“The biggest challenge is to value food production not only in terms of costs and profits, but more. After all, food is essential for our lives,” says Dr. Sabine O’Hara with the University of District of Columbia. “I urge students to redefine the idea of upscaling in food production, to upscale not by making it bigger but by multiplying. We’ve had quite some success with rooftop farming in DC.”
At the kick-off event of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge #3, a project of Wageningen University in collaboration with the University of the District of Columbia, Dr. O’Hara talked about food production and the negative externalities that go with it.
“How can urban agriculture function in more ways than only food production? After all, food is much more than just economic profit. Food is life. It fuels our bodies, but also keeps us healthy in body and in mind. It fuels our economy from restaurants to food processors, hospitality, tourism, and more. A whole host of sectors depend on it, such as food processing, tourism, and the hospitality industry. It connects us to nature and the ecosystem. It can be a source of energy and soil health. Likewise, food production should be seen as much more than economic activity."
However, there are many negative externalities linked with food production. “Food can make us sick too. There are many foodborne illnesses, and many people, especially in cities, simply don’t have access to the right kind of food. Food can be dangerous, not to mention the fact that the food industry employs some of the lowest-paid workers. The challenge we are facing is: how can we turn these negative externalities around?”
The neighborhood at the bottom of the map is where the challenge is located.
Negative social externalities of Washington DC, as presented by Dr. O'Hara.
Food supply chain
This year’s Urban Greenhouse Challenge focuses on the food supply chain. Cities are often located far away from where food is produced, which decreases the nutritional value and takes a lot of transportation. Therefore, the student teams are challenged to grow on a plot in DC, in an underserved community.
Students are encouraged to think of other things than the market to determine prices, accounting for the real cost of food rather than just thinking of just cheap prices. How can food be more equitable? These questions are addressed at the event.
“Urban areas are growing, often on fertile soil, taking up arable land that way. Think of Moscow, Lagos, Beijing, people who live there are located so far from where food is produced,” said Sigrid Werdheim-Heck, researcher at WUR. “People forget about food production within a few years. I lived in Vietnam for nine years, and I noticed that in the street where I lived, people forgot about their background, forgot about their relationship to food. That is how fast it can go.”
Pictures of the site where the challenge takes place
Dr. Sigrid Wertheim - Heck and Tiffany Tsui, in discussion with Simone Ritzer, moderator of the event.
“Yet, when people forget in nine years, that means they can learn about food production again in a few years too,” said Simone Ritzer, moderator of the event, giving the statistic a positive turn. “Besides, the way we organize our cities cannot go on forever,” said Tiffany Tsui, with the Vertical Farm Institute. “when I grew up in Beijing in the 80s, there was hardly any landfill, no plastic waste, and everybody covered their vegetables in newspapers rather than plastic. Now cities create so much waste. This development has to be countered.”
Arthur Mol, Rector Magnificus of WUR, opened the event officially.
“The challenge is a unique opportunity to learn about DC and to dive into a world and discover how things can be different. The outsider perspective can help people rethink a system,” Dr. O’Hara concluded.