Scares about food safety and the high cost of organics in Shanghai are prompting some city residents to grow their own veggies that are clean, safe, cheap and fresh. Yao Minji visits balcony farmers.
Kevin Liu will have stir-fried green onions with scrambled eggs for dinner tonight, since the leeks he planted last spring on his windowsill are ready to be harvested.
Liu started growing vegetables at home last spring and he is only one among thousands of “balcony farmers” sprouting up around Shanghai. With the increasing concerns about food safety in China, it has become popular among urbanites to grow their own vegetables – they are safer, fresher and cheaper – and the balcony makes an excellent garden.
By 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban centers, creating a huge challenge for governments to feed them in a way that is sustainable. The concept of urban farming – including rooftop gardens, community plots, hydroponics, and aeroponics – is not new in cities around the world. An estimated 800 million people are involved in urban farming.
The PlanNYC 2030 project, for example, encourages New York City residents to create rooftop gardens; a tax abatement offsets 35 percent of the installation costs. Japan has successfully grown food in basements, with the necessary light provided by fiber optics, the air filtered and temperatures maintained. American ecologist Dickson Despommier even proposed the idea of vertical farming, or skyscraper farming, to cultivate plants and feed animals in skyscrapers.
Growing food demand
The concerns about food and demands for more and better food are also rising in China. In 2009, 46.6 percent of China’s population, around 622 million people, will live in urban centers and the number is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2035, according to statisticians and demographers.
“Urban farming helps to reduce impact of global warming, reduce waste, improve air quality, reduce city heat-island effects and promote a healthy ecosystem,” says Susan Evans, founder of Kplunk, a company specializing in sustainable strategy decision making and research, and GoodtoChina, a non-profit sustainability group.
In 2009, she led a Kplunk study on sustainability perceptions and behaviors for around 400 households in Shanghai. It found that around 95 percent of people surveyed are concerned with food safety, “since they are unsure and concerned about farming practices, levels of pesticide, fertilizer and the process of manufacturing.”
Those surveyed also said that certified organic food is too expensive and difficult to find.
In 2010, another Kplunk study of around 120 individuals found 60 percent were interested in growing their own vegetables.
“The potential for change and the ability to pioneer greener healthier cities is huge,” says Evans.
“But it is not yet optimized. Systems are not yet in place to make it easy for people who want to start their own urban farms, which need to be compact and super-easy to implement.”
Although many citizens have been experimenting with their own balconies and windowsill planters, the projects are difficult to enlarge beyond single apartments to rooftops, community gardens or public spaces, as in New York.
In early 2010, the trend of growing vegetables in residential communities came to an end because property managers were overwhelmed by complaints by many residents about the smell of fertilizer, presence of pests, ownership of land and many other issues. Many people didn’t want to see ornamental gardens and relaxation spaces turned into busy garden patches.
Wondering how to create your own urban farm look out for Urban Raw Speech interview with CEO of Kplunk, Susan Evans. For now, check out my next article.