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Urban Agriculture: An Exercise in Optimisation

Cities are all about efficiency and management — forging novel connections between the existent resources to maximise our extraction from them rather than venturing out to explore avenues further away. Can the same be applied to the most inefficient of human activities — agriculture?

Picking the most efficient scheme of Localisation, Fragmentation, and Clusterisation is one of the commonest problems of optimisation. Allocating, Apportioning and Distributing limited resources geographically and economically is a problem that’s frequently encountered in the modern world.

Towns have always grown to depend on vast stretches of rural areas that supply them. The dependency and assurance mostly got ingrained in their very formative years and since it was sustained well, it has come to seem indispensable. As metropolises grow into large urban agglomerations with sprawling suburbs, the sharp distinction is gradually vanishing and fringes and buffers are getting increasingly common. The suburban outskirts of most landlocked cities are slowly crystallising and consolidating into permanent full-fledged urban infrastructure.

The modern economy is one of the supply chains. A lot of our food travels vast distances, some even circumambulating the globe, before reaching us. A lot of it is unnecessary. But COVID-19 of all things has shown us why supply chains, no matter how lengthy or complicated, are essential, and our current best compromise. The modern consumerist world is driven by diversity and widespread access. A much wider variety of ingredients and products are accessible to the upper and ever-expanding middle classes. It’s not just the consumers but also the processing intermediaries who use this increased availability. Not only are the raw materials and products more accessible, customisable, and modifiable, but so is the intervening production process itself. In fact, each of its stages now enjoys a greater diversity of potential inputs and outputs. Choices and versatility are the driving force behind modern consumer markets. However, the existence, development, progression, and furthering of such vibrant markets doesn’t automatically imply increased fulfilment. In fact, that is seldom the case.

Increased accessibility has not led to increased fulfilment, at least statistically speaking. Although the middle-class is expanding, the total number of people below the poverty line is far from shrinking. Even today, hundreds of millions struggle to make ends meet and manage to eke out two frugal meals a day, let alone square ones. The world is far from achieving sufficiency and fulfilment, although on paper we can produce significantly more than we need, speaking in terms of basic dietary needs. One of the reasons the advancement in connectedness has failed to translate to universal access to nutrition is wastage. Around a third of all food produced in the world is wasted, although this could be an undercount, depending on your inclusion of indirect wastage, individual overconsumption, rerouting, animal consumption, and diversion to other industries. Lack of transport simplicity is one reason - supply chains aren’t at all streamlined, most of them being winding and befuddlingly intertwining owing to a mix of factors. These include individual convenience, privilege, lack of planning, corruption, ulterior motives and interests of relative gain at the expense of wastage, lopsided influence, and disproportionate powers wielded by certain consumer groups. This confusing intricacy of supply chains also often owes partly or wholly to certain advantages and capitalisations by influential megaproducers who capitalise on scarcity and manipulate supply and demand to their interest. This incurs significant wasting unfavourable to environmental and social causes. As long as it serves their vested long-term interests which often have causal sequences too complex for the layman to envision, this unnecessarily tangled system is here to stay. However, a factor that is even more prominent but thankfully better resolvable is lack of storage facilities. Latency, mislinkage of supply to demand, and lack of market foresight lead to enormous amounts of spoilage and disuse in storage facilities each year. Often this problem combines with and compounds the supply chain problem in appalling ways. For example, famines occur in farmlands or areas right next to gigantic storage and food production facilities. Still, the supply chain is so inflexible and winding that it can not be readily rerouted to cater to the neediest first. The supply-demand continuum needs to be more active, responsive, dynamic, and adaptable, able to be seamlessly redirected, rechanneled and flow regulated at the Urban cold storage is a step in the right direction in this regard. Making supply chains flexible and prioritising local suppliers so that storage facilities serve more as dependable local hubs, especially to bail out regions in its vicinity during shortages and emergencies is critical. Supply chains ought to be able to respond to critical demands and threshold-crossings at the stroke of a button. That level of adaptability requires geographical close-knitting and flexibility of the logistical fabric - that’s where urban agriculture comes in.

Urban agricultural spaces and storage facilities will go a long way in cutting down on transport costs and reducing spoilage and wastage of food in transit. An equitable geodemographic distribution tends to be cost-effective and manageable. Since most of the world’s population lives in cities, it makes sense to have sources as close to the centres of population concentration as possible. This is also beneficial from an environmental perspective. Rural areas, although seen as being in-sync with nature, with the advent of modern agriculture more often than not destroy large ecosystems due to the extensive, pervasive, and rarified nature of their activities. Conventional crop fields take up large areas and tax entire ecosystems often so pervasively that there’s nothing left for the ecosystem to regenerate from. Urban agriculture utilises urban environments, causing no damage to existing, pristine, virgin ecosystems. Moreoever, since urban agriculture is much more intensive, concentrated, and vertically-structured, its areal footprint is much smaller compared to conventional rural agriculture. The risk of invasive species is also mitigated and waste disposal can be more channelised and directed owing to utilisation of existing, systematic waste disposal mechanisms of the city compared to the simple, casual passive diffusion of wastes from rural crop-fields which leads to the pernicious menace of soil, water, and direct/indirect biotic contamination. It is also easier to implement various specific agricultural paradigms in urban agriculture given the small space that is to be focussed on and greater availability of technology to regulate and control ambient conditions. This greater degree of adjustability of substrate and ambience goes a long way in further boosting its efficiency. Pesticides and Fertilisers can be delivered with greater efficiency, in a targeted and safe manner. While lack of pollinators could still be a drawback, the near equal-measure lack of most common pests seems to balance it out. Nonetheless, even organic farming is easier to realise in urban areas than in villages, owing to our habituation to mechanised, chemical-intensive agriculture in rural areas that has semi-permanently changed our agricultural paradigms, almost for good. Computerisation and Automation of monitoring and actuation of implements are vastly easier to set up in urban areas, primarily owing to existent robust network infrastructure and interconnectivity. All these are aimed at one thing - optimisation of resources and conditions. The wiser this apportionment, the greater the yield per unit resources. In general, the distribution of urban crop fields is more adaptive and discretised than agricultural croplands, permitting a more sustainable, customisable, and dependable pattern of production unlike contiguous stretches of rural agriculture that are prone to contamination, pestilence, and mass-destruction. The distribution of agriculture in urban areas vis-a-vis that of rural areas is akin to the choice of leaf size and structure in plants, or that of plant size and distribution in a forest, or that of forests themselves - continuity vs discretisation and clusterisation versus expansiveness. In the shrinking world, one which has been ravaged perhaps irreversibly in patches by human indiscrimination, it is often coincidence of utilities than sparse, the vastness of sources that comes off as the better of the two. The modern world’s problems are not of prospecting, extensiveness, or maximisation - we already know, for most part, where and how much our Earth has to offer to us, it is one of management and allocation, we need to know how to best ration and use it - extract the most out of every bit we have. This appropriates an overlap, a maximal intersection of our various needs - something that only cities are capable of offering.

There are a number of functional hurdles that are encountered at each stage of the supply chain that runs all the way from the farm to the table - many of them can be solved using structural solutions which are often easier to realise. Infrastructural intervention is seldom disputable, as long as it is sustainable and efficient, as opposed to policy changes and intervention. The entire concept of cities is about optimisation - of time, space, and work, and increasingly so. It is no wonder that the primary sector adapts to the same paradigm and in due course, come to constitute another sustainable exercise in scarcity economics.

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