Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today, we’re digging into urban agriculture. Would it be possible to get all of our food from local farms? 

We had Janek Schaller and Ashley Junger from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Janek and Ashley!

Janek Schaller: Hello!

Ashley Junger: Hi, Megan!

Megan Hall: So how much food could we grow with urban agriculture in Providence, where we live.

Janek Schaller: Well, first, let’s define what we mean by urban agriculture. In the simplest terms, any crop that is grown in an urban or suburban area counts as urban agriculture. 

Ashley Junger: Urban farms come in all shapes and sizes. They can be anything from large plots of land to small gardens. 

Megan Hall: Got it. So how much of the food that we’re currently eating is grown on urban farms? 

Ashley Junger: We spoke to Dawn King, a Professor at Brown University who specializes in local food policy and politics, to get a better idea of that breakdown.

Dawn King: I think rough estimates of how much food is grown within the Providence city borders and what is consumed in Providence is less than 1 percent.

Megan Hall: Yikes. Could that number go up?

Janek Schaller: Maybe. But there are a lot of limitations to this kind of farming. First, the growing season in Rhode Island is fairly short, so unless you’re up for a strict diet of root vegetables, you’ll need to eat at least some non-local food during the winter months. 

Ashley Junger: It can also be difficult to find space that could be used for farming in already densely-populated areas.

Megan Hall: So how much more farmland would we need to feed all of Providence?

Janek Schaller: Well, there’s a lot more “urban” farmland in our state than you might think; at least according to the definition of urban agriculture we mentioned earlier. Professor Dawn King says,

Dawn King: Rhode Island is so tiny that every part is either within 20 miles of Providence or Newport or Cranston Warwick. So technically, it includes our entire state.

Ashley Junger: But Rhode Islanders still go through quite a lot of food – the average person eats 2,000 calories of food each day, 365 days a year, and there are about a million people in our state, so that makes… [calc noises] 700 billion calories per year. 

Janek Schaller: Last year, Rhode Island produced a little less than 17 billion calories- only 2 percent of what we’d need.

Megan Hall: Oof. So if Rhode Island’s entire farm output is nowhere near as high as it needs to be to feed everyone, what’s the use of urban farming? 

Ashley Junger: Professor Dawn King says farming isn’t just about food- it can also improve the mental and physical health of people who live in cities. 

Dawn King: Oftentimes, it gives them a sense of flow, a sense of happiness, a sense of nurturing, doing something, seeing your plants grow, watering them.

Megan Hall: So, urban farming is more about an experience and less about feeding everyone?

Janek Schaller: Not exactly. Urban agriculture in New England could still play a bigger role in our diets. 

Ashley Junger: Organizations like Food Solutions New England are trying to increase local food production. Their goal is to source 30% of our food from within the region by the year 2030. 

Janek Schaller: But this goal comes with tradeoffs: more farms could mean fewer forests.

Ashley Junger: But Professor King says that any increase in local food production will help Rhode Island become more self-sufficient. 

Megan Hall: Fantastic! Thanks, Janek and Ashley!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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