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Are Urban Farms The Solution To Climate Change?

Dominic Hall-Thomas

Klara Beauters- Small urban farms and community gardens are common across New York City. And part of their appeal is many of them say they are a healthier, more environmentally friendly alternative to buying fruit or vegetables from the supermarkets. Where the food has been shipped around the country or world on trucks or boats which might increase pollution. So, urban farms, a green alternative right?

Fahima Degia- Well, new research from the University of Michigan says think again. In fact, they found from vegetable to vegetable, an urban farm creates six-times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a conventional farm. Why? Reporter Dominic Hall-Thomas headed to some of the city’s urban farms to dig into the numbers. 

Dominic Hall-Thomas- Matthew Walker is the kind of guy who likes his vegetables fresh. Like straight from the plant fresh. 

Matt Walker- So in here we had some kohlrabi and these flowers are all edible as well, if you'd like to try one. 

Hall-Thomas-  Yeah, sure. Okay, so he's picking one off the, um, off the plant itself. 

Walker- It has a bit of a broccoli flavor to it. 

Hall-Thomas- It does have a bit of a broccoli flavor to it.

Hall-Thomas- Walker is the head of the Battery Park Urban Farm, and like many of the one thousand farms in the city it’s a pretty small plot. It’s dwarfed on one side by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan and hemmed in on the other by the East River. Rows of vegetable beds run in strips down the it’s length. Some neatly planted with a cacophony of bright green spring stems, others still a muddy mound. 

Walker- The ones that we haven't shaped yet look like, uh, Toblerone to me. We're going to sort of smooth out a bit before we start planting them

Hall-Thomas- The farm's goal is to help grow sustainable and fresh produce but also to educate school children and gardening enthusiasts. And they do this in a number of ways: kids and volunteers can help out at the farm learning how to compost, choose plants that will benefit local wildlife, and of course, run a farm without environmentally damaging chemicals. 

Walker-  We manage everything entirely organically, meaning that we don't add any chemical fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides to the farm.

Hall-Thomas- But despite the farms best efforts, new research from Michigan University suggests that a head of broccoli grown on an urban farm might have a carbon footprint that is much larger than a head of broccoli grown on a conventional farm. Meaning an industrial scale farm that might sell their food to large supermarket or restaurant chains. 

When I asked Walker for his reaction to the study’s findings he said he is a farmer not a scientist so he accepts the results. But he was keen to point out that the environmental impact of conventional agriculture compared to urban farming is complicated.

Walker- There's so many variables at play in terms of if a big farm is using a tractor and all of the fossil fuels that go into the use of that tractor or go into the production of that tractor versus smaller farms that might be doing everything by hand.

Hall-Thomas-. But some in the farming community weren’t so forgiving. The study faced backlash from experts who said too few urban farms were studied. And those in the urban farming community were quick to point out that the study underestimates just how damaging conventional agriculture can be.

Depending on who you ask, Jake Hawes, the author of the study, is either the hero or the villain of urban farming. 

His study was supposed to teach urban farmers how to be more environmentally friendly rather than to criticize them. Instead he’s found himself at the center of some conspiracy theories for his work. 

Hawes- Some of the more interesting conspiracy theories we've heard; Let me just say we were not associated with the World Economic Forum. We're not working for Monsanto. 

Hall-Thomas- You see what Hawes' study found was that despite urban farmers best efforts to use fewer chemicals or compost to their hearts content they are often wasteful in comparison to the streamlined business of commercial agriculture. 

Hawes- So the headline is that the average carbon footprint of urban agriculture is six times that of conventional agriculture. 

Hall-Thomas- A small urban farm might get themselves going by buying wood for raised beds, a few plastic water butts, and fertilizer for a few seasons, and then within a few years have to close and when they close, most of that equipment, that created a lot of greenhouse gasses when they were being produced, isn’t used to its full potential. 

Hall-Thomas- The average urban farms in New York City last just under eight years before closing according to Hunter College's Food Policy Centre. And they close for all kinds of reasons. But mainly costs. New York is an expensive city, paying for equipment, water, and fertilizers means simply balancing the books is a big challenge. And so, many farms rely on volunteers to operate. 

All the way back up town in Harlem Judi Desiree from Saint Nicholas Miracle Garden knows how tricky it is to find volunteers to keep an urban garden open. 

Desire works full time and then on the weekends works with her volunteer team to keep the garden running. She takes care of it, and, in some ways, it takes care of her. 

Judi Desire- You know, therapists are expensive. And, um, putting your hand in soil, it's more affordable. Like, ha, ha, ha. Pretty much. 

Hall-Thomas- And even though she hadn’t heard of Hawes’ research, she did think it didn’t reflect what she had seen in her time gardening in the city. 

Hall-Thomas- Were you surprised to hear that?  

Desire- Yes!  Because, from at least many of the garden spaces I know, they don't use, chemicals. Most of the garden spaces came from a time where the city had kind of a lot of asbestos and lead in the soil and so you have a lot of gardens that's trying to remedy and reduce chemicals in the soil.

Hall-Thomas- But in many cases these plots aren’t the gardener’s own land. Like a lot of New Yorkers, many farmers are renters. And Jake Hawes, the study’s author, says some landowners would rather use the land for something more profitable, like a parking lot. 

Hawes- So basically they build up this garden, including the infrastructure, and then some developer buys the lot. There goes the garden.

Hall-Thomas- A small community garden might only be there for five years, maybe a decade, but  a giant conventional farm might be there for six generations. 

Hawes- Yeah so what I've been trying to make clear is we are absolutely not advocating for tearing out all the gardens because, in fact, our  results would indicate that,  if we tear out all the gardens, we are hurting the carbon footprint of what urban food is getting produced.

Hall-Thomas- Back at Battery Park Urban Farm, Matthew Walker, the head programme director, and his team will be celebrating the farm's 14th birthday this year. Far longer than the average farm lasts in this city. And they’re looking forward to a new season of fruit and vegetables. Including some favorites they have grown in the past

Walker- we tried out some small mini watermelons and those have worked well enough for us if we can get them before the squirrels do.

Hall-Thomas- They’ve already figured out how to stick around, so hopefully figuring out the squirrels will be light work.  

Dominic Hall-Thomas, Columbia Radio News. 


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