Urban farming grows, but faces contamination challenges

April 8, 2014

When people imagine farms, they typically picture large expanses of corn fields and free roaming cattle. They do not typically imaging tall buildings and rooftop gardens in the middle of major cities.

But if current trends continue, urban farming may someday become an important source of food for millions of Americans.

What is urban farming?

As the name implies, urban farming refers to the practice of cultivating and distributing food in or around an urban area. Often, this takes the form of greenhouses that are designed to facilitate the growth of crops, even in northern climates with a shorter growing season. However, urban farming is a broad topic that has been known to include the raising of livestock and even beekeeping.

Urban farming has become popular for a number of reasons. During the past several years, the vast majority of major cities in the U.S. have experienced population growth—a sharp reversal from decades of urban flight. Since they are able to rely less on cars and more on public transportation, urban residents tend to see their lifestyle as more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. As such, many have been drawn to urban farming, based on the idea that growing food closer to consumers saves energy by cutting down on transportation.

It is also true that urban farming is seen as a way to assist blighted neighborhoods by facilitating economic development and beautification campaigns. However, as readers will see, there are some major problems associated with growing crops in cities.

The problem of contamination in urban farming

Urban soil contamination is a longstanding problem, especially in former industrial cities that have seen their factories become abandoned and run down. 

According to an article on UPI, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a survey of 70 gardeners in Baltimore. They determined that soil in the city might contain unacceptable levels of lead, petroleum products and asbestos. But the biggest problem they encountered was lack of knowledge on the part of the gardeners.

"We identified a range of factors, challenges, and needs related to Baltimore community gardeners' perceptions of risk related to soil contamination, including low levels of concern and inconsistent levels of knowledge about heavy metal and organic chemical contaminants, barriers to investigating a garden site's history and conducting soil tests, limited knowledge of best practices for reducing exposure and a need for clear and concise information on how best to prevent and manage soil contamination," the authors wrote in the study. 

The authors added: "Our results suggest that concern about soil contaminants among community gardeners in Baltimore is generally low, particularly among established gardens. This is likely because gardeners assume soil contamination has already been addressed through safe soil test results, remediation, or the use of raised beds."

Crops that are grown in such conditions could pose a danger to consumers. And yet, since urban farming only seems to be growing, the time is right for stakeholders to step in and work to create an environment where crops can be grown safely. Many mayors in the U.S.—such as former Detroit mayor David Bing—have sought funds for urban farming. They should also seek out environmental consultants to make sure that the soil is safe to work with.