The urban gardens of Havana

I live in Luton, a town with a fair amount of post-industrial space. As I walk through the High Town area, I imagine what might be done with scruffy little plots of land or under-used car parks. Most of them will be built on, as there’s a housing shortage in the area. But maybe some of them can be turned over to urban gardening.

In thinking about what they could be, there are many examples of what can be done. We could look at the guerrilla gardening around South London, , or Detroit’s ‘‘. And then you’ve got what is perhaps the best example of just how far urban gardening can go: Havana. 90% of its fruits and vegetables are grown within the city.

I’ve written before about the particular circumstances behind Cuba’s food production, and there are good reasons why urban gardening became such a refined art in Cuba. It’s not a project that could be replicated – but it does serve as a kind of gold standard for urban growing. Here’s a video introduction:

  • For more see the or this article from .
  • feature image from Vinales, Cuba by

Building of the week: Coldhubs

Food waste has been a high profile issue in Britain, with government action and grassroots campaigns to try and tackle it. There has been some modest success in reducing the daft amount of food we throw away, with a long way to go yet.

Wasted food is also a massive problem in developing countries, but in a different way. Where we throw away food uneaten at the consumer end, in developing countries it tends to be wasted in production. This is known as food loss rather than food waste, and it’s something we should be working hard to reduce in an age of growing populations and rising environmental stress.

One of the biggest problems is how fast food can spoil in a tropical climate. Farmers may have a matter of days to get their fruits or vegetables to market before they start to lose their value and their appeal. Milk, meat, eggs and fresh fish are even more susceptible, and present a greater health risk. Spoilage costs developing world farmers almost half their harvest, so there’s an urgent need for silos, cold storage, and the simple technologies of crates and pallets.

One company that’s taking on the challenge is , a Nigerian start-up that has designed modular, solar powered cold stores. Their off-grid cold rooms can be installed in market places and on farms, and local farmers can store fruit, vegetables and other foods safely until they are needed.

Coldhubs offer their space on a pay-as-you-store basis, and their cold rooms can extend the shelf life of food from 2 to 21 days. They estimate that they have already prevented a thousand tons of food from being thrown away, putting more food on plates, and more money in farmers’ pockets.

The company plans to build hundreds of their insulated solar powered storage units across Nigeria and East Africa in the next few years. You can find out .

Building of the week: Seawater Greenhouse Somaliland

There are a number of companies developing ways to grow food in the desert, using solar power and seawater. I’ve written before about the Sahara Forest Project and Sundrop Farms. These sorts of projects grow food in inhospitable places, reducing pressure on agricultural land and helping to feed a growing global population. In some cases they can be combined with reforestation efforts to create truly restorative agriculture.

One limiting factor to these growing techniques is that they’re expensive. That means big investments and larger scale farming, and it won’t be profitable everywhere. Sophisticated solar and hydroponic systems will pay for themselves if you’re producing high value salad vegetables that you can sell to wealthy consumers. But how many of them live in or near the desert? These schemes will work in places like Australia and parts of the Middle East, but will they do anything for the millions of people who live in dry and arid regions in less developed countries? Could they help to provide food in areas vulnerable to drought and famine?

Until recently, the answer has been no, but ‘ latest venture in Somaliland may change that. They’ve built in Abu Dhabi and partnered with Sundrop in Australia, and they wanted to adapt their technology for a region that needed it more: the Horn of Africa. They would have to cut costs dramatically, make it rugged and durable, and scale it down.

After three years of work, the company had designed a version of their system that was modular, and ten times cheaper than before. It still uses desalination and evaporative cooling, but it has nets rather than a traditional greenhouse. It was completed in October last year, and this week they .

At the moment the 1 hectare farm sits in the middle of a barren patch of drylands. As it grows and develops, the fresh water being created by the solar desalination plant will begin to improve conditions beyond the greenhouse itself, creating an ‘oasis effect’. There are plans to grow beans, melons and other crops outside, and eventually re-green the area.

I’ve been waiting for a development like this. We need to see similar things with urban farming projects like Agricool or Aerofarms. New agricultural techniques will come into their own when they serve the people and places that need them most.

  • Thanks to Jim for the story

Reversing desertification with the Sahara Forest Project

has an intriguing premise. Start with things that we have in abundance – deserts, saltwater and CO2, and work with them to produce what we lack – food, fresh water and energy. It’s an idea I’ve read about before and wondered if it would ever come to anything, but this week a press release arrived in my inbox. The first Sahara Forest Project station has just launched in Aqaba, Jordan, and is now producing vegetables in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.

The plan is to tap the desert heat to evaporate seawater, and use the process to maintain a consistent growing temperature inside a seawater-cooled greenhouse. The evaporated seawater then condenses as fresh water to irrigate the crops. There’s also enough water left over to grow desert plants and hedges outside, beginning the processes of restoring soil and reversing desertification.

It would be impossibly expensive to re-vegetate the desert on its own, but when combined with a commercial farming operation, it becomes economically viable. The project creates jobs, produces food, and should eventually begin to change the desert landscape itself – a truly restorative business model.

The project began with a pilot in Qatar and moved to Jordan recently, where there are plans for a 490 acre farm. (One of the reasons for doing it in Aqaba is that it is a low-lying desert, which dramatically reduces the costs of pumping seawater to the site.) Next year a farm is due to open in Tunisia, and then it will actually be in the Sahara. Will it ever live up to the ambitious of its name, and deliver a Saharan forest? Not any time soon, but as these sorts of projects scale up and the costs come down, they could make a real contribution to feeding the world in decades to come. There’s no competition for land in the desert, and there’s no shortage of sea water.

How are we doing on food waste?

The campaign launched in 2007, a government-backed project to reduce the amount of food we throw away. Ten years on from that, what has been achieved?

The latest bulletin from WRAP, the agency behind Love Food Hate Waste, found that 7.3 million tonnes of food was discarded in 2015, worth £13 billion.

That sounds like a huge amount of food and money – and it is – but it’s a million tonnes less than in 2007. Household food waste has improved by 12%, retail food waste by 15%, manufacturers 10%, and the hospitality sector is wasting 11% less. So that’s progress all round.

However, there is some bad news too. There’s something rotten at the back of  that 12% improvement in household waste. Unfortunately, the improvements all seem to be in the first few years of the campaign, with waste creeping up by 4% from 2012 to 2015. Were those initial gains mainly to do with the recession and people tightening their belts, rather than changing their behaviour? Or does the stalling improvement have anything to do with WRAP’s funding being during that time, as part of the government’s budget cuts? WRAP suggest that falling food prices and rising incomes after 2014 lowered the incentives to save food.

One thing we can say for sure is that there’s still a big problem to tackle, and the biggest source of food waste is still households.

If you want to do something about it today, there’s a , there’s always more going on at , and for the global perspective see

  • Feature image from the .