Framework for Urban Agriculture

Kyrsteen Webster, Ryan Martin, Aleczander Lane


Authors' note on collaborative research and writing: Kyrsteen, Ryan, and Aleczander wrote this paper in their sustainability and development class at the University of South Florida. Kyrsteen approached Aleczander and Ryan on the topic and they agreed that they would go forward with it for their paper and presentation. They would meet up after class and discuss their research on each of their topics. Aleczander worked on transportation, Ryan worked on the potential of urban agriculture and its drawbacks, and Kyrsteen worked on the policy section. Each section was their own but it really felt like a team effort because they would touch base with each other the entire time. After submitting it as a grade for class, Kyrsteen later found out about the chance for publication, and got back in touch with her group and made the edits to turn the paper in.


Kyrsteen Webster is a senior at the University of South Florida where she majors in environmental science and policy. While taking a class in sustainability and development she saw how urban agriculture could solve many of our current challenges with a conventional food system locally and globally. Kyrsteen also accredits her work with the City of Tampa and participation in the universities global citizens project to be some of the most rewarding work in her career.

Aleczander Lane grew up in the Florida Keys with a passion for and appreciation of the natural world. He pursued his passion and graduated from the University of South Florida on May 5th 2017 with a B.S. in Environmental Science. Currently, he works locally for Tech Staff and would like to pursue his education further so that one day he can work in the field of renewable energy. 

Ryan Martin is a senior undergraduate attending the University of South Florida, majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with an emphasis in policy. He has volunteered removing invasive species from a local co-op and plans to find a career in wildlife and habitat conservation.




The human population grows in an exponential way, meaning growth that increases by a constant proportion. This growth will eventually hit a carrying capacity or leveling off phase due to resources and ecosystem constraints (Boucher, 2015). In the 1970s many scholars started to predict that we were getting dangerously close to the leveling off point and began to wonder how we would feed this growing population. To understand what made them so worried about this growth we can examine how the world has grown in the past: between 1900 and 1930 our world’s population grew from an estimated 1.6 billion people to 2 billion people. We can then look at what happened in the following 30 years and see that from 1930 to 1960 the population went from 2 billion to 3 billion, growth of over 50 percent (Johnston, 2015).

While many scientists warned Americans about agriculture degradation from trying to feed a growing population, there were still some key players in the 1970s that championed the conventional food system we know today. USDA Secretary Earl Butz, appointed by president Nixon in 1971, pushed for farmers to grow as much and as fast as possible, assuring them that they would be able to sell their overproduction overseas if they had to. This kind of agricultural policy killed the former supply management program that the government assisted with: paying farmers to leave some land bare when production demand was met so that the land could recover. While they did sell grain overseas to the Soviets when we surpassed demands in the ’70s, it didn’t last for long and we hollowed out our grain supply, leading to a hike in prices in 1973 that left farmers in a frenzy to keep up with the domestic supply (Philpott, 2008). Farming this way was impossible for small farms; they were forced to sell their land to larger farms that had the equipment and production resources.  

While prices eventually went back down and Butz left with the Nixon administration, we still see signs of that administration in the integrated food system we have today. Farmers are influenced to produce more with little assistance on the land and supply management side, and consumers many times unknowingly purchase goods from all over the world instead of what is local and in season. While this integrated system has its benefits, it also has its fair share of drawbacks; for one, a tremendous amount of energy is required to transport and store fresh food across the globe. Not only does transportation produce emissions hazardous to the public’s air supply, but it also forces overprocessing of food so that it can travel those long distances.  

Another fault of the conventional food system is the environmental degradation caused by the large-scale agricultural operations that are necessary to produce sufficient quantities of food, such as the clearing of rainforests in South America and Asia to make room for crop land. These rainforests are vital to our ecosystem from a biodiversity standpoint and as a carbon-capturing resource essential to clean air on our planet. Once they’ve been converted into agriculture land there is no way to reverse our destruction back into a million-year-old rainforest, which makes any damage catastrophic.

