The CEO of Lufa Farms' childhood of growing up in a farming family enables him to see today’s food production challenges in a different way. Me, growing up in Hong Kong, a city described as where ‘agriculture does not exist at all’ and that imports over 90 percent of its food to feed its seven million inhabitants, I also feel the urgent need to raise our self-sufficiency in food production.
In urban landscapes, food security demands of urban populations outpace the food products delivered from peripheral agriculture land; spacious fields are no longer available for growing vegetables and raising livestock; and land is used for constructing residential housing and developing economic zones. Although we are so dependent on imports, can an urban city like Hong Kong learn to grow?
Yes, through rooftop gardens. I know it may not sound innovative enough to solve this lingering urban food security problem. So let’s take it to the next level: what about hydroponics?
In 2010, Lufa Farms was set up in Montreal, Canada and became the world’s first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse, a 31,000 square ft poly-culture farm. The enterprise aims to feed a growing urban population in sustainable manners: recycling water, optimising energy use and growing without any synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (e.g. control pest with ladybugs instead).
As understood from the word, hydroponics means using nutritious solution to substitute the growing materials of opens field farming – soil. Although greenhouse hydroponic growing methods are not eligible for organic certification, the company’s basic idea is to supply locally grown year-round vegetables with good taste and high nutritional values to Montrealers.
There are critics saying hydroponics is not ecological, as the earth, the living soil is totally omitted in the growing system, which is why it has not yet qualified for organic production standards. A highly supervised management system is also required to monitor the concentration of minded nutrients in the growing area, such as solution or substrate. This means high technical skills and training is needed if this high profitable new industry can be promoted in densely-packed developing countries like Jamaica, where there is a lack of technical human resources and skilled national labor.
After all, considering the huge investment costs of hydroponics systems, such as the costly high-tech carbon-free greenhouses infrastructures, gross margins only show impressive figures when the operation is run on an industrialised production scale (produce more, shorten harvest time, more stable yield).
Putting aside the ecological justifications, the concept of hydroponics and rooftop production greenhouses has slowly merged into the mainstream consciousness of urban citizens who dream of pursuing food security and breaking away from the industrial food system.
SMART projects like Lufa Farms are a meaningful way for cities to become self-sufficient in food production. The project has recently been promoted in the newsblog by New Cities Foundation, a NGO set up to make cities across the world more inclusive, dynamic and creative.