What economic model for urban agriculture?

While vegetable gardens are multiplying in the city, there are few projects that thrive thanks to the sale of their products. The majority are based on hybrid economic models, integrating the supply of experiences and even ecosystem services.

Co-ownerships of companies, administrations, but also hospitals, schools, sports centers, museums … All types of roofs and vacant spaces have nourished the 33 winning projects of the second season of the Parisculteurs tender, launched in 2018 by the mayor of Paris to cultivate more than 9 hectares. They are in addition to the 47 projects chosen for the first edition in 2016, as well as the many other vegetable gardens that have been springing up spontaneously in the French capital, as in all the major cities of the world.

But while urban agriculture seems to be booming, it still struggles to find an economic model. Examples of urban farms planning to thrive on the income from the sale of their products are, indeed, still rather rare. One of the best known is Lufa Farms in Montreal, where 2,500 kilos of vegetables and fresh herbs are consumed daily by tens of thousands of urban dwellers, and where the search for profitability guides the choice of crops and techniques. Another, new, is the “Farm Abattoir”, the largest aquaponic farm in the world, which has just opened in Brussels. By combining a crop of above ground plants with aquatic animal production, it must produce 35 tons of striped bass, 15 tons of tomatoes, 120,000 micropousse trays and 140,000 pots of aromatic plants every year for local shops or restaurants. .

If Steven Beckers, founder of the company behind the project, Bigh, hopes to achieve the goal of amortizing in six-seven years the 2.7 million euros invested, is on the one hand thanks to the specificity of the project, based on a circular economy approach and a perfect integration with the building, saving energy and raw materials used, on the other hand thanks to increased prices in the name of the local character and “zero waste” “products,” he explained at a conference in January.

Technological costs and reduced spaces
Apart from these few models, however, various factors seem to hinder the profitability of urban agriculture. Consumers are willing to pay a bit more, but within certain limits. However, on rooftops, where for reasons of weight, above ground cultivation projects are often the only option, the costs of investment are often extremely high, said at the same conference, organized by the consulting firm Greenflex, Grégoire Bleu, president of La Boîte à Champignon and the French Association of Professional Urban Agriculture. Not to mention the competition of photovoltaic panels installation projects …

The global potential, moreover, very limited although still largely unexploited, discourages the hope of massively deploying urban agriculture to make it an alternative to the cultures of the countryside. Including vacant spaces, roofs and walls – but excluding recreational spaces – the urban cultivable areas would represent between 367,000 and 641,000 square kilometers, according to a study conducted by researchers from Tsinghua University in China and American universities. of Berkeley (California) and Arizona, published in January by Earth’s Future and cited by Sciences et Avenir. Even choosing the best crops in relation to each environment, they could produce between 100 and 180 million tons of food per year: a figure to compare with the 6,500 million tons of plants harvested annually in the world. Annual revenues would be between 65 and 122 million euros.

CSR budgets and recreational experiences
It is therefore because of these limited industrial difficulties and prospects that today the majority of projects are based on hybrid economic models, or even pursue other objectives than profitability. In Japan, for example, the investment of many high-tech giants in urban agriculture is explained not only by the Fukushima accident, which is causing Japanese mistrust of rural products. but also by the desire to test and then commercialize innovative technologies, explains a recent article by Slate. In Île-de-France, urban farms are often financed by the CSR budgets of large-scale retail companies such as Carrefour, which on the one hand try to restore trust with consumers and territories, on the other hand share test new ways to source in the future.

Many other projects, much more frugal in terms of new technologies, are based on selling an experience associated with products. In France, this is the model of La Boîte à Champignons, which markets a turnkey product to grow oyster mushrooms from coffee grounds of companies, and whose parent company, UpCycle, also offers a consulting service. on urban indoor agriculture. It is also the concept of Peas & Love, which rents parcels of vegetable gardens to residents, as well as the services of a “community farmer”: city dwellers harvest their products, but also benefit from the psychological benefits of a piece of nature privatized, as well as the moral satisfaction of participating in an environmental project – goods more and more coveted.

One hundred billion euros of ecosystem services
The affirmation of these models corresponds to the real added value of urban agriculture. If its capacity to feed the planet will probably remain marginal, it is especially the ecosystem services rendered to the cities and their territories that, in fact, pink its future: restoration of biodiversity, soils, short cycles, of the food culture, of the social bond, even valorisation of the real estate … According to the study published in Earth’s Future, the reduction of transport and consumption of energy, the cooling of the air, the insulation of the buildings , depollution, etc. guaranteed by urban agriculture could save between 75 and 150 billion euros per year. In Detroit, moreover, stricken after the bankruptcy of 2013, urban gardens have made miracles of resilience.

No surprise as the Michigan City Municipality, which gradually takes control of the territory, continues to support the dynamic. Or that Paris provides free spaces. The future of urban agriculture could then depend on the support of cities.

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