Jodi Helmer
May 18, 2012

Saima Moshin at PlantLab in The Netherlands

Photo courtesy of Horizons

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Saima Moshin visits PlantLab in The Netherlands.

Adam Shaw and Saima Moshin, broadcast journalists with the Horizons program on BBC World News, produced a documentary that examines innovative solutions for feeding an ever-expanding urban population.

Shaw, an award-winning journalist and recipient of the British Broadcaster of the Year award, traveled to New York, where he toured Brooklyn Grange and Aqua Vita Farms, while Moshin, a broadcast journalist who works as a special correspondent for PBS Newshour, visited PlantLab, a research incubator in the Netherlands exploring options for growing plants indoors without natural light.

The pair took the time to answer questions about the upcoming program.

As part of the Horizons series on BBC, you interviewed urban farmers who are taking unique approaches to feeding urban populations. Why is this important?

SM: Did you know that 80 percent of the earth’s population will be living in urban centers by 2050? Until I started filming for Horizons, I had no idea. As more of us move into cities, populations grow and available space to grow crops decreases. We need to find new ways to grow food. We’re already using 80 percent of available land for crops [to feed our current] population. But space and demand aren’t the only issues — farming practices are also coming under the microscope for the damage they cause the environment.

AS: One of the biggest problems in the farming industry in relation to ecological issues is the distribution from farm to fork. Being able to move farming production closer to the end market is a must more efficient way of doing things economically and is potentially much more environmentally friendly, as well.

It’s particularly interesting that we filmed in New York, where you wouldn’t expect there to be a huge amount of space for farming, and yet that’s what is so revolutionary. In fact, if you look over the rooftops, if you take an eagle-eye view of some of the biggest cities in the world — New York, London, Paris — what do you see? You see acres and acres of empty roof space. That is wasted space. So what we’re able to do here is capitalize on a resource [that] is at once extremely valuable and yet being wasted.

How is our current approach to growing and distributing food failing?

SM: There simply isn’t enough space to grow enough food to feed the world’s growing population. It’s estimated that poor management practices has left around 15 percent of the land in poor conditions and to waste. One expert told me the average tomato travels around 1,300 kilometers [approximately 808 miles] to the consumer. After all that travelling, experts say the food may not be as tasty or nutritious, as it may have been picked too soon to make up for the travel time. All in all, it’s an inefficient, environmentally unfriendly practice and defying the object or providing delicious, nutritious food.

What was the most important thing you learned about urban farmers and urban farming?

AS: Although this is a very small industry at the moment, this isn’t a hobby. This can be done on a commercial basis and, with scale, it will become increasingly viable to compete with the large, traditional rural markets.

SM: It really isn’t some kind of old-fashioned or fancy idea to grow plants, fruits or vegetables onsite, whether in your home or for your business [such as] a restaurant. In fact, it’s easy and essential we start now.

In your opinion, what are some of the most viable solutions for feeding growing urban populations around the world?

AS: You can try to make farming more efficient — and that’s what people are doing — but if you’re looking at a revolution, this is clearly the revolution people are looking toward. It’s only just beginning, and it’s at a micro level, so really, this is a new story.

SM: From what I [learned] filming for Horizons … it’s essential we start bringing our farms into our cities. Reducing the amount our food has to travel from the soil to our tables will have a huge and positive impact on our environment. Vertical farming is clearly a very clever concept to save on our space issues but also to reduce the distance between farms and the consumer. Adding modern technology to vertical farming, as I investigate in the Netherlands, takes us to another level and could help us tackle the challenges climate change will continue to throw our way in the future.

Why did you focus on urban agricultural pioneers in New York and The Netherlands?

AS: We wanted, in some senses I suppose, to give a broad geographical spread to show how different people in different parts of the world are coming up with similar answers.

What do you hope viewers understand after watching the program?

SM: I hope we realize how we all need to think carefully about where the food we eat is coming from and how we are running out of time to ensure we have enough of it in the future. Those of us living in cities take it for granted there’ll always be food on our supermarket shelves … I also hope it encourages people to start thinking about having their own urban mini farms on their roofs, in their own gardens and maybe in their basement one day (if PlantLab has its way).

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