Resilience in Our Food System? It Might be Closer Than You Think

To Big Ag, the way to deal with climate change is more GMOs, bigger farms bringing food from farther and farther away and irrigation, irrigation, irrigation. We like to think a little closer to home and about building resiliency to whatever changes the climate might bring.

In fact, a study released in 2015 found that "most areas of the country could feed between 80 percent and 100 percent of their populations with food grown or raised within 50 miles." The study found that even in large cities, most food needs could be met within 200 miles. Like watersheds that feed into rivers, the food systems that surround cities and towns can be thought of as "foodsheds."

This is a significant finding because our ever-increasing population is shifting away from rural to more urban and suburban living, and finding ways to reliably feed all those living within individual foodsheds will become increasingly important.

As the population grows and the extremes of climate change - intense storms, extended droughts and flooding rains - become more common place, it will become crucial for regional, local and even hyper-local food systems to be reliable and sustainable.

In this way, the nation as a whole won't have to rely on just a few regions for its food supply because its geographical diversity will improve its ability to withstand climate disruptions in a particular area.

Just looking at the effects of the extreme drought in California, it's easy to see how a major part of our national food system can be crippled in a few short growing seasons.

For some urban dwellers, the solution to food system resiliency is right in front of them. New and improved forms of urban agriculture are making it possible to grow food right where it's needed - in buildings, on rooftops and even in fish tanks.

Farming Inside Buildings

People have been gardening indoors for a long time, but some industrious farmers realized a few years ago that growing crops indoors - where there is more control over such factors as light, temperature and climate - is a great way to produce food locally. Vertical farming is poised to help waves of new farmers produce food right where it will be consumed, in places like office buildings. Check out this office building in Tokyo that devoted over 43,000 square feet of its building to vertical farming that supplies its cafeteria.

Farming on Rooftops

The ultimate in vertical farming is all the way up - on the roof! Rooftop farming is making good use of otherwise unused spaces that, in most cases, offer ideal locations for growing crops. Rooftops often receive full sun and can grow many ground-based crops. They are especially welcomed in cities as a means of controlling runoff and cooling buildings. NYC-based Brooklyn Grange has successfully established several rooftop farms in Queens and Brooklyn. Check out this National Geographic video that highlights their Brooklyn farm.

Farming Fish and Plants Anywhere

Our fish consumption worldwide is so enormous that it threatens the health and sustainability of wild fish stocks. Unfortunately, global catch estimates are even higher than what is being reported. Open ocean aquaculture has been held up as the solution to recovering wild fish stocks but it is rife with problems like pollution, antibiotic use and the possibility of escaped fish. It has proven itself to be anything but the way to save our oceans.

Enter recirculating aquaculture, which brings fish farms on land and uses recycled water to grow fish. When the system is combined with plants that use the fish waste for fertilizer, it's called aquaponics.

The systems are flexible and can be installed inside buildings, on rooftops, in oddly shaped or contaminated lots, in basements or in back yards. The systems don't use soil and are closed and self-contained so they don't depend on clean soil to operate. This flexibility makes them applicable for just about any location. Check out this video about aquaponics that explains how simple the systems are and what you can grow in them.

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As more people grasp the full implications of climate change, more people may be inclined to look for sources of food much closer to home. That could mean in their neighborhoods or maybe even their own backyards, basements and rooftops (for the more industrious among us).

A good place to start looking for local food is with the Eat Well Guide. There you'll find links to farmers' markets and community supported agriculture that allows you to buy a share in a local farm. And look around your neighborhood, because you never know what you might find. Systems like vertical farming, rooftop farming and recirculating aquaculture have made eating locally a reality you might not yet be aware of.