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The growth of urban agriculture

Climate emergencies and pandemics reinforce the importance of agricultural production in cities, which accounts for 15% of the food grown worldwide

Vegetable garden on the roof of Shopping Eldorado, one of the largest malls in the city of São Paulo

Léo Ramos Chaves

In the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when social distancing measures were implemented and followed by much of the Brazilian population, a weakness was exposed in the food supply system. Scenes from another crisis—the truck drivers’ strike two years earlier—were repeated: while supermarkets shelves were bare, fresh food perfectly fit to be eaten was discarded due to breaks in the product distribution chain. The impact was magnified by the fact that much of the food consumed in cities is produced outside them, and the transport chains and sales channels between them broke down. “The pandemic showed us how important it is to strengthen local production. The small and medium farmers who performed best were those who made a direct connection with the consumer, for example by delivering food parcels without the use of intermediaries,” says physician Thais Mauad, head of the Group for Urban Agriculture Studies (GEAU) at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA) of the University of São Paulo (USP) and a professor at the university’s School of Medicine (FM).

Although the pandemic has placed the spotlight on agriculture in and around towns and cities, the movement to make urban areas greener and more sustainable has been gaining ground in Brazil and worldwide since the early 2000s. The trend reflects the vertical growth of cities all over the world and growing evidence that the planet is facing a climate emergency as a result of global warming. According to the 2015 National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 85% of the Brazilian population lives in urban areas and only 15% in rural areas. In the Southeast, the proportion living in cities is 93%.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 80% of global food production is consumed in urban areas. In 2018, these regions produced just 15% of the world’s food, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The concept of urban and peri-urban agriculture (PUA) is the subject of debate among academics and policymakers, but in general it covers crop and livestock production within the urban perimeter and outskirts of towns and cities.

It includes production both for commercial purposes and family and community sustenance, as well as other reasons, such as education, activism, and leisure. Thus, the definition is wide-ranging, from plants grown for personal consumption on terraces and in backyards to green roof gardens, high-tech vertical farms, community gardens, and more conventional farms within or around the urban perimeter. Peri-urban agriculture is practiced by individuals or formal and informal organizations, in public or private spaces, in a vast range of social conditions across all of Brazil, often with little or no support from public policy.

Obtaining data on this type of agriculture in the country is therefore difficult and there is no consolidated information on the subject. The IBGE’s agricultural census, the main source of statistical data on the agricultural structure and production in Brazil, does not distinguish between rural and urban agriculture. “This topic is hotly debated by researchers studying urban agriculture and by the IBGE itself, since the census sectors [the smallest territorial unit for which the institute discloses information] are based on political and administrative divisions. Municipal authorities are responsible for defining urban and rural territories, a decision often based on tax issues, making it difficult to establish objective criteria on what is urban and what is rural on a national scale within the scope of public policy,” says Vitória Leão, an expert in family agriculture who is a member of GEAU and a project analyst at Instituto Escolhas, a non-profit organization headquartered in São Paulo. Scientists studying the topic thus have to focus on the microdata for each of the 5,568 municipalities in the country.

Léo Ramos Chaves Community vegetable garden at São Paulo Cultural Center near the city centerLéo Ramos Chaves

Poverty reduction
According to the FAO, by encouraging people to grow their own food or buy it from community gardens, urban agriculture can help reduce poverty and food insecurity, which is exacerbated by urbanization, while at the same time improving health and preserving the environment. It therefore considers it a priority to stimulate this type of agriculture, emphasizing the importance of including the topic in urban planning. The pandemic has also led to worsening food security worldwide, including in Brazil, where an estimated 19 million people suffered from hunger in 2020, according to a report by the Brazilian Research Network on Sovereignty and Food Security (Rede Penssan).

A simulation carried out by Instituto Escolhas indicates that agriculture in the São Paulo Metropolitan Area has the potential to supply food to 20 million people per year and generate 180,000 jobs, utilizing only the land currently used as pasture and without occupying any forests or environmental conservation areas. The IBGE’s 2017 agricultural census found that the 5,000 agricultural establishments in the São Paulo Metropolitan Area employed 20,000 people when the survey was carried out.

The unused land in the district of Sapopemba alone—a total area of 200 hectares in the east of the capital, equivalent to 200 city blocks—could grow enough crops to feed 80,000 people. The number of families that would benefit would be 1.5 times greater than the number registered with the Bolsa Família welfare program in the district, according to Instituto Escolhas.

In an article published in the journal Advanced Studies in early 2021, a group of researchers led by Mauad analyzed data on the city of São Paulo and found that despite clearly being underreported, there has been a noticeable increase in urban agriculture in the city in the last 15 years. A comparison of the data from the Agriculture Censuses taken in 2006 and 2017 shows that the number of agricultural establishments increased from 193 to 550. The area used for commercial agriculture increased from 8,000 hectares to almost 11,000 hectares in the same period. The IBGE considers an agricultural establishment as any production or exploitation unit dedicated wholly or partially to commercial or subsistence farming, forestry, or aquaculture, regardless of size, legal status, or rural/urban classification.

