Urban Farming Is not a Climate Villain, Despite Recent Headlines | Civil Eats

Despite Recent Headlines, Urban Farming Is Not a Climate Villain

In this week’s Field Report, we explore media coverage of a climate study on growing food in cities. Plus: food system impacts of the Key Bridge collapse, a new approach to rice farming, and more.

Market Garden youth interns tend to small-crop production at the urban farm Rivoli Bluffs in St-Paul, Minnesota, Sept. 28, 2022. (USDA photo by Christophe Paul)

Market Garden youth interns tend to small-crop production at the Rivoli Bluffs Farm in St-Paul, Minnesota, Sept. 28, 2022. (USDA photo by Christophe Paul)

At the end of January, multiple publications including Modern Farmer and Bloomberg ran eye-catching stories on the results of a research study published in Nature. Forbes declared that, “Urban Farming Has a Shockingly High Climate Cost,” a headline that was outright wrong in terms of the study’s findings. Earth.com led with a single, out-of-context data point: “Urban agriculture’s carbon footprint is 6x greater than normal farms.”

On Instagram, urban farmers and gardeners began to express anger and frustration. Some commented on media company posts; others posted their own critiques. In February, students at the University of Michigan, where the study was conducted, organized a letter to the researchers pointing out issues with the study.

The issue most cited across critiques was simple: When urban farms were separated from community gardens in the study, the higher rate of greenhouse gas emissions reported essentially disappeared.

Now, two months later, national advocates for the multi-faceted benefits of growing food and green spaces in cities are working to counter what they see as harmful narratives created by a study they say had design flaws to begin with and was then poorly communicated to the public. Of special concern is funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) fledgling Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, which Congress has been shorting since it was established. A coalition of groups have been pushing to change that in the upcoming farm bill.

“We hope the damage isn’t already done, but we fear that publicity around this paper will minimize the advocacy of urban farmers and partners over the past many years and possibly undermine the continued and necessary investment in urban agricultural communities,” reads a letter sent to the study authors by Michigan Food and Farming Systems, the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

“We hope the damage isn’t already done, but we fear that publicity around this paper will minimize the advocacy of urban farmers and partners over the past many years…”

Their overall critiques of the study start with the sample set of “urban farms.”

In a conversation with Civil Eats, lead author Jason Hawes, a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, said this his team compiled “the largest data set that we know of” on urban farming. It included 73 urban farms, community gardens, and individual garden sites in Europe and the United States. At each of those sites, the research team worked with farmers and gardeners to collect data on the infrastructure, daily supplies used, irrigation, harvest amounts, and social goods.

That data was then used to calculate the carbon emissions embodied in the production of food at each site and those emissions were compared to carbon emissions of the same foods produced at “conventional” farms. Overall, they found greenhouse gas emissions were six times higher at the urban sites—and that’s the conclusion the study led with.

But not only is 73 a tiny number compared to the data that exists on conventional production agriculture, said Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), but lumping community gardens in with urban farms set up for commercial production and then comparing that to a rural system that has been highly tuned and financed for commercial production for centuries doesn’t make sense.

“It’s almost like comparing apples to oranges,” she said. “The community garden is not set up to maximize production.”

In fact, the sample set was heavily tilted toward community and individual gardens and away from urban farms. In New York City, for example, the only U.S. city represented, seven community gardens run by AmeriCorps were included. Brooklyn Grange’s massive rooftop farms—which on a few acres produce more than 100,000 pounds of produce for markets, wholesale buyers, CSAs, and the city’s largest convention center each year—were not.

And what the study found was that when the small group of urban farms were disaggregated from the gardens, those farms were “statistically indistinguishable from conventional farms” on emissions. Aside from one high-emission outlier, the urban farms were carbon-competitive.

“They call out the fact that that tiny sample of seven urban farms that are actually production-focused, competitive with conventional agriculture, but that one line just got buried,” said Hannah Quigley, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). This aspect was especially frustrating to urban farming advocates because, as the groups who sent the letter point out, one of their biggest challenges in working with policymakers in D.C. is to get them to “regard urban farming as farming.”

Hawes said he found the critiques around lumping community gardens and urban farms together “reasonable” but that he stood by the method. He hadn’t considered including backyard gardens in rural areas in the sample, he said, even though city gardens were. “We were not necessarily attempting to compare urban and rural food production,” he said. “In fact, we chose to use the word conventional specifically because it pointed to the sort of ‘conventional food supply chain,’ which is often what urban agriculture producers are attempting to intervene in.”

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Not only did taking the community gardens out of the picture change the emissions results, the researchers also found that 63 percent of carbon emissions at all of the sites came not from daily inputs or lack of crop efficiency but from infrastructure, such as building raised beds and trucking in soil. But using recycled materials for infrastructure cut those emissions so much, that if all the sites had done so, that would have been enough for them to close the gap and be competitive with conventional agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions.

“That problem can of course be solved by upfront funding,” said Goswami. “Then, bingo, according to the authors, you have systems with very comparable climate metrics.”

Overall, Hawes said he did regret some of the ways media coverage framed the study’s results but that he didn’t feel the framing of the study itself was problematic. “In my opinion, the most important sustainability challenge of our time is climate change, and if we’re gonna talk about sustainability in the context of urban agriculture, we have to talk about carbon emissions,” he said.

“The most important sustainability challenge of our time is climate change, and if we’re gonna talk about sustainability in the context of urban agriculture, we have to talk about carbon emissions.”

