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Solving world hunger: the key to thinking big is in thinking small!

FoodThe earth is in a bit of a pickle (pun intended). According to the World Bank, we will need to produce 50% more food to feed 9 billion mouths on the planet by 2050. Couple this reality with the bullying blow of climate change on the head of traditional forms of agriculture, and panic has begun to set in faster than you can say “severe acute malnutrition”.

But here’s an idea. What if a big problem like world hunger could be resolved, not through the minds and money of the Fortune 500 elite, but through the collective contribution of ordinary citizens simply taking responsibility for their own backyard? What if the key to this colossal problem lies not in thinking big, but in actually thinking small (albeit on a big scale)? With growing human populations adding significant pressure to limited arable land throughout the world, people in the city are finding fresh ways to transform their concrete spaces into green opportunities. One small, ingenious act at a time, the urban landscape is offering sustainable alternatives to meet the rising tide of our global appetites.

Prof Ian Harper, leading economist and Director of Deloitte Access Economics, recently told a captivated audience at the Design as Strategy Forum at UTS Sydney that we are moving from the economics of mass production into the new world economics of mass agglomeration. Harper had the audience transfixed as he postulated that myriad resources can group together from around the world to provide new services, and mini factories with 3D printers located close to their markets can beat mega factories’ mass production half a world away.

If leading economists believe that this is the future of economic success in the industrial world, couldn’t the same theories be applied to solving the imminent world food shortage problem?

What if bigger is no longer better? Could smaller and smarter mechanisms solve difficult challenges and outweigh size?

In the case of solving a big-scale crisis of world hunger, the solution must be a sum total of the individual parts.

Is there more to urban farming than fad?

Urban agriculture is practised by 800 million people worldwide – representing an incredible 15-20% of the world’s food source – and an area of just one square metre can provide 20 kg of food annually. As the world’s population rushes towards 9 billion, with 65% of this population in cities over the next few decades, the potency of a veggie garden in every household holds huge implications. If more city dwellers were to feed off the toil of their own soiled hands, a great deal more of the world’s food could be grown by ordinary citizens.

Urban agriculture can also open up new streams of redevelopment and investment, as well as a general rise in consciousness around healthy living. Although land remediation may be required, there are a number of cases where areas of the city once written off as defunct and derelict, are currently being redefined as blank canvases for agricultural innovation. Abandoned factories and warehouses have been repurposed into successful community garden ventures that build collective morale, as well as healthy lifestyle choices.

Rooftop gardens, aquaculture and greenhouses are an ever-increasing ‘good idea’. There is an expensive price tag attached to produce that comes from the farm, and it requires an intensive harvesting and delivery process. Growing products locally eliminates those logistical hoops and hefty markups.

The potential for a ripple effect

But abandoned buildings and back alleys are not the only urban hubs of green innovation. Major international airports are also catching on to the idea by opening their terminals to greenscapes and gardens. Look no further than JetBlue’s veggie patch at Terminal 5 of New York’s JFK Airport. The garden’s beauty not only lifts a weary traveller’s spirits; its many herbs and vegetables furnish the local restaurants and supply the local food banks with healthy greens.Food

The exciting question is what if this concept went viral? If the eggplant of an ‘airport garden’ became as ubiquitous as the macchiato of a Starbucks cafe, the spin-off effect of social responsibility around the world would be exponential. The relatively empty space of an airport terminal could be used, with minimal effort, to add brand new solutions to human need.

Urban FarmingTM is an organisation backed by a similar vision. They work hand-in-hand with local people around the world, teaching them how to build gardens in inventive spaces while envisioning them towards sustainable living. Their produce feeds the communities and spills over to local food banks. They’ve also seen these gardens kick-start business growth, job creation, urban redevelopment and global investment – all very good things for communities desperately in need of an economic boost. Altogether, the organisation has given a healthy model of environmental, business and social solutions to a compounding global conundrum, and enabled thousands to join the urban farming global food chain.

