Advocates of urban farming have a compelling pitch: Communities need food, so those communities should be growing it. The reduced distance between the farm and the table is said to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a source of healthy produce to areas of food scarcity.
But does it really make sense? Food isn’t generally grown in urban areas for the same reason coffee isn’t grown in Canada: It’s not the right environment. To quote one urban farmer (bullets mine):
- “Land prices are astronomical in urban areas, especially for agricultural purposes.
- The soil isn’t in very good condition.
- There’s sometimes a lot of heavy metal contamination.”
All of those seem like pretty good reasons not to farm in cities. It would seem that lots of arable land would be important to a farming enterprise. According to Jeffrey Prost-Greene of DC’s Up Top Acres, the solution is to build on rooftops, where all the infrastructure and soil has to be hoisted up.
What’s enabling this so-called urban agricultural renaissance? A 2014 DC law that provides a 90 percent tax abatement for property that’s used for urban agriculture. (Similar laws exist in cities across the country.) Essentially, it creates an incentive for property owners to convert their land into farms instead of housing and retail.
Of course, increasing the supply of housing is the only way to reduce rents in the midst of skyrocketing demand. A one-bedroom apartment in DC rents for an average of $2100, and rents across the board are up 5% year over year. Using scarce urban land for farms instead of housing contributes to these astronomical rents.
Because of economies of scale, large farms are able to lower the average cost of production of their produce, which means it’s much more affordable. For that reason, DC’s urban farmers are only able to sell its produce to high-end restaurants, whose patrons are paying extra to feel good about themselves for eating local.
Furthermore, only 4% of factory farms’ greenhouse gas output is attributed to transportation from farm to market. So any environmental gains created by reduced transportation are likely to be minimal at best and negative at worst.
So where does that leave us? To recap, produce grown in cities is inefficient, prohibitively expensive, doesn’t fight global warming, and raises rents for everyone. On all counts, it fails to achieve its intended goals.
To be clear, I have nothing against community gardens. If people want to join together and grow fruits and vegetables on private land with their own money, I say go right ahead. But when cities want to offer tax incentives to prop up industries that don’t live up to their intended goals, I draw the line. DC would be better served by more condos, not by more expensive tomatoes that make yuppies feel good about themselves.
Photo: Dan Bruell via Flickr