However, while climate scientists and sustainable agriculture advocates agree that addressing the food system’s 22 percent contribution to global greenhouse emissions is critical to meeting climate goals, whether carrots are grown in gardens in Detroit and Atlanta or only on huge commercial farms in the Salinas Valley (or both) won’t likely be a deciding factor.

At an event to kick off a new focus on food and agriculture last week, Project Drawdown launched a new series that will focus on food system solutions to climate change. There, Executive Director Jonathan Foley pointed out that the vast majority of food system emissions come from a few big sources: meat and dairy production, deforestation and other land use change (a large portion of which is linked to animal agriculture), and food waste.

As Goswami at UCS noted, that broader context is essential. “The authors . . . don’t at all zoom out to compare this to agriculture’s broader footprint,” she said, so even if there weren’t clear climate benefits to urban farming—which many say the study didn’t clearly conclude—prioritizing other benefits of growing things in cities might still make more sense. Especially given the climate resilience built into decentralizing and diversifying the food system.

Land use is particularly interesting, Quigley at NSAC said, because city farmers and gardeners often reclaim spaces that might otherwise be paved over and developed, adding carbon-holding trees and plants. “Folks who are maintaining community gardens and green spaces in cities to help with water run-off and urban heat island effect providing safe places for community gatherings . . . these are probably people that would be very concerned with their climate impact,” she said. “Can you imagine if they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh my god, should I not be gardening?’”

While NSAC did not sign on to the initial letter sent by the coalition of groups, Quigley is working with those farm groups and the members have since talked to Hawes. Disagreements on the study framing still abound, but they’re now working together on policy briefs that will be available to lawmakers if the farm bill process ever picks up again and conversations around funding urban farms are once again on the (picnic) table.

“Ultimately, one of the motivations behind this study was the fact that urban agriculture is largely discussed as a really useful sustainability intervention, and this study does not take away from that conclusion,” Hawes said. “I also think that to the degree that this starts conversations about the availability of resources for urban agriculture and the support that is available to urban farmers and gardeners for creating low-carbon solutions—I’m happy with that.”

Read More:
Congress Puts Federal Support for Urban Farming on the Chopping Block
Urban Farms Are Stepping Up Their Roles in Communities Nationwide
The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too

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Supply Chain Impacts of the Key Bridge Collapse. One of the most iconic elements of Baltimore’s harbor is the illuminated Domino Sugar sign, below which the sweet stuff can often be seen piled high on massive ships. Now, the sugar refinery is one of many food and agriculture companies that will likely be impacted by last week’s collapse of the Key Bridge, which shut down the shipping channel that leads to the city’s busy port. The port also handles imports and exports of commodity grains, coffee, and farm equipment. On Friday, representatives from the White House and USDA met with more than a dozen farm and food stakeholders including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sugar Alliance, and Perdue Farms to discuss impacts on the industry. On Sunday, officials announced they are working on opening a temporary alternate shipping channel to get the port back open while the clean-up of the bridge and the stranded ship continues.

Read More:
Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze
The Last Front to Save the ‘Most Important Fish’ in the Atlantic

Climate-Friendly Rice. “My dad taught me to continuously flood a rice field. If you saw dry ground in a rice field, you were in trouble,” said fifth-generation Arkansas farmer Jim Whittaker at a USDA event last week. Now, Whittaker practices a technique that alternates his rice fields between wet and dry, a system he said has cut water use and methane emissions in those fields by 50 percent. Whittaker is one of 30 farmers whose rice is now available in a two-pound bag sold by Great River Milling. It’s the first product to officially hit the market as a result of funding from the USDA’s $3 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities project, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the end, holding up one of those bags. And the debut comes at a time when some lawmakers and environmental groups are lobbing criticism at the agency over its broadening definition of “climate-smart.”

Read More:
Could Changing the Way We Farm Rice Be a Climate Solution?
The USDA Plan to Better Measure Agriculture’s Impact on the Climate Crisis

Slaughterhouse Rulemaking. More than 800 comments were submitted before the comment period on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) contentious proposal to increase the regulation of water pollution from meat processing facilities closed last week. On one side of the issue, 45 environmental, community, and animal welfare organizations joined together to make a case for the most restrictive set of regulations proposed, arguing that the weakest option, which EPA has said it prefers, is “inconsistent with federal law.” “We call on the EPA to rise above Big Ag’s push to weaken this plan to reduce harms from the millions of gallons of pollution slaughterhouses and animal-rendering plants are spewing into our waterways,” said Hannah Connor, deputy director of environmental health at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. Meanwhile, farm and meat industry groups including the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Meat Institute filed multiple sets of comments asking for an extension of the comment period and arguing for additional flexibilities to even the least restrictive regulatory framework proposed.

Read More:
Should a Plan to Curb Meat Industry Pollution Consider the Business Costs?
EPA to Revise Outdated Water Pollution Standards for Slaughterhouses

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Joe Schiller
    It would have been helpful if more information about the author's background than simply "a graduate student at the University of Michigan" had been provided. In what department is he a graduate student? Does he have any actual farming experience? If so, is it in conventional or urban agriculture? That the study is based on compiling data from other studies (metadata) is always vulnerable to assumptions made in which studies are included in an analysis as the critics of this study have pointed out. Speaking as a retired professor that has directed graduate student research, that such assumptions appear to have greatly influenced the conclusions of this study could certainly result from the limited amount of experience a graduate student would be expected to have with a wide range of farming systems.

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