Similarly inspiring, One Central Park in Sydney, designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, is a good example of a building design which embraces greenery. The public park at the heart of the precinct ‘climbs the side of the floor-to-ceiling glass towers to form a lush 21st century canopy’, while ‘vines and leafy foliage spring out between floors and provide the perfect frame for Sydney’s skyline’. In addition, motorised mirrors capture sunlight and direct the rays down onto Central Park’s gardens. After dark, the structure is a canvas for leading light artist Yann Kersalé’s LED art installation, resulting in starlit architecture.

Good news for those without green thumbs

The global march towards urbanisation, compounded by the limp of limited resources, has left in its wake the threat of malnourishment . Considering that much of our arable land is taken and many urban settlements are unsuitable to grow food, people are looking to hydroponics as a viable alternative, as the Dutch have for decades.

This highly controlled method allows for vegetables to be grown in a self-contained environment under optimum conditions. Hydroponics is ideal for crowded city spaces and very effective – rendering good results for even those with ‘black’ thumbs and very little gardening experience.

Several countries have implemented Simplified Hydroponics (SH) – a cost-effective technique, pioneered in South America that uses simple resources available to the community for producing vegetables. With a minimal carbon footprint, SH may well be the solution to maximising inner city crops in developing economies.

An integrated approach

We find ourselves standing at a precipice today. Do we continue on our current path of traditional large-scale farming, or do we endorse the developing web of small-scale urban farming innovation? The answer is obvious. Our big-scale bulldoze approach will not feed the world alone . An integrated approach to agriculture is needed – one that leans heavily on the small and unseen contributions of countless citizens across our urban landscapes. In future, the economics of agglomeration may just dictate that it’s not necessarily the largest (or biggest influencer) that will conquer, but rather the smart, small and connected that will secure victory.

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18 replies »

  1. I’m a believer in this idea. Especially as governments generally don’t seem to take this seriously, people are doing for themselves. It happened in cities during WWII due to necessity. The change now is that intelligent and engaged people are buying back into labour and reaping direct rewards. Myself and other friends are making this happen here in Christchurch. Please see: and others. Regards


  2. There is one big issue with solving world hunger and to a similar extent having world peace, and that is what we will do to replace these natural population controls.

    Rather than looking at a world with 9 billion people would more likely be looking at a world with 20 billion people that would be growing at an exponential rate. The vast majority of this population growth would be in developing countries where they already have numerous issues besides hunger such as pollution, healthcare, education and housing.

    • Interesting article and ties in with what we are seeing on a global scale with respect to Western countries actually starting to become inward looking. Trump presidency, Brexit, Europe immigrant policy etc. Emerging economies will need to explore self sustainability models and relook at the existing model which takes natural resources from emerging economies to developed world for beneficiation. @Richard the world is actually not growing at an exponential rate which we saw from the 1930s through to the turn of the century. In 1930 it took the world more than a hundred years to add 1 billion people to the world population. That dropped to 12 years at the turn of the century. However we have seen a turnaround in that figure since 2000 and we see population growth actually slowing so that will result in 9 billion by 2050.

      • Not too sure about that Abbas.

        While people in western countries may very well be having children at a rate less than what is sustainable, immigration is more than making up for this.

        New Zealand for example has a birth rate of 2.05 which would imply our population is decreasing, however for the past few decades we have been growing at between 1 & 2% per year.

        When it comes to the projection of 9 billion people, this is a realistic projection and isn’t based on the assumption that world hunger will magically disappear and we will enter a time of peace and prosperity for all.

  3. These are all just a band aid for the real issue. Population growth needs a cap. Do parents really need to have three four and five children. This has been implemented before and should be brought back (world wide).

  4. Love this piece! Have been following the links in the article, so many interesting and clever initiatives going on in this space.

  5. Presuming that we can come up with some kind of solution to the out of control population growth, there is also the issue of what type of food that population is consuming.

    If people were encouraged to base more of their consumption on what they could produce, hunt or gather themselves perhaps we would also see a changing attitude towards the consumption of excessive amounts of processed foods, meat & dairy.

    This in turn may also result in a turn around of the ever growing obesity rates & other related health issues that currently burden our public health systems.