Finally, dire consequences of the conventional food system lie with its inability to assure food security for the global population, and that problem will only be compounded as humankind’s numbers continue to swell. It is apparent that a sustainable alternative to the current system needs to be developed to ensure food security in all regions of the world. Urban agriculture may just be that alternative. By shifting from a global system to a series of regional systems, transportation and storage costs would drop significantly, the degradation of precious ecosystems would be curtailed, and food security could be more easily monitored on a regional basis. Therefore, this report proposes that urban agriculture is a strong alternative to the conventional system and will be a necessary component of sustainable food growth going into the future. To support this idea, this report will examine the techniques used in urban gardening and how they relate to sustainable growth, how public projects and policies have either helped or hindered the practice, and the costs and benefits of urban gardening in comparison to the conventional food system.

Transportation Costs

The cost of transportation is often cited as a compelling reason for shifting from an international food system to a series of locally-contained food systems; a tremendous amount of fuel is required to power the trucks and facilities that transfer and store food products all over the world, and that fuel comes at both economic and environmental costs. In an increasingly globalized world, food travels farther than ever before to reach consumers, and without an alternative, the world will continue to feel the pressure associated with the food system’s ceaseless fuel consumption. Urban agriculture and other pushes for local food consumption help to reduce steep transportation and storage costs by drastically reducing the distance the food travels, while also lowering the amount of time the food needs to be stored, and thus may be the needed alternative to the current global food system.

Developed nations are, unsurprisingly, the greatest offenders in terms of “food miles,” a term that was coined to describe the distance food travels from its point of origin—where it is grown or raised—to the point where it is purchased by a consumer. Several studies have been conducted with the goal of comparing the difference in food miles, and thus fuel costs, of food products acquired from local sources, such as urban gardening and farmer’s markets, versus national or international sources.

One report conducted by Iowa State University compared the distance of three different meals traveling through the conventional food system with the distance they would have travelled if they were acquired locally. The food items acquired through the conventional system had traveled through various states and across many miles, whereas the local food was obtained either from nearby markets (within 20 miles in almost all cases), or from the researchers’ own garden. Though two items were unable to be locally sourced and were thus obtained through the conventional system, this did not greatly affect the average distance travelled by the three meals; the locally sourced meals traveled an average distance of 1,198 miles, while the conventionally sourced meals traveled an average distance of 12,558 miles (Pirog. 2001). The same report also compared the distance that meat and produce traveled through the conventional system to reach Iowa markets with the distance that three local projects traveled to deliver the same meat and produce. The distance was calculated as the weighted average source distance (WASD) to account for food transported. The report found that the average WASD for meat and produce delivered by the local projects was 44.6 miles, compared to an average WASD of 1,546 miles for meat and produce obtained through the conventional system (Pirog. 2001).

Based on the Iowa State University study, locally sourced food travels a far shorter distance to Iowa markets than conventionally sourced food, and consumes less fuel through transportation. However, there are factors other than distance involved in determining how much fuel a food source consumes, such as the mode of transportation and the production process. Certain modes of transportation are less fuel-efficient than others, and the production of certain foods in one region may be more efficient than it is elsewhere (Martinez 2010). For example, air transportation consumes far more fuel than road transportation, and sea transportation consumes less than either. Furthermore, Saunders and Hayes point out that many local food systems lack the production and transportation efficiency of the mainstream food system, so the fuel saved by traveling a shorter distance was, in some cases, offset by the amount of food transported.

The production efficiency of the conventional system is a major counterbalance to the shorter distance traveled in terms of energy consumption, but it does not mean that a shift to a local food system is impossible or fruitless. If one factors in the cost to the environment from pollution in food transportation, there is much too high of a price to pay using conventional methods. In areas where efficiency and skilled labor are already established, a shift to an entirely local system should be seriously considered. In other areas without access to enough agricultural land, small-scale urban agriculture can replace certain produce items that would normally be transported great distances with produce grown in one’s own backyard or balcony. This small-scale agriculture would have a tremendous impact as a customizable option from one’s own home or a larger community co-op, significantly lowering fuel emissions and energy associated with the transportation of food.


