The Trouble With Stats [An area of just one square meter can provide 20 kg of food a year!]

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The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a robust resource on urban farming you should check out.

Urban garden cooperative workers laying down irrigation lines in a lettuce bed in Caracas ©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri

While the focus of FAO’s work is on developing countries, the information is valuable for framing a discussion on vertical farming in a context beyond the next business model. Some of my favorite stats from that page and attached resources include:

  • Garden plots can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings. An area of just one square metre can provide 20 kg of food a year.
  • Horticulture can generate one job every 100 sq m garden in production, input supply, marketing and value-addition from producer to consumer.
  • Currently, approximately one-third of the world’s population is living in slums and informal settlements. If prevailing trends continue, this figure could reach 2 billion by 2030.

I also like FAO’s recognition that urban farming exists in legal grey space due to zoning and municipal issues: “Growers often operate without permits. Since it is officially “invisible”, the sector receives no public assistance or oversight in many cities.”

I stumbled across this page trying to track down a scholarly source for the claim “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated last year that about 15 percent of the world’s food supply was attributable to farms or greenhouses in urban locations.” I’ve also seen the source for the 15% figure attributed to the USDA as well, however, the best they say is another unattributed repetition of the quote on this NRCS PDF. This number has been circulating in a few recent articles about urban agriculture and vertical farming.

Pointing this out is a very round-about way of cautioning people from using this stat unless they can provide a reputable, scholarly source for it, especially as it becomes more popular. Frankly, through experience researching global food issues, as happy as I would be for that number to be true, it seems high.

But a very good question is…how do we get there, and even surpass it? What would it look like if our cities grew 50% of our food, not just 15?

So, if any one can send me a good source for that number, I’d be thrilled and happy to add it here. Until then, take it with a grain of salt and a dash of disdain for people reporting it unsubstantiated.

I hope you enjoyed this quick break from developments at my farm. More are sure to come, and in the meantime, here’s the first article in the series in case you missed it. Want information beyond the blog? Sign up for our free newsletter