering 53 countries and over 2,000 data points, the team was able to come up with some definitive answers. It is important to note that the analysis covered both gray spaces (eg roads and rooftops) and green spaces (eg parks and allotents).

When it comes to which urban spaces are best for growing crops, there is no clear winner. However, certain types of crops have been shown to be particularly well suited to certain growing methods.

For example, watery vegetables (such as tomatoes) and leafy greens produce high yields in a hydroponic environment that uses water instead of soil.

Foods such as lettuce, cabbage and broccoli are better suited for vertical cultivation, according to the researchers. The study also found that urban farming is better for certain types of food than others.

“Surprisingly, there were few differences between overall yields indoors and outdoors, but there were clear differences in the suitability of crop types for different gray spaces,” Payen says.

“You can’t stack apple trees in a five- or ten-layer tall growth chamber, although we did find one study that managed to grow wheat stacked that way.”

It remains unclear how cost-effective urban agriculture is compared to rural agriculture. The cost of climate-controlled conditions for growing food must be considered, as well as the cost of hiring the necessary staff.

The development of urban agriculture can be beneficial in a number of different ways – from better preparedness for survival in the event of the next pandemic to lower environmental costs of food production – and we now have some solid data on how sustainable this is.

Further research could focus on how easily some urban farming practices can be scaled up, and how urban pollution can affect crop quality. There is still a lot to learn, but this is already a solid foundation to get started.

“This is the first step,” Payen says. “That’s the power of this data set, so that planners and policy makers can understand whether it’s worth investing in rooftop gardens or greenhouses, for example, or whether hydroponic systems are better.”

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