Current Policies

The Land Grant Act of 1862 “allowed each state 30,000 acres of public land to support colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts” in their research to promote regional food security throughout our nation (Land Grant & Sea Grant: Acts, history & institutions, 2015). In conjunction with the Land Grant Act, the Smith-Lever Act was established to include a cooperative extension service to get out the message to the public of what each research facility was doing for the public. These policies promoting food security in our young nation took place 153 years prior to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals addressing sustainable consumption and production patterns, and show a history of the United States supporting agriculture. However, with each new term the focus of Congress changes, and agriculture gets further behind in policies due to immigration and land use arguments that can’t generate bipartisan support. Focusing on what we have in place to work with and what the public can do to get involved and get educated goes around some of the problems which Congress seems to be behind on regarding policy that promotes a conventional food system instead of the regional food system we have available.  

The University of Florida (UF) is one of the state’s two land grant schools. The University manages this grant with its 22 UF Institute of Food and Agriculture Science (IFAS) research and education facilities across the state. These facilities manage many Florida seeds and research in Florida agriculture, and are extremely helpful to established farmers as well as anyone looking to become a farmer. By providing the public with anything from soil testing to seasonal planting guides, to insect and plant identification, this is a reliable resource that promotes conventional agriculture and research in this country.

The cooperative extension service partnership among the UF IFAS, U.S Dept. of Agriculture, and county governments provides scientific knowledge to the public through different programs like workshops, publications and mass media (Land Grant & Sea Grant: Acts, history & institutions, 2015). The Hillsborough county extension service works directly with the UF IFAS facility and translates the research from the facility to the public by employing experts. A goal as important as feeding our population works better when we incorporate the research facilities expert researchers and scientists with the extension services experts in public outreach and education.

Without awareness of the problem there is no way to formulate a solution to the destruction that conventional agriculture practices create. Buying from a local food source at our local supermarkets would be directly helpful to the agribusiness these facilities are promoting on a local level for food stability and sustainability. This is where education and public support become a cornerstone of success for research facilities like the UF IFAS and the extension services to work. In order to support the work done by the extension service, the public must first acknowledge local agribusiness in the grocery stores when they are purchasing.

There is a tremendous amount of food waste that occurs when we have long travel times, which also means a net loss for growers if their food cannot be bought. To maximize profits, growers ensure their produce will look good for purchasing, leading to overprocessing of the original natural product. The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN) has a plan that not only gets local communities more involved in urban agriculture but provides a framework for better policies to be put in place that promotes health, environmental sustainability, and economic vitality. Their plan clarifies the definition of urban agriculture as “taking the form of backyard gardens and community gardens – places on public or private property where neighbors gather to cultivate vegetables and fruits, promote pollinators such as beekeeping, or raise poultry and small livestock” (National Policy and Legal Analysis). If government policies could promote this alternative in terms of profits and cost savings, this could be a multi trillion-dollar healthcare reduction. When communities participate, and learn how to eat healthier fresh local produce instead of processed food, it reduces the amount of sickness due to obesity and heart disease. The well-known scholar and father of medicine Hippocrates said it best in 421 BC: “let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.”

Despite these potential benefits, many Americans have no interest in starting out in the fields of a farm and working their way up, which leaves farmers shortages in domestic sources of labor in an industry that “requires 1.5 to 2 million laborers in the produce industry trade alone” (Haspel 2017). American farmers must rely on foreign immigrants as a source of labor in this country due to this lack of available and consistent domestic help. On a tour through local Florida farms we met bitter Florida farmers explaining how hard it is to deal with the immigration policies and lack of domestic help. It was eye-opening to hear the farmer explain how in Florida farmers must pay any documented immigrant laborer $11.12 an hour or more. They also must provide regulation housing with electricity and water, as well as transportation to the grocery store. This makes the wages much more than $11 an hour, which is extremely expensive for the farmer when grocery stores can buy the same product overseas from a farm that pays their workers less than $11 a day, with far less regulation on production and chemical use.

When costly regulation is put on the farmer for trying to hire legally documented workers, it is no wonder why “50%-70% of produce workers are undocumented” (Haspel 2017). While pay is an ethical debate, and we can’t control labor done in other countries, we can control the tariffs and importation costs we place on foreign agriculture to make it fair for the domestic farmer and ensure our own food security. Urban agriculture can help to balance some of those costs for consumers who grow some of their own produce or buy directly from growers without paying a middleperson for a packaging fee or grocery store charges.  

