How local, urban farming could help alleviate international food supply chain issues
| May 06, 2020
Globalization has meant a lot of things: More opportunities for economic advancement, an easier way for pandemics to spread (as we've seen with COVID-19), and the rise in internationally supported food production and consumption in recent decades.
Regarding food stocks, cultivation has become more efficient, and diets have diversified. People are eating food that their parents never experienced nor knew previously existed. But this edible bounty is leading to a situation where the majority of the world's population lives in countries now dependent on — partially — imported food.
This food distribution model makes for a fragile food supply chain, especially during a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new study published in Nature Food and led by Pekka Kinnunen modeled the minimum distance between crop production and consumption by humans around the world to meet food demand.
The study was facilitated in collaboration with the University of Columbia, the University of California, the Australian National University, and the University of Göttingen, which found wide-ranging differences between various areas and their local foliage and food production. In Europe and North America, temperate crops, including wheat, are found mostly within a radius of about 300 miles, while the global average is about 2,400 miles.
The study examined six key crop groups: cereals (wheat, barley, rye), rice, corn, tropical grains (millet, sorghum), tropical roots (cassava), and pulses/legumes.
The findings show that 27% of the world's population could get their cereal grains within a radius of fewer than 100 kilometers. Alternatively, researchers found that 22% for tropical grains, 28% for rice, and 27% for pulses/legumes could be found in the same distances.
In the case of corn and tropical roots, the proportion was 11% to 16%.
The researchers also found that foodsheds — areas of sustainable food production — are compact areas for single crops. When looked at as a whole, foodsheds formed larger regions, spanning the globe.
Thus, local production alone cannot meet the demand for food, at least not with current production methods and consumption habits.
Researchers note that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shows the importance of self-sufficiency and local food production.
However, there may be one solution to this problem, a separate study suggests. Also published in Nature Food, growing fruit and vegetables in just 10% of a city's gardens and other urban green spaces could provide 15% of the local population with their basic needs.
The University of Sheffield examined the potential for urban horticulture by mapping green spaces across the city, finding that green area, including parks, gardens, allotments, roadside verges, and woodland, covers 45% of Sheffield, which is similar to other U.K. cities.
The research team used data from Ordnance Survey and Google Earth to reveal that an extra 15% of the city's green space, including parks and roadside verges, also has that which can be converted into community gardens or allotments.
If 100% of this space was used for growing food, it could feed about 709,000 people per year their “five a day” fruits and vegetables — 122% of the population of Sheffield.
Researchers say that even converting 10% of domestic gardens and 10% of available green space, could provide 15% of the local population — 87,375 people — with sufficient fruit and vegetables.
Currently, just 16% of fruit and 53% of vegetables sold in the U.K. are grown domestically. Such a strategy could improve the nation's food security.
Dr. Jill Edmondson, an environmental scientist at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: "At the moment, the UK is utterly dependent on complex international supply chains for the vast majority of our fruit and half of our veg — but our research suggests there is more than enough space to grow what we need on our doorsteps. Even farming a small percentage of available land could transform the health of urban populations, enhance a city's environment, and help build a more resilient food system.
"But with careful management of green spaces and the use of technology to create distribution networks, we could see the rise of ‘smart food cities,’ where local growers can support their communities with fresh, sustainable food."
In other words, a small amount of action here could be a model for significant results in areas suffering their own lack of local food production.
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