Food from the “industrialized” food system is less nutritionally dense than organic, sustainably-grown food. Low-nutrient foods grown with synthetic chemicals have spread across the world, often targeted to the poor segment of the population in developed and emerging nations alike. This food and agriculture problem is too big to fix solely with philanthropic donations or government policy—even assuming a fully favorable policy environment and the effective deployment of philanthropic dollars. Here’s the good news: after decades of effective storytelling, public education, and advocacy by activists, we have a generation of Millennials embracing a broad-based behavioral shift toward healthy, sustainable food options.
Fertile topsoil is a lively ecosystem, teeming with microorganisms and worm life. It has robust soil structure that retains water well and allows plant roots to penetrate, to breathe, and to forage for nutrients.
But there’s a problem. We’re running through our supply of fecund soil in the U.S. at an alarming rate, with an estimated 996 metric tons of soil erosion over the past century. Conventional agriculture enables—and the tight margins of the farming industry incentivize—short-term bounty to the detriment of sustainable practices. Annual tilling, monocropping and chemical inputs promote an abundant harvest in the near term but ultimately catalyze soil erosion, cause the atmospheric release of stored nitrogen and carbon, compromise the soil structure, decrease water retention capacity, destroy the delicate microbial ecosystem, and make minced meat of the worms. Fostering healthy soil requires playing the long game.
The local food movement has deep roots in urban centers, but the juxtaposition of urbanites’ locavore enthusiasm with the shortage of arable land in cities raises the question: how local is local enough? In terms of geography, there is no consensus or regulation around what “local food” should be. Depending on your definition (or marketing strategy), the term could refer to anything from food produced in your own backyard to food produced 100 miles away or simply within the state.
Community gardens and urban farming are obvious—if partial—answers to this paradox. And while urban farming is nothing new, there’s no denying that in recent years, rooftops gardens, vertical farms, and the like have become increasingly seductive to enterprising young farmers. Increasingly, consumers, the media, and even investors are climbing on board with new urban farming initiatives, as 21st century innovation pushes the limits of how and where food is grown.