When one looks at the number of people living in urban areas, it becomes clear that urban agriculture is immensely important. Based on the information collected in the U.S. Census Bureau of 2010, 80% of America’s growing population now lives in urban areas. The Census Bureau defines their urban areas as “densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas.” There are officially two types of urban areas: “urbanized areas” of 50,000 or more people and “urban clusters” of between 2,500 and 50,000 people. The world is expected to rise from its current 50% to being 70% urban by 2050.

It is therefore crucial that education begin in primary schools where our youth learn that sustainable development can happen in every environment, including the urban one they might live in. Schools in Boston, MA have made a push to get gardening in their city schools and have started over 100 school gardens (Renner, 2016). Community gardening and school gardens have huge health benefits for the people who participate, as they are more than twice as likely to get the proper nutrition in their diet than those who don’t garden. It is more important than ever that public education helps teach people about policies regarding conventional agriculture so we can learn about where our food is coming from and how it is grown: drawing more attention to and awareness of what’s taking place within the farming industry will bring forth the necessary attention and changes it needs.

Another way policy can help is through preserving the urban agriculture land in zoning regulation and land use policy. Urban areas vary in the availability of land, whether there is limited amount of space or the soil is degraded and unsuitable for farming. There is no “one size fits all” for land use policy, and cities across America have started implementing urban agriculture in their zoning and city planning. Some of the champions in this movement have been Minneapolis (MN), Portland (OR) and San Francisco (CA). Minneapolis’ city council first proposed an urban agriculture plan in 2011, and 250 community gardens and 32 farmer’s markets have already swept the city. The city plans to buy another 29 lots that weathered tornado damage in North Minneapolis for a pilot composting program. Portland’s “community gardens date back to the 1970s and zoning initiatives that began in the ’80s were recently updated into the Urban Food Zoning Code in 2012, which lays out laws for community gardens, CSAs, and farmers markets” (Renner, 2016). San Francisco is making some exciting tax breaks for properties that engage in urban farming, which has catapulted the city’s local food efforts.


Potential of Urban Agriculture and its Drawbacks

When comparing conventional agriculture with urban agriculture practices, the benefits and cost depend on the priorities of production yields, labor, food quality, and environmental protection. Conventional agriculture is designed to supply countries with yields that can meet or exceed the demand for a distinct crop and have these products available to the consumer for a relatively fair price. Urban agriculture is designed to the needs of small communities and families and do not have the same demand of larger farms, thus allowing more freedom for organic and environmentally safer practices. Conventional and urban agriculture require large amounts of labor hours, but conventional farms have the resources to hire more laborers to meet production needs; community gardens must instead rely on the available hours of the community or individual, and usually do not have the resources to hire more hands to lessen the work. Outside of labor and yields, conventional farming has many distinct issues not related to urban agriculture. These include deforestation, soil erosion, water acidification from fertilizers, pesticides, and transportation costs, all of which plague large conventional farming practices around the world to meet the demand for a growing population. Urban agriculture is a possible solution to help alleviate this burden by providing families and communities with more high-quality vegetables and fruits, even with some of the current challenges.

A study conducted in Guelph, Ontario examined yields and practices of small urban gardens to study the effectiveness and practicality of urban agriculture. Conducted in 2012, the study consisted of 50 urban gardens ranging in size and land usage, agricultural practices, types of vegetables grown, yields, and experience in gardener’s skill. The results yielded a total of 197,000 kilograms of mixed vegetables on 137,600 square meters of land used. This equates to feeding 2900 people for one day, which is 2% of Guelph’s population on only 0.5% of Guelph’s available residential lands (CoDyre et al. pg. 76). Based on responses from telephone surveys, it was estimated that 35% of households in Guelph contain food gardens, meaning potential for growing a substantially large portion of locally provided foods (CoDyre et al. pg. 76). Labor hours totaled 417,000 hours over a three-month period, averaging per garden 3.03 hours per square meters, and averaging per gardener 2.79 hours per square meters for gardeners who only worked in private gardens and 1.23 hours per square meters for those who worked both home and community gardens (CoDyre et al. pg. 76). The overall cost to operate urban and community gardens is estimated at $1.5 million spent on materials for 13.76 hectares of land, which averages to $7.57 per square meters. Gardeners spent $10.82 per square meters for private gardens, $3.49 per square meters on community plots, and $3.83 per square meters for those who used both (CoDyre et al. pg. 75). When applied to food yields by conventional farming, the cost range to sell is $3.16 to $5.56 kg/m2 to grow, an average of $4.58 per kg/m2, whereas urban gardening pays a 39% premium to grow instead of buying vegetables from a grocery store that receives its supply from conventional farming (CoDyre et al. pg. 75).

