Big Data Suggests Big Potential for Urban Farming

Big Data Suggests Big Potential for Urban Farming

A global analysis finds that urban agriculture could yield up to 10 percent of many food crops, plus a host of positive side benefits.

Gotham Greens’ boxed lettuces have been popping up on the shelves of high-end grocers in New York and the Upper Midwest since 2009, and with names like “Windy City Crunch,” “Queens Crisp,” and “Blooming Brooklyn Iceberg,” it’s clear the company is selling a story as much as it is selling salad.

Grown in hydroponic greenhouses on the rooftops of buildings in New York and Chicago, the greens are shipped to nearby stores and restaurants within hours of being harvested. That means a fresher product, less spoilage, and lower transportation emissions than a similar rural operation might have—plus, for the customer, the warm feeling of participating in a local food web.

“As a company, we want to connect urban residents to their food, with produce grown a few short miles from where you are,” said Viraj Puri, Gotham Greens’ co-founder and CEO.

Gotham Greens’ appealing narrative and eight-figure annual revenues suggest a healthy future for urban agriculture. But while it makes intuitive sense that growing crops as close as possible to the people who will eat them is more environmentally friendly than shipping them across continents, evidence that urban agriculture is good for the environment has been harder to pin down.

A widely cited 2008 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that transportation from producer to store only accounts for 4 percent of food’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which calls into question the concern over “food miles.” Meanwhile, some forms of urban farming may be more energy-intensive than rural agriculture, especially indoor vertical farms that rely on artificial lighting and climate control.