According to the Survey of Agricultural Production Units (UPAs) in São Paulo State, the number of UPAs increased by approximately 22% and the total area used for food production increased by 33% in the city of São Paulo between 2007/2008 and 2016/2017. Lettuce was cultivated at 102 production units in the last survey, making it the most common crop by number of establishments in 2017. Other prevalent crops were collard greens (in 93 UPAs) and broccoli (65). In terms of area, 247 hectares (ha) were used for brachiaria, a type of grass used to feed cattle. Pasture was followed by floriculture (231 ha) and lettuce production (222 ha).

At the beginning of November, 735 agricultural production units were registered on the São Paulo government’s Sampa+Rural website, the majority (574) in the southern region and 60% within areas of 0.1–5 ha, 28% run by women. Urban agriculture is growing nationwide, with examples of success in cities such as Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais; the Hortas Cariocas program in Rio de Janeiro; Maringá and Curitiba in Paraná; Teresina in Piauí; and others.

The researchers point out that agriculture in cities is not only intended for commercial production. “When we talk about urban agriculture, we are talking about a vast range of activities. It involves various practices,” observes geographer Gustavo Nagib, who studied urban agriculture as activism, with a focus on Paris and São Paulo, as part of his doctorate, which he completed in 2020.

Alexandre Affonso

“Urban agriculture allows us to rethink socioenvironmental conditions from the perspective of urban ecology, rural-urban integration, and the reintroduction of biodiversity in cities, whether that be animals, such as pollinating insects, or plants that we can eat,” says Nagib. “It also helps us in the fight against hunger and poverty, giving people the opportunity to save money and be more independent by producing their own food.”

In his book Agricultura urbana como ativismo na cidade de São Paulo (“Urban agriculture as a form of activism in the city of São Paulo”), Nagib explains that from an activist perspective, the aim of urban agriculture is to reoccupy public spaces in the city and reestablish contact with nature. He also highlights that the movement can strengthen social ties that may have been lost in major cities and seeks to draw attention to collective work and public spaces for collective use. It is no coincidence that agriculture practiced in and around cities also often follows the principles of agroecology, based on respect for all forms of life rather than purely anthropocentric (human-centered) approaches.

Many cooperatives, associations, and communities have increased in size and are enjoying the benefits of urban agriculture thanks to more traditional techniques, like those used by indigenous peoples. “The practice often gains strength during economic crises, because people lose purchasing power and cannot afford to buy food,” says geographer Angélica Nakamura, whose master’s research examined the work of the Cooperapas cooperative, formed by agroecological farmers in the far south of the city of São Paulo, a region with many springs.

Moving in a direction often contrary to activism—but taking advantage of the rising demand for local food grown without pesticides—large cities around the world are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of vertical farms, where plants can be grown without using any soil.

Using hydroponics (in which crops are grown in an aqueous solution), aeroponics (a system in which plants do not come into contact with water, only steam), or aquaponics (hydroponics combined with fish farming), these companies utilize technological advances provided by the Internet of Things, machine learning, and embedded computer systems to partially or fully control farm environments. In enclosed spaces, climate variations cannot interfere with production.

One of the largest in São Paulo is Pink Farms, which has a high-tech pilot farm with a 150-square-meter (m2) growing room in the west of the city. It currently produces 1.5 tons (t) of hydroponic lettuce per month in a tower that occupies less than 70 m2 and has 10 levels (or floors). The plan is to reach 3 t per month when a second tower is completed in November. The company also produces between 100 and 200 kilograms of microgreens a month, from crops such as leeks, carrots, cilantro, collard greens, mustard, and others). The plants float on trays with a nutrient solution. According to the company, 60% less fertilizer is used than in conventional agriculture. There are also water savings, since the same water can be reused for up to 60 days before disposal.

Milton Godoy Saito Babylon platform created by startup for growing food in open spacesMilton Godoy Saito

“In terms of efficiency—meaning productivity per area—we outperform rural farms by a long way. We have optimized the issue of space by increasing plant density and verticalization,” says production engineer Henrique Pauli, head of operations at Pink Farms. Much of the process is automated, including the controls for temperature, humidity, light, and gases such as carbon dioxide, used to accelerate photosynthesis. The operational costs, however, are higher than conventional farms—the company did not wish to disclose its figures.

A mixture of blue and red LED lights is used, creating a pink hue, which is where the company got its name. According to Luana Borges, an agronomist at Pink Farms, the LED lights simulate sunlight and speed up photosynthesis in plants. The aim is for the environment to be as sterile as possible, to avoid contamination by bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. “On our current farm, the harvesting and transplanting processes are still performed manually by employees, but at the new farm, scheduled to begin operations next year, these plus the packaging process will be automated. The plan is to scale up by using robots,” says Pauli. The company is currently raising funds to expand the project and build new facilities, which will have solar panels and/or wind turbines to reduce electricity costs, as well as technology to reuse 100% of the water.

