Urban Farming vs Traditional Farming: What’s the Difference?

Urban Farming vs Traditional Farming: What’s the Difference?

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Dennis Kamprad

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As the world’s urban population is consistently increasing and people are moving to larger cities, new agriculture technology emerges to solve the ever-increasing carbon emissions and food shortages. Contrary to some beliefs, living in high-dense cities makes accessibility to healthy foods more challenging. And this is where urban farming comes into play, changing the face of agriculture as we know it today. 

Contrary to traditional farming, urban farming is the agriculture of food in urban areas that is small space friendly, uses fewer water resources, fewer food miles, more sustainable packaging, and emits less GHG. With slow steps, urban farming is solidifying its place in the larger food system.

Nowadays, there is a big tendency for people to move from rural to urban areas, with larger cities experiencing bigger population densities than ever before. This global phenomenon is urbanizing the world, transforming the way we live, work, travel, socialize, and even eat. Living in high-dense cities imposes its own challenges raising the demand for better access to sufficient food. And this is where urban farming plays a key role.

How Are Urban Farming and Traditional Farming Defined

Not long ago, traditional farming, the farming we used to know until now, has been the only known activity of growing food. As times are changing, new technology emerges that revolutionizes the way we grow and produce food. And this new technology is known as urban agriculture.

Urban farming is a decentralized food production system where everybody can participate in this project and raise food even in their private backyards. Such farming initiatives can feed entire communities with fresh local produce. Purdue University gives the simplest and most accurate definition of urban farming:

“Urban farming: a practice of raising food in urban or suburban areas, alongside the hustle and bustle of city life.”

Purdue University

Urban farming comes in many shapes and forms, such as urban farms, hydroponics, aquaponics programmes and community gardens. 

When it comes to traditional farming, the most accurate definition has been given by Pinduoduo.

“Traditional farming: a primitive style of farming and food production that involves the intensive use of indigenous knowledge, land use, traditional tools, natural resources, organic fertilizer and cultural beliefs of the farmers.”

Pinduoduo

To this date, traditional farming is the predominant style of food production and farming used by more than half of the global population. While it is an essential anchor in the preservation of culture, traditional farming raises significant environmental concerns. Traditional farming techniques are the reason behind some of the world’s ongoing challenges, such as climate change, deforestation, water shortages and food accessibility issues. 

The benefits of urban farming are plenty:

  • Urban farming plays a huge role in the global food security agenda making nutritious and healthy food accessible to all people living in areas with high population density.
  • It solves the problem of accessibility of healthy food and encourages public health.
  • Through modern sustainable farming practices, urban farming helps fight climate change, creates green spaces, creates jobs and fuels economic development. 

Traditional farming also has significant benefits:

  • Traditional farming is a more established and generally more affordable farming method.
  • By utilizing larger farmland areas, conventional farming creates a large number of job opportunities such as labourers, drivers of trucks, helpers, producers of fertilizers, manufacturers, and more. 

Let’s have a closer look at the differences between these two farming concepts and their main benefits. 

What Are the Key Differences Between Urban and Traditional Farming

Both urban and traditional farming differences can be broken down into several key characteristics: space usage, water usage, GHG emissions, food miles, packaging, and decentralization. 

Urban FarmingTraditional Farming
Space usageSmall space friendly, vertical farmingLarge areas of farmland, horizontal farming
Water usageFewer water resources are usedMore water resources are used
GHG emissionsLess GHG emissionsMore GHG emissions
Food milesFewer food milesMore food miles
PackagingMinimum packaging, usually fully recyclableMaximum packaging, usually non-recyclable
(De)centralizationDecentralized food production systemCentralized food production system

Let’s have a look at these differences in more detail. 

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in Space Usage

Space usage has been essential in food production up until now. With traditional agriculture, in order to feed the ever-growing global population, more spaces have to be dedicated to food production. This means clearing forests for farmland which doesn’t have a positive outcome in the long term. Some urban farming systems defy this theory and bring on new, innovative solutions that require much less space allocated to food production.

  • Urban farming: Urban farming is small space friendly. Some urban farming methods like hydroponics don’t require soil so that foods can grow anywhere –  on the roofs, at the company premises, indoors, inside labs, and more. 
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming uses up large areas of farmland located in rural areas, in most cases, far from the densely populated cities. This leads to a whole spectrum of issues such as depletion of nutrients in the soil due to soil erosion, deforestation to free up more space for farming, to name just a few. 

With urban farming, space no longer plays an essential role in food production. Urban farming allows food to be produced in small dedicated spaces pretty much anywhere in the city.

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in Water Usage

Traditional farming plays a huge role in the global water scarcity issue. It uses massive water resources and accounts for about 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally. To solve this issue, urban farming implements innovative techniques such as hydroponic systems that use 99% less water than traditional farming. 

  • Urban farming: The main idea behind the urban farming concept is that water gets recycled over and over again. With the hydroponic system, the water doesn’t enter the soil, nor does it evaporate. Instead, it is collected and stored in a reservoir and reused repeatedly.
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming uses soil and soil needs water for crops to grow. With the ever-increasing global population, food production requires even more agricultural expansion to meet the demand. As freshwater resources are limited, the expansion puts a strain on water bodies and aquifers that are already depleted. 