    • Great points Nikki. Further to your comment, perhaps urban agriculture would also help communities to understand agriculture production and things like eating with the seasons which has been shown to have environmental benefits. I also wonder if in the same way that bringing nature and green spaces back into cities has proven community health benefits, would that also be true for urban agriculture? I understand there are a number of benefits around community and place creation.. but I think you are onto something around possible health improvements!

  6. Food systems are evolving and localisation is emerging in many places; for example, the reemergence of farmers markets. Social Enterprise is also a model that fits nicely with food giving social and environmental benefits – for some interesting models check out these examples from Christchurch, NZ
    Cultivate – urban farms powered by youth
    Nature Matters – small scale distributed dairy production (could also be applied to goats or sheep which are valuable in the Middle East)

  7. These comments are all great. Perhaps the question is more simply – are we utilising our urban environments to their fullest potential? Could we improve the amount of green space and productive agricultural space within urban environments? And would this result in improved social, economic and environmental outcomes?

    Hunger itself is a bigger beast and an interesting, wicked problem. There are a number of social and economic root causes of world hunger and poverty that need to be considered. Many economists including Amartya Sen talk about hunger not being about food production at all but about where food is produced, how it is distributed, and the inability of some parts of the population to ‘demand’ or ‘acquire rights’ to food. Perhaps focusing more on grass roots and community driven agriculture and aquaculture could help to address some of these issues, empowering communities and improving access to produce?

  8. The question of brownfield remediation is a big one in urban regions. Usually remediating sites to get them to a stage where farming or development can take place is a lengthy and expensive process. As an alternative from the cut/fill method of disposing of toxic soil and replacing it with fresh soil – Phytoremediation presents itself as an awesome alternative that removes contaminants from the land using plants. It becomes a cost-effective approach (yet time consuming) fix to this problem.

    • Great point Jacob! And phytoremediation also provides wider benefits associated with green infrastructure such as ecosystem services (storm water run off, air purification, etc), amenity and perhaps even reduced urban heat island effect during the remediation process.

  9. Great blog Nick and Bec.

    To the health benefits…

    Ironically, according to WHO, many low- and middle-income countries are now facing a “double burden” of disease. It is not uncommon to find undernutrition and obesity co-existing in the same country, community and household, particularly in urban settings.

    Also according to WHO, the best combat against obesity is making healthy eating choices easy. So food production ‘in your own back yard’, whether at work, school or home promises multiple benefits – producing more, consuming less, staying healthier.

    BTW Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore has a community garden and uses the produce in its cafeteria – and healthy food is cheapest. A small but great example.

    • How great would it be if community gardens were included in children’s hospitals? The children could actually be involved in helping grow the food.

  10. Great ideas and comments to think about. I like the underlying message of how small, smart and connected will lead to victory or rather prosperity in our changing world. The main issue is our world cannot physically sustain the growing world population. We see the response in our planet for instance by the exhilarating speed with which climate change is occurring.
    I like the idea of small veggie gardens in one’s back yard and around the city (could be part of the solution). I was actually considering starting one up but my motivation was organic produce where I could eat food that was not sprayed and chemically enhanced for growth and hopefully choose seeds that are not Genetically Modified. (Ironically these are practices required to meet the demand for our growing world population but what are the effects on our health in the long-term?)

  11. Great blog Nick and Bec.

    Like many things, we have become extremely dependent on mass scale, highly technological and capital intensive agricultural production. Such reliance has led to a false sense of security and the misuse and mismanagement of resources.

    What is required is a self-sufficient society, which can meet its own basic needs in a low-cost, effective and efficient manner. It’s great that we are moving back to more traditional ways of organising ourselves into smaller, more manageable communities that work together to arrive at sustainable, low cost and effective solutions. Reading this blog reminds me of the type of society Gandhi advocated many years ago, based on the ‘village’.

    “ Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic … having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs. Thus, ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world… In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom.”

    – Mahatma Gandhi

  12. What if I wanted to try by starting small in a rural (Limpopo) community? Would there a Company or Institution like Aurecon that is willing to assist because the community is currently hopeless, deprived and energy/resource depleted.

    If it is possible, then we can start and see it progress.

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