Responding creatively to crises with non-traditional farming

Tunnel and vertical gardens are shortening supply chains, ensuring access to fresh food during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tunnel and vertical gardens are shortening supply chains, ensuring access to fresh food during the COVID-19 pandemic

Rehman produces okra, gourds, melons and tomatoes in the two tunnel garden units he built in the back yard of his home in Aka Khel, a town in one of Pakistan’s most food-insecure regions.

Each less than a meter wide, these creative and economical structures are a type of low-technology greenhouse, consisting of steel tubes clad with a plastic covering and lined with irrigation hoses. FAO helped him install these earlier this year and now “it’s a relief at a time when markets and transports are closed due to the pandemic,” he says.

He is one of millions of people around the world responding creatively to mitigate the pandemic’s disruptions to the food supply chain, which risk making food less available where it is needed most due both to logistical bottlenecks and declining incomes triggered by the health emergency.

In this scenario, solutions that shorten the food supply chain, including vertical and urban farming have taken on new importance.

Despite the fact that prices for wheat and rice, staple foods for Pakistani families, rose sharply in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province due to COVID-19 restrictions on movement, Rehman was still able to feed his family.

With the produce from his garden, they also have a more diversified diet. FAO, working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), also helped 75 of Rehman’s neighbors build tunnel farms, which help lengthen cropping seasons, intensify yields and boost local availability of fresh nutritious produce. Rehman says his tomato plants are producing five to ten times as much as they would in an open field.

Farming vertically

Vertical gardens andmicrogardens have enjoyed new popularity in recent years, which the COVID-19 pandemic may catalyze further. The former are often high-tech urban facilities allowing vegetables to grow indoors or outdoors using hydroponics while the latter are tiny farming plots that fit in urban settings.

Both can offer high-yield opportunities to grow leafy green vegetables and other high-value food crops.

Restaurants are even engaging in a type of microgarden, also called “precision indoor farming”, thanks to a company in Budapest, Tungsram, that was the first to patent the modern light bulb. Today it produces a closet-sized cabinet with computer-controlled lighting and temperatures and an integrated hydroponics system that allows businesses to create their own indoor gardens with minimal labour.

Vertical farms, on the other hand, are often large urban operations, housed in old warehouses or basements. Some practitioners can even duplicate conditions needed to grow the world-famous basil from Italy or the prized Omakase strawberry from Japan.

But vertical farming isn’t just a trend in developed countries. In Kibera, a densely populated part of Nairobi, households use sack gardens made from local sisal fibers to grow onions and spinach without blocking alleyways. In Kampala, locals stack wooden crates around a central composting chamber and use old plastic water bottles for a precision-drop irrigation system to grow kale.

In Dakar, FAO helped galvanize microgardens as a food and nutrition strategy for poor households vulnerable to malnutrition. Today the city, with the participation of thousands of middle-class families, runs that programme, which relies on one square metre structures made of coconut fibres to facilitate soil-less cultivation.

“It’s ideal for short-cycle, high-value horticultural crops, including mushrooms and spices,” says Rémi Nono Womdim, Deputy Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

There are a host of extra benefits compared to open-field farming, including the possibility to reduce water use, limit pesticide applications and produce year-round, garnering additional income and insurance against temporary interruptions of normal access to food, he says.

In Cairo, elaborate rooftop gardens can reduce ambient temperatures by as much as seven degrees Celsius.

Urban farming & greener cities

A longtime advocate of engineering greener cities and a lead author of FAO’s landmark report on efforts to do so in lower-income cities, Nono Womdim estimates that more than 360 million urban residents in Africa and Latin America alone already engage in some form of urban or peri-urban horticulture.

The trick is to recognize their efforts with policy frameworks that ensure they have access to necessary inputs – including some form of land tenure as well as access to water and energy.

Urban gardens and shorter food supply chains also underscore how food security depends on access to nutritious food, Nono Womdim says. “Additional benefits include reducing food waste and minimizing packaging,” he adds.

Producing locally may not always be the answer, but as the COVID-19 emergency has highlighted, in times of crisis, every little bit helps in reducing food insecurity. By the same logic, rudimentary vertical farming makes a lot of sense in extreme and remote conditions. The case is even stronger for ensuring that food systems can innovatively respond to natural disasters, conflict or the chronic stresses expected to intensify with climate change.

That is why FAO is urging policy makers to facilitate shorter supply chains as a complement that can add sustainability, inclusion and nutritional value to the world’s remarkably efficient production systems for staple carbohydrates.

In the Khyber highlands, Rehman agrees. He’s already installed an additional tunnel unit at his own expense, and enjoys his transformation from someone who always had to look for extra income to support his family to someone keen to keep his children in school and who people in the region seek out for advice. “I am very motivated now,” he says.


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