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A case study of urban agriculture

A life cycle assessment of vegetable production

NSF IGERT PhD Fellow Steve Fisher is researching a sector of urban infrastructure – the food system. The world’s urban population surpassed the non-urban population for the first time in 2009. This marks what has been a steady global shift of providing more food to places it is not grown. Because food accounts for over 10 percent of the carbon footprint for the typical American city, this study adopts a social-ecological-infrastructural systems framework, a large component of which is recognizing urban activities and sectors belonging to infrastructure inside and outside the urban boundary. This is a key way to examine the embodied, life-cycle properties of the food we eat in cities.

This study develops a product life cycle assessment (LCA) of a basket of vegetables (product) grown under two different formats. The first format is characterized by large-scale, commercial growers that supply the typical supermarket. The second format is characterized by small-scale growers (less than 1 acre) that use higher land-use intensity and less mechanized practices. This second format is typically used by backyard gardeners, operators of neighborhood supported agriculture (NSA) and operators of some community supported agriculture (CSA) businesses. Published data is used for the large-scale format; primary, case-study data is used for the small-scale format.

Results of scenarios of land use change and vegetable production for both distant farmland and urban settings found that shifts resulting from urban vegetable production are favorable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and soil organic carbon. Surprisingly, urban vegetable production is not categorically favorable for each metric; several key parameters can shift the balance in favor or out of favor for either growing format, and these parameters are distinctly bottom-up. The results indicate that state and local policy could remove hurdles to urban agricultural production with these data supporting claims that benefits outweigh costs.

In 2009, he presented the poster “The Potential of Urban Ecosystem Services Performed at Brownfield Sites as Alternatives to Commercial / Residential Real Estate” at the Conference for Sustainability IGERTs 2 (C4SI2). In 2010, Steve presented “The Sustainability of Urban Agriculture Presented Spatially on an Urban and Regional Scale” at the Representing Reality conference, University of Buffalo. Also in 2010, he was co-author on “Sustainability Assessment of Alternate Urban Food Production Regime” at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Meeting. In 2011, Steve presented “Life Cycle Assessment Supporting Policy Regarding Urban Agriculture” at the International Society for Industrial Ecology international conference.

Presentation [PDF] download


Fisher, S. and Karunanithi, A.  2014.  Urban agriculture characterized by life cycle assessment and land use change.  International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure - American Society of Civil Engineers.  6-8 November.  (submitted 7 March 2014).

Reiner, M., Fisher, S., and Sperling, J.  2014.  Master Planning, Public Health, and the Role of Infrastructure Evaluation and Sustainability Assessment Considerations in Retrofitting Two Capital Cities for Sustainable Development.   International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure - American Society of Civil Engineers.  6-8 November.  (submitted 7 March 2014).

Fisher, Stephen W. and Karunanithi, Arunprakash. 2013. Unrecognized variation in nitrous oxide emissions reported for a global dryland staple crop. Journal of Environmental Management (submitted 21 Jan 14).

Brett, John., et al. 2013. A Methodology for Determining the Production Potential of Sustainable Urban Agriculture. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (under review).


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