The Extraordinary Rise of Urban Agriculture

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A few weeks ago, Les Fermes Lufa announced the opening, in March 2020, of the largest roof greenhouse in the world in Montreal. With this fourth greenhouse, located in the Saint-Laurent borough, the company, a pioneer in hydroponic agriculture built on the roofs of industrial buildings, aims to double its production of fruits and vegetables.

Lufa Farms is part of an exponentially growing industry: urban agriculture.

They transform the city, but they also have an impact on local food systems. Montreal, of course, but also Toronto, New York, Paris, Brussels, or Portland are not immune to the phenomenon.

The cultivation of edible plants, horticultural plants, or animal husbandry in the city is generally distinguished from agriculture practiced in rural areas by its smaller cultivated areas and especially by its methods of cultivation, often on the roof or indoors.

In recent years, we have seen a separation between urban social agriculture (vegetable gardens) and commercial urban agriculture (farms or projects with an economic vocation, whether private or social).

In businesses, the practice of agriculture is a profession and an economic activity in its own right. If they take up more and more space, vegetable gardens are more present. Thus, there are more than 10 hectares of vegetable gardens on the territory of Montreal, while commercial urban agriculture covers less than five hectares.

But whether social or commercial, urban agriculture is used as a tool to respond to many urban social and environmental challenges of the 21st century, including food insecurity, the re-appropriation of urban space by citizens, the greening, mental health, empowerment, economic reintegration, etc.

It is also seen as a potential vector of individual and collective urban resilience in the event of an economic or environmental crisis or even when the price of fresh food increases, as is currently observed in very many countries, including Canada.

As part of its mandate for the emergence of innovative practices, with the Carrefour team of research, expertise and transfer in urban agriculture (CRETAU), our team produced the first portrait of commercial urban agriculture in Quebec. This is a first step to better understand the importance of this form of agriculture on the transition of cities. Despite its growing popularity, this form of urban agriculture is still very little studied.

Commercial urban agriculture in Quebec

The first portrait of CRETAU made it possible to identify around fifty urban commercial farming (production or breeding) companies in Quebec. Thirty-five of them are located in the greater Montreal region.

Quebec’s cities compare very favorably to other major North American and European cities. Montreal stands out internationally: with its 35 urban operations, the region greatly exceeds Vancouver, which has 13, and the Brussels region, which has 29. There would be around 100 of them throughout France.

While nearly 60 percent of urban agricultural businesses in Quebec are producers of fresh vegetables – 28 out of 50 market gardeners – micro-sprout production companies ranked second in 2018 – eight out of the 50 identified. Of the companies listed, 40 percent produce indoors, while 28 percent use roofs.

A growing agricultural sector

The Pousse-menu farm, one of the pioneers in the field in Quebec, started its activities in 1988. For their part, Lufa Farms erected the world’s first commercial greenhouse on the roof of a building in 2011. Montreal has since 2017 the largest rooftop organic urban farm in Canada. More than a dozen new urban agricultural businesses register each year.

If the portrait of CRETAU is fairly accurate, it should be emphasized that it only concerns existing urban agricultural businesses. Projects in the making or in the making are not part of it.

Multiple indicators suggest that there are many projects starting up. In addition, the development of urban producers offers opportunities for landscaping services and supplies companies. Thus, alongside the 50 urban producers, there are around thirty companies offering various services, ranging from support, construction of edible green roofs, production and marketing modules. Not to mention that many urban producers also offer such services.

A technological innovation sector

Until recently a pioneer in the field, Quebec now has competition: major investments in support of innovative urban farms are made in the United States and Europe. Major projects are developing there, particularly in R&D and the development of technologies, production modules or new sectors (insects).

In Quebec, there are a few examples of innovation farms, such as La Boîte Maraichère, Ferme O’Plant, Fermes In. Genius, Inno-3B or TriCycle. However, they are still far from the US or European projects in terms of funding, and therefore development capacity.

This type of investment in innovative projects is used for food production, but also for the development of new technologies, the development of human resources competent in food production techniques, the creation of automated systems, or engineering.

Nicholas Clinton, of Arizona State University, and his co-authors made a first attempt to quantify the contribution of urban agriculture in 2018. Without making a precise evaluation of the services offered by the AU, they rather tried to introduce a framework to estimate this contribution.

It appears that there is a lack of structured research that assesses the impact of urban farms on the ecological footprint of the food system and cities. Is this impact significant? At what level of development would it be? (one percent roof coverings for example) and how can it be improved? (insertion into a local resource management system).

An agricultural production sector taking shape

The first portrait of CRETAU shows that the emerging agricultural production sector needs support both in terms of economic models, needs for adapted advisory services and a better match between government programs/support and their activity.

This sector should be accompanied by research and training. We should mention the setting up of an urban agriculture component within the framework of the agricultural enterprise management and technology program at the Cégep de Victoriaville, the development of an incubator for urban agricultural businesses in the start-up phase and the existence of a farm. experimental research and innovation on the roof of the Palais des congrès de Montréal.

The question remains on how to successfully establish an effective system for identifying and monitoring urban agricultural enterprises. It is among other things to respond to this challenge that CRETAU launched the first directory of urban producers in Quebec.

By putting this directory online and disseminating it, the idea is to join companies that have not been listed so far.

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