Pink Farms was inspired by American company AeroFarms, founded in 2004 and headquartered in New Jersey, which sells 550 varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in controlled environments based in renovated factories, paintball fields, and even an abandoned nightclub. AeroFarms is involved in the construction of what is going to be the largest vertical farm in the world, located in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, a country that suffers from severe water shortages. The largest vertical farm company in the USA is Bowery, based in Manhattan, New York, whose investors include musician Justin Timberlake and actor Natalie Portman, according to The New York Times.

In the state of São Paulo, computer engineer Milton Yukio Godoy Saito is developing a sustainable urban vertical farm platform for open spaces, initially designed to be installed on the roofs of shopping malls and commercial buildings, with funding from FAPESP’s Research for Innovation in Small Businesses program (RISB, or PIPE in Portuguese). The model, called Babylon, uses natural light (reducing electricity costs), does not require chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and has sensors that identify the humidity of the substrate, which is made from organic waste. Despite its modular system using PVC pipes just like hydroponics, the platform also uses soil and a semi-controlled environment, which is where it differs to the fully controlled environments of Pink Farms, for example. Its intelligent irrigation system uses sensors to monitor the productive units minute by minute.

“The biggest challenge we have encountered so far is that end consumers still don’t see the value of vegetables with a low carbon footprint. People don’t think about the entire production and sales chain, which generates waste and fossil fuel consumption. The financial element leads to people choosing the cheapest product or the biggest and greenest,” says Saito.

Still studying the ideal business model for the platform, the engineer says he is looking for investment from outside Brazil, especially from the Middle East and Europe, to boost the business. “This is where we see more opportunities. We are still very new in this area.” He also says that he has been asked a lot about the need for vertical urban farms in a country like Brazil, which has so much land. “People don’t realize that the land here is becoming more and more unsuitable for agriculture and water is becoming scarcer. These issues will only get worse in the medium and long term.”

Léo Ramos Chaves São Paulo–based company Pink Farms uses colored LED lights to emulate solar radiation on its pilot farmLéo Ramos Chaves

With an eye on the European market, Instituto Cidade Jardim, another São Paulo–based company, has developed a hydroponic roof tile system that does not require the roof structure to be waterproofed beforehand, with funding from FAPESP’s RISB program. The sandwich tile designed for growing crops, named Kaatop, is in its ninth version, and is currently being refined with the aim of reducing costs. Patents for the product have been approved in Brazil, the USA, and Europe.

“The green roof is great because it is a multifunctional technology. It not only addresses sustainability in relation to water, energy, and well-being, but also helps solve several problems at the same time: it improves air quality, absorbs carbon, produces food, reduces electricity consumption, and helps combat flooding in cities,” says agronomist Sérgio Rocha, founding partner of the startup, who also designs traditional green roof systems that use modular plastic trays on waterproofed concrete.

“The global green roofing market is currently one of the most promising and active in regenerative technologies [which seek to mitigate environmental damage caused by humans]. In Europe alone, it is a 500-million-euro industry, and that’s for flat roofs only,” he says. He notes, however, that it is an expensive technology, currently accessible only to businesses or wealthy individuals.

Instituto Cidade Jardim also has an element of activism, raising awareness of good practices with a focus on roofs. “We want people to see roofs as transformative spaces. Few people realize, but they are responsible for many common problems faced by cities, since they occupy most of the urban surface. Having a green area over our heads could help solve a lot of urban issues,” says Rocha, who points out that some green roofs can retain more than 70% of rainfall. “Together with other urban planning tools, green roofs have enormous potential to help combat floods—in addition to producing food for city residents.”

1. “Growable Sandwich Roof”: a new system for green roofs that does not require waterproofing and injects sustainability into the roofing market (nº 16/10264-3) Grant Mechanism Research for Innovation in Small Business (RISB/PIPE)/FINEP RISB/PAPPE Grant; Principal Investigator Sérgio Fausto Rizzi Rocha (Cidade Jardim Institute); Investment R$121,565.06.
2. Creating a platform for sustainable agriculture in urban spaces (nº 19/01050-8) Grant Mechanism Research for Innovation in Small Business (RISB, or PIPE in the Portuguese acronym); Principal Investigator Milton Yukio Godoy Saito; Investment R$89,772.89.

Scientific articles
AMATO-LOURENÇO, L. F. et al. Building knowledge in urban agriculture: the challenges of local food production in Sao Paulo and Melbourne. Environment, development and sustainability. Vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 2785–96, 2021.
NAGIB, G. et al. Urban agriculture in the city of São Paulo: New spatial transformations and ongoing challenges to guarantee the production and consumption of healthy food. Global Food Security – Agriculture, Policy, Economics and Environment. Vol. 26, pp. 1–7, 2020.
BIAZOTI, A.R. et al. The Impact of COVID-19 on Urban Agriculture in São Paulo, Brazil. Sustainability. Vol. 13, p. 6185, 2021.