Dr Paul Myers and Dr Jens Thomas are post-doctoral researchers at the University of Liverpool. They are also business partners, having set up Farm Urban, which aims to link leading scientific research with local food production to transform how we farm our food.
Paul and Jens appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss how small, unused spaces in cities could provide a sustainable food future for an increasingly urban global population.
5 seeds of thought about the future of farming
- We need to reimagine the current farming model
By using technology to farm in spaces such as rooftops and basements, Paul and Jens believe they can create a more sustainable relationship between our communities and the food we eat.
Jens recognises it will not be feasible to shift all farming into urban environments, but says it is possible to envisage a future where a significant percentage of our food is not produced by large-scale farms in the countryside that are focused entirely on profit.
“It’s kind of shifting the values we are approaching farming with,” he says.
- Can we reduce the energy required to grow food?
Jens began to seriously question the energy expended in large-scale food production during a year-long stay at an isolated ranch in Argentina.
With no electricity supply, it was up to Jens to search for, prepare and chop wood every day to manually create any energy he needed – even down to making a cup of tea.
“It was only then you realized how much energy we use in our … day-to-day lives,” he reflects. “And then, that translates into everything. The food system is a huge user of energy … and it’s not a sustainable angle.”
- The journey will be challenging – but worth it
As Jens and Paul started to explore hydroponic and aquaponic growing techniques, interest in their approach began to gather momentum. They won £4,000 in an enterprise competition at the University of Liverpool. This paid for the installation of their first system, before securing further sites, including Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.
Hit BBC television programme Countryfile contacted the pair two years into their venture, and an agreement was reached to film a segment on Farm Urban. But a series of mishaps, from a malfunctioning fish feeder through to a hungry pigeon and a nesting seagull, left the pair’s urban farm decimated just days before the cameras were due to visit.
“That was my darkest moment,” remembers Jens. “We were really lucky that we kind of managed to pull it out of the bag in time and get that working.”
- How much energy could be saved?
By farming in basements and on roofs, Jens and Paul can use some of the heat currently wasted in city centre buildings. There are also energy savings to be made by not transporting food from countryside farms to urban populations.
In collaboration with the University of Liverpool, Farm Urban has two PhD students researching the energy and financial savings available by adopting urban farming. How much energy does Jens think could be saved?
He admits: “I don’t actually have an answer… yet. But that’s where we’re doing research to hopefully answer some of those questions.”
He adds: “Just by growing in cities, you’re one-third more sustainable than if you grow out of cities, because we lose a third of our food in transport into cities.”
- What kind of urban spaces can we use to grow food?
Jens and Paul calculate that the 200m2 basement they occupy could soon be producing 120kg per week of leafy greens, herbs and salads.
Armed with that potential, they now want to start transforming elements of Liverpool that others perceive as eyesores – starting with the Churchill flyover bridge, which is due to be demolished soon.
Paul says: “It’s really a nice example, because it just shows, you know, a kind of ugly 1970s concrete structure. If you grow on that and you add green to it, some technology, you can completely re-imagine the space.”
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