Conventional farming methods contribute to massive water shortages and are under scrutiny to develop more sustainable ways of how water is managed in the agricultural sector. Urban farming innovative systems promise to solve the water scarcity issue and contribute to more sustainable and water-friendly agricultural practices. 

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in GHG Emissions

The agriculture industry is one of the main culprits behind global warming and climate change. While traditional agriculture still accounts for almost 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, urban farming practices can drastically minimize this number. 

  • Urban farming: Urban farming minimizes these carbon emissions due to smaller land usage, simplified and innovative crop production methods, faster and simplified distribution and the creation of green spaces that play an essential role in oxygen generation and carbon storage. If powered by renewable energies, urban farming could drastically impact global farming and climate change in a positive way. 
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming techniques increase GHG emissions because of land usage, crop production, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal waste and long supply chains. 

By allocating more green spaces towards urban agriculture, cities could drastically reduce CO2 emissions and the agriculture industry would no longer be one of the main players in the climate change arena. 

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in Food Miles

As urbanization grows, the food miles index (the distance food is transported from the time of its making until it reaches you) becomes an ever more important aspect in food supply chains globally. Urban farming has the edge over traditional farming as it directly tackles the inefficiencies of the food supply system

  • Urban farming: With urban farming, food travels less from farm to processor to the retailer and then to the end consumer. This greatly reduces food mileage, the indicator that estimates the ecological, economic and social impact of the whole journey from farm to consumer, including food accessibility, transportation, waste and disposal. Its main benefit is feeding fresh produce to the community where the urban farm operates.
  • Traditional farming: With traditional farming, a vast logistical operation takes place to reach people living in the cities. As urbanization becomes a global trend, the food mileage index becomes larger and highly unsustainable, leading to accessibility issues, less fresh and therefore nutrient-rich and healthy food, more food waste and increased CO2 emissions. 

Urban farming reduces the food mileage index by making production sites closer to people living in densely populated areas while traditional farming increases the index due to long food journeys.

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in Packaging

Food packaging has a huge environmental impact. Traditional farming requires packaging to keep food produce from damage during the distribution process. Unfortunately, it still isn’t enough to prevent damage, and on top of that, it also leads to packaging pollution. Urban farming helps minimize food packaging with far less damage to food produce and far less pollution. 

  • Urban farming: Thanks to its closer proximity to local communities, urban farming helps minimize food packaging by requiring far less travelling time and, therefore, less need for extra packaging to prevent damage. Many cities have already adopted sustainable measures towards packaging, allowing urban farming produce to have the least negative impact possible on global pollution, being quite often fully recyclable. 
  • Traditional farming: Long food supply chains associated with conventional farming contribute to massive food waste from the initial production stage to the after-harvest and storage transportation stages. There are two issues that arise because of it. Due to long and complex food supply chains, over 54% of food is wasted and subject to disposal. Secondly, food packaging is maximized to produce minimum damage during the distribution stage, contributing to packaging pollution.  

Due to long and complex food supply chains in traditional farming, food packaging is maximized to prevent damage. Urban farming has its own perks allowing a smarter approach towards packaging, making it minimal and, in most cases, fully recyclable. 

How Urban and Traditional Farming Differ in (De)centralization

Centralized food production systems through traditional farming no longer serve their initial purpose. The more the population is growing and moving to the cities, the more accessibility issues arise, making centralized food production systems no longer serve their purpose to provide food to densely populated and remote areas. If for some reason the food supply chain is affected, food security may become a critical challenge. Therefore, full dependence on the efficiency of such a system is no longer a smart decision. 

Urban farming helps food security by allowing food production to take place in the most varied spaces in urban and remote areas. It employs a decentralized food production system minimizing supply chain risks to a minimum. 

  • Urban farming: Urban farming is a decentralized food production system allowing different urban areas to be repurposed towards farming initiatives. As many innovative urban farming systems don’t require large spaces or even soil to produce fresh food, this farming system makes it easy to be implemented in many different places like private backyards, rooftops and even indoors. The simplified farming system allows citizens and homeowners to participate in the scheme and start their own community urban farming projects. As a result, entire urban communities benefit from their local fresh produce and are no longer fully dependent on supply chains. 
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming is a centralized food production system that implies that food production takes place only in designated areas of land. These areas have to meet specific requirements, such as large spaces with good soil usually in rural or remote areas located far away from cities. This means that people living in the cities are fully dependent on food supply chains. 

Centralized food production systems through traditional farming can no longer supply urban populations with sufficient food. Urban farming opens up new possibilities for decentralized food production systems to feed communities without relying fully on supply chains.

Final Thoughts

We’re living in times of increased food insecurity. Especially during the global pandemic, we’ve realized that we can’t fully rely on global food supply chains. A centralized food production system can no longer satisfy the growing demand of urban populations for food. However, traditional farming still is the world’s main source of farming. Urban farming initiatives and programmes are trying to solve food accessibility issues and the challenges associated with long and complex supply chain structures. In light of the ongoing pandemic, the initiatives now receive more funding from both city officials and the private sector. 

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