The study produced mixed results from an urban gardener’s viewpoint. When factoring out the cost of labor, materials, and lack of experience, urban gardening can provide positive health benefits that outweigh the costs of traditional Western diets. The practice of growing food from urban agriculture was implemented during times of food scarcity, such as the Great Depression, to times of war, which the United States once promoted to establish food security for families where the working members were enlisted (CoDyre et al. pg. 73). All food that is produced is usually consumed by the owners of the private gardeners and not sold for profit, which allows households to have increased access to fresh vegetables and fruits. This can result in healthier lifestyles, increased levels of physical and mental health, better social development for those who participate in community gardens, and reduced food cost for those who live in the developing world. Urban agriculture also has an effect on the empowerment of women in the Global South and the reduction of organic waste and increased nutrient recycling (CoDyre et al. pg. 74-77). The study showed that some vegetable yields are higher than those for conventional farms (cucumbers yielded 3.63 kg/m2 while conventional farms yield 2.41 kg/m2), which could make urban agriculture competitive with some vegetable markets. However, experience of the gardener plays a large role in productive yields, with those who had over seven years of experience gardening generally produced higher, more competitive yields. The key is to maximize efficiency per square foot, as the study showed that more land did not equate to higher yields.

When factoring in labor and costs, urban gardening does meet some challenges to becoming competitive with conventional farming practices. Labor costs in both time and money are high, requiring more time to produce less foods due to less manpower and possibly less effective agricultural practices. To produce the 70% increase of food needed for future generations, urban agriculture will need to focus on more effective methods of farming and to teach these practices to those who are less experienced or who do not have the resources needed to sustain large crops (CoDyre et al, pg. 72). There is a direct correlation between experience of the gardener and the productivity of the plants; most gardeners with over seven years of experience were capable of high yield crops (CoDyre). Such practices would have to include using organic compost and high-yield and low-maintenance crops, and applying more land for agricultural practices. Different approaches depend on the needs of the people who live within the community, as urban agriculture can provide both a food and income sources.



In conclusion, our conventional food system has its limits, but urban agriculture addresses these limits as a sustainable way to produce food for a growing population. This must begin with education at a young age and continue through adulthood. Given the state of food security in many nations, the current food system is not adequate, and its inability to support the whole of humanity will only be further highlighted as the global population increases and more nations enter the developed world. This report has described the abundant faults of the conventional food system, and has detailed how and why a shift to a series of regionally-contained food systems supported by urban agriculture would be able to address these faults.

For starters, there are many harmful policies that hinder small farming operations that would otherwise be much better suited to providing fresh meat and produce for their local regions than they currently are capable of. Removing these policies and/or implementing new ones so that urban agriculture and small farms are the most advantaged providers of each region’s food would greatly assist the local economies by providing jobs in the local region. In the current system, food often travels hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach a consumer and thus costs a tremendous amount of energy. A local food system would greatly reduce the amount of energy consumed in transporting and storing food across the world. The study conducted in Guelph, Ontario shows how effective urban agriculture can be in terms of food production, netting impressive yields of multiple kilograms per square meter.

Environmental issues, such as fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, and habitat destruction, are global problems that need to be addressed in a comprehensive way throughout all nations. Supporting the transition to more urban agriculture practices provides regions, especially those that are more developed, to take responsibility in smart, sustainable growth and to curtail some of the environmental injustices taking place in our current system. If more cities invested the time and effort to develop an urban agriculture-based food system for their area, the amount of land loss and habitat destruction that occurs to make room for crop lands would decrease dramatically, there would be far less fuel burned with food not needing to be shipped across thousands of miles to be consumed, and local regions all over the world would be better able to supply their citizens with healthy food.

Thus, urban agriculture is a necessary component of sustainable food production and distribution for the future; a shift from the conventional food system to an urban agriculture alternative will greatly assist in solving current and coming food crises.



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