urban farming

Eat Local, Farm in Water?

Why bother growing food in the city when farmers are sweating it out for us in the country?

Andreas Graber is Founder and Director of R&D for UrbanFarmers, a Swiss company delivering turn-key systems for urban rooftop farms using aquaponics technology. We asked him to share his thoughts on growing—and eating—local food, and whether or not urban farming is really all that green.

Ask him your burning questions in person during the Food Cultivation and Civic Engagement discussion at swissnex San Francisco on Monday, June 2, 2014, where he is a panelist.

1.) Why did you start UrbanFarmers?

I am an ecological engineer by passion and was researching how aquaponics technologies could be implemented into existing rural dairy farms in Switzerland. The technology proved to be a success, however the business case didn’t work, as the markets were too remote. It was my business partner Roman Gaus who approached me with the idea of bringing this unique production method into the very heart of the city, namely the rooftops! We want to grow the freshest fish and vegetables in your city, using the most resource efficient technology available. In short: grow the best quality food!

2.) Why is local food better and more important for people and the planet? Why does it matter where our food comes from?

Food is more than just fuel for our body. Food is about pleasure, about identification with the story behind it (just think about the power of branding!) and always comes with a social context. Buying local gives the consumer a new feeling of empowerment: I know exactly what it is that I am annexing into my very own body, I know the producer and have trust in him or her, and it is me making my personal choice – not the industrialized and globalized food supply chain. Buying local means becoming a rebel – join the fresh food revolution!

3.) Can healthy food really be grown in the city? Isn’t it polluted?

A very good question, and the answer is yes, but… as food quality depends on many environmental parameters, it is important to keep in check the critical ones. UrbanFarmers for example chose to completely eliminate soil – we use drinking water to grow fish and vegetables. We use only certified inputs for our system – selected fish fry and plant seedlings, premium quality fish feeds, organic fertilizers to top up the “fish water,” biological pest control – and sunlight, of course. The only question mark has to be raised for air quality. Here we protect our produce to the best of our knowledge by growing in a solid greenhouse, eliminating direct contamination risks by precipitation and dust. But even this last point can be solved; pre-filtering city air prior to entry into the greenhouse is technically possible.

4.) What role can aquaponics and aquaculture play in the world, and in solving some of the world’s food problems?

Aquaculture already contributes more than 50% of our fish supply! Even more so in the future: it is clear that if we want to eat fish, we will have to grow it in aquaculture systems. Think of about 80 million tons every year… most of these fish were raised on fish feeds, resulting in nutrients released into the water.

Aquaponics is the technology to extract these dissolved nutrients from the water and convert them into edible, salable produce. For every kg of fish produced, you can grow up to 10 kg of vegetables! You may guess the potential.

In the near future, I expect aquaponics to be further developed for high-tech systems in water recirculating aquaculture, such as we do, that have virtually no impact on the global food shortage due to the high investment costs and thus limited number of farms. Our vision is that up to 20% of the fresh produce consumed within a city could, and should, be grown within city borders.

In subtropical regions, the technology can be used in the open, combining fish ponds and vegetable fields. These systems will contribute to growing food in new areas and indeed provide a lot of food with little resources at lower costs.

5.) Any last thoughts on this subject for our readers?

Think of this: preparing and eating food is pure pleasure. I understand that most of us are happy not to be hunters, gatherers, and farmers anymore and have to “sweat under the sun” in order to survive. But I think our society went one step too far down this road by embracing fast food and industrializing our food supply to the point that farmers in our very own neighborhood cannot make a living anymore, and farmers far away are sweating for us.

Join me in turning this trend around and go back one step: back to pleasure! Let us enjoy fresh, healthy food produced within the region you live. It will come at a slightly higher cost, but when we start thinking as a society, we should be happy to bear these in order to “make the world a better place.” And the next time you buy food, think of the consequences of your choice.