4 Challenges of Urban agriculture.


As our cities continue to suck people off the land, and grow bigger, swallowing adjacent farm land, we face the challenge of how we feed ourselves into the future.

It may not be a problem now, or in 5 years, but it will be a problem. China’s urban middle class is currently around 400 million out of a 1.5 billion population. 20 years ago, there was little if any middle class, so the move has been dramatic, and is not slowing.

China is an extreme case, but one we need to consider in Sydney as we look to the future of our children. Marrying agriculture with urban living, figuring out how we can feed ourselves without destroying the landscape should be on the planners radar, so for those thinking about the challenges, here is my “two penneth” worth.

  1. Personalised. We are in a world of “i” one in which consumers expect to be addressed and marketed to on a personal level for clothing, cars, even  shoes, so why should it be any different for the food we consume? Indeed, the food we consume is arguably more relevant to us than almost anything else. As I observe the strategies of the major supermarket chains,  they are hell bent on removing consumer choice as a cost reduction strategy. This is working currently, but the rise of farmers markets, resurgence of specialist retail, and new net based business models may indicate a stirring at the edges that will at least partially disrupt this “efficiency over choice” business model in time. The opportunity for intelligent  values based branding of food products has never been greater.
  2. Localised. As a kid in the late 50’s and early 60’s (yes, I am that old) there were a number of southern Mediterranean migrants living in the local area. Every single one of them had a back yard garden producing an array of vegetables and fruit for the table. I came to realise it was not a matter of cost, but availability, freshness, and a cultural imperative that drove them to grow in their backyard. Their children, the ones I grew up with, did not follow their parents, sacrificing the back yard garden for the convenience of the supermarket, but the pendulum has swung back, and our children, the grandchildren of the migrants, are returning to the notions of freshness, combined with low food miles, minimum chemical use, and product provenance that their grandparents had. The reasons may be a bit different, and more considered, but the preference for local product, with the inherent freshness and provenance is the same.
  3. Efficiency. The world has moved from being a place of plenty to increasingly a place of scarcity. Water, energy, labour, and available land are all becoming scarcer, and the increasing price of these resources is reflecting that scarcity. For many, the efficiency of their use of resources is often the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. The side benefit is that efficient use of natural resources  also makes ecological sense.
  4. Intensity. We are seeing increasing intensity on every operational parameter you care to measure. Capital, IT, production, labour, all are far more intensely utilised than just a few years ago. In addition to the operational end, consumers are increasingly scrutinising the product they buy, looking for confirmation of the explicit and implicit claims made, and are unforgiving in the event that they smell a rat. This intense consumer scrutiny and selectivity that is emerging  I have called elsewhere the ‘Masterchef effect”

There is considerable overlap between these four factors, and they are mutually supporting, but it seems to me that they reflect the foundation challenges faced by successful urban agriculture.

About strategyaudit

StrategyAudit is a boutique strategy and marketing consultancy concentrating on the challenges of the medium sized manufacturing businesses that make up the backbone of our economy. The particular focus is on their strategic and marketing development. as well as the business and operational efficiency improvements necessary for day to day commercial survival. We not only give advice, we go down "into the weeds" to ensure and enable implementation.
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7 Responses to 4 Challenges of Urban agriculture.

  1. Allen says:

    My view in relation top the funding of initiatives is that banks will provide finance to projecvts that meet their risk and return benchmarks and are largely agnostic about the nature of the investment. Pretty obviously however, the calculation of the risk/return available from something new (like intensive agriculture) as distinct from something well known like housing, is more challenging, so it bcomes gharder to raise the finance as the investment proposal gets more out of line with the status quo.
    Therefore it becomes a marketing challenge, to engage the financiers in the discussion to break down some of the known/unknown barriers, and then to structure agricultural projects that offer better returns than housing.
    To me it is pretty simple. Finance will go where the best return is in the longer term, so making land more financially productive as a farming asset than it would be as a housng asset is the challenge.
    Easy to say, pretty hard to do, and the reality is that the innovation required to achieve the outcome is pretty disturbing for risk averse lenders.

    • joyohana says:

      Agree with your view of the banks and the theory of how an investor should respond. Now the specifics, is there an example of a successful exponent of the theory?

  2. joyohana says:

    Perhaps I should have commented that the proportion locally produced will increase but it won’t take one hundred years. It is happening in a dramatic way all around the world today and is opening up new commercial opportunities daily. There are multiple reasons why it is happening, but there is no doubt it is happening. Join the World Food Day celebrations on October 16 at Campbeltown and see first hand the vibrant movement of community participation in local gardens.

  3. Pingback: Defining the future of agriculture | StrategyAudit

  4. joyohana says:

    1 A large variety of plants can and will be grown anywhere in the city for a large variety of reasons, generally not for food, mainly because we can and have the money to do it.
    2 In emergencies large amounts of food can be grown in the city and will if needed on a “distributed” ie grown in public spaces approach (potential for 738m tomato plants in Los Angles) as happened in WW2 in London.
    3 Currently emergencies (short and long term) are minimal and are met by “trickle down” food mechanisms which avoid need for polices apart from confronting energy in “waste” as it applies to food not energy in “motor fuel” which is 100 times greater.
    4 Concentrated, specialised, large, capital intensive food production enterprises will continue to expand with the bulk located beyond the ever growing city fringes.
    5 The economies of concentrating people in ever diminishing space per person (200 sq m) units will continue because of the attraction of social benefits. At Manhatten densities all the population of the world could fit in NZ. All resources needed for their survival, water, energy, materials for building, clothing etc, food etc will be transferred in.
    6 These communities will focus on social interactions of ever increasing diversity from fireworks, light shows etc as well as cultural institutions and interactions for the local and visitor economies.

    • strategyaudit says:

      I am not sure I completely agree with your belief that the current trends of intensive agriculture outside expanding urban areas will continue relatively unchanged, and separate top the urban environment.
      Emergency gardens as happened during the war, and elsewhere can happen again, and with the addition of a bit of modern “smarts” become a part of our cities.
      I believe that to best leverage the resources we have, particularly water, and to reduce the “miles” our food has to travel, that some form of integration between urban development and agriculture will occur, particularly with vegetables and annual fruit.
      In a hundred years, I suspect our cities will be both bigger and greener, and at least a portion of what is eaten will be produced “locally” .

      • joyohana says:

        I understand that this topic is very debatable, but don’t the banks have the last say? They will invest in houses but not in gardens? They will invest in industrial agriculture not in permaculture?
        Perhaps it is not all economics or as you rightly point out resource constraints may make some propositions you propose bankable and I agree. Which ones? Transport fuels scarcity will force higher prices and economic exclusion so that will be a factor. Water is now a private asset and subject to severe resource constraints so it will be a sitter for economic exclusion. Food is plentiful and cheap so only indirectly affected but economic exclusion already applies, catered for by SNAP in rich countries.
        Yes you have created a debate and it needs more analysis.

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