|FUTURISTIC FARM SHOP GROWS FOOD IN SYNTHETIC VEG PATCH|
Oranjestad, 2 April, 2012– In London's East End hides an urban agriculture project that claims to be the world's first farm in a shop. FARM:shop sits along a busy main road next to a ragtag bunch of more conventional retail outlets. There are chickens grazing on the rooftop -- seemingly oblivious to the red double decker buses roaring past below. Inside are fish tanks filled with Tilapia; mushrooms sprouting in the basement; fruit blooming in a polytunnel greenhouse; and endless rows of herbs and salad leaves growing from the hydroponic troughs that line the shelves.
"I think places like FARM:shop can reconnect people with their food," says engineer and co-founder Paul Smyth. "We've had this separation of countryside and city living ... So the connection has been severed between what you eat and how it's grown."
While the ethos is community focused, the shop's interior is more like a laboratory than a local gardening center. White low-energy strip lights facilitate the growth of vegetables in lieu of sun rays, and the cabbage patch looks more like a cluster of giant Petri dishes than an allotment.
"We've been learning as we go with most of this technology," admits Smyth. That said, the shop -- which opened in 2011 -- is already a modest commercial success. Having diversified into a grocery store, cafe, rentable office and events space, it now employs two staff and is turning a profit -- all of which is ploughed back into the business.
While few would contest the rehabilitative social value of projects like FARM:shop, its founders argue it could be the start of something much more: A radical new approach to ecologically sustainable agriculture. "If you're growing food directly where it's eaten, there's less refrigeration ... less energy use through transport and distribution," claims Smyth. He says FARM:shop could be scaled up and replicated in cities around the world to help reduce the enormous carbon emissions linked to food production. According to a 2008 Greenpeace report, the food industry is responsible for creating 30% of the world's total annual carbon emissions.
"The dominant food production system is based on fossil fuel at every level," says Dr Martin Caraher, Professor of Food and Health Policy at London's City University. "It needs oil to make the fertilizer; oil for the farm; oil for the food processing; oil for the packaging and oil to transport it to the shops," he adds.
Among these stages, transport, processing and packaging account for the lion's share of pollutants. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that between 65% to 85% of food-related emissions in the Western hemisphere is created once produce has left the farm.
"This is why these type of projects are much more than feel-good gimmicks, they are absolutely vital as part of a diverse array of sustainable agriculture systems that we must pursue further," says Olivier de Schutter, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to food.
Initiatives like FARM:shop are unlikely to resolve the food sustainability issue by themselves. But agriculture reform is an incremental process requiring many solutions -- and growing perishable, fresh produce near to where it's consumed seems like one very sensible step."
"FARM:shop itself is experimental, it will always be our laboratory at the heart of our ideas. But going forward we'll be looking at bigger sites, scaling up, growing more food and selling more food together -- and if we get those kind of sites we're really confident we can roll this out and make a real lasting difference."