Rethinking Food Post-Covid with Urban Agriculture

How can we keep agricultural practices sustainable while catering to growing urban populations?

As you’ve scrolled through your social media feed during the last few weeks, you’ve likely come across pictures of loaves of bread, kneaded and baked by your locked-down friends. In the wake of coronavirus, people have turned to bread baking for comfort and sustenance. The pandemic is forcing many across the board to consider moving towards a more self-sufficient lifestyle. It’s hopefully forcing even more to realize the need for radical change in our global food system. 


From bats to pangolins, the bushmeat origin story of the COVID-19 virus has lifted the lid on the larger issue of zoonotic diseases, transmitted from animals to humans, and its principal driver: industrial animal agriculture. As stressed by environmental experts, rampant deforestation for food production brings people and wildlife into closer contact than ever before and creates opportunities for pathogens to jump to livestock and humans. Industrial agriculture has also been the source for diseases bred on factory farms like swine flu and avian flu. And, it contributes to antibiotic resistance and climate change, both of which exacerbate disease development. It is clear that we need to end industrial animal agriculture and to replace profit-driven, monocrop agriculture with local, sustainable plant farming. Now, the follow-up question to ask ourselves is: how can we do so while catering to growing urban populations? We talk to two STATION F startups that are proposing urban agriculture as alternative solutions.


Turning city rooftops into urban farms 


To build regional foundations of self-sufficiency, we first need to start by shortening food supply chains. And, that’s what Cueillette Urbaine (Impulse Labs program) aims to do by bringing sustainable food production to city centres. The startup, literally named “urban harvest” in French, sells and operates urban farms on rooftops and in other outdoor areas of all types of establishments including schools, company headquarters, grocery stores, and restaurants. Their farms are able to yield fruits and vegetables yearlong, producing up to:

– 9kg/m²/year of plant produce using planters with a recycled organic waste substrate,

– 35kg/m²/year using hydroponic systems that also grow up to 20kg/m²/year of fish,

– and 50kg/m²/year using Tower Gardens, a vertical aeroponic growing system.

According to Pierre-Frédéric Bouvet, co-founder and CTO of Cueillette Urbaine, these yields can be 40% more abundant if establishments choose to install a greenhouse on top. “We optimize energy flows to help the farm and the building feed off each other. On the one hand, we can use a rooftop greenhouse to help insulate a building’s roof, hence helping it preserve heat or cool. On the other hand, we can seek to refuel the heat that a building – like a data center, a restaurant, or a bakery – generates from its activity to sustain the greenhouse.” Their circular approach is designed to eliminate waste from production.


“Tomorrow, we’ll be 10 billion on this planet and 80% of this population will be urban,” Pierre-Frédéric tells us. “We will need to produce more but always in a sustainable way. I see urban agriculture as the extension of conventional agriculture that will never be able to produce as much in terms of quantity due to limited space in cities. We will also never be able to produce things like cereals: wheat, oats, rape, and so on.” Urban agriculture might not be able to produce as much but it has other interesting benefits: it helps clean cities by repurposing organic waste and by avoiding pollution usually caused by transportation and storage; it creates social bond between urban dwellers who keep the farms; and it re-establishes the connection that people have lost with nature. Cueillette Urbaine helps foster the latter by providing workshops about gardening, climate change, and seasonal cooking.


Starting indoor vegetable gardens


On top of buying local, urban dwellers can also start growing their own food at home with Urban Cuisine, a startup in the Founders Program that builds indoor hydroponic gardens for cultivating fruits, vegetables, and aromatic herbs.


After having studied the pain points of home gardening, co-founders Joséphine Thébault and Antoine Lorcy conceived a product that would cater to the needs for people that live in the city. In other words, they made sure that it would be easy to use, not produce any disturbing sound or light, and not attract any flies. The result is a system that uses 3-in-1 capsules with organic seeds in nutrient-enriched plant pods instead of soil. The capsules also have nutrients optimized according to the plant variety for improved results. The team has also simplified the watering process with an automated calibration system that only needs to refilled every 4 weeks. Users will also be able to follow the development of their crops via an application and get notified when the plants are ready for harvest.


Now, you might be thinking: how much can I really get out of this? According to Urban Cuisine, their indoor hydroponic garden is able to provide 3 kg of fruits and vegetables per month, year-round. The ambition of the company is, of course, to increase that number as they progress. Their pricing starts at €20 for the basic cork pot using their plant pods and goes up to €349 for the entire hydroponic vegetable garden. Urban Cuisine will launch pre-orders for their product in June – you can sign up here to get notified!

Circling back to the question that I asked at the beginning of this post: How can we keep agricultural practices sustainable while catering to growing urban populations? As seen with Pierre-Frédéric of Cueillette Urbaine and Joséphine of Urban Cuisine, urban agriculture has great benefits (zero-footprint, cleaner cities, social bonding, environmental awareness) but it cannot replace large-scale production. Conventional agriculture needs to improve and become more sustainable.


Cindy Yang
[email protected]