Global demand for food is rapidly rising because of increasing population and a general shift to higher calorie, meat-rich diets. At the same time, the impacts of agriculture on the environment, including nutrient pollution and agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, are already at unsustainable levels. These conflicting challenges mean there are no easy solutions. We could meet growing food demand by increasing production on existing agricultural land, but this might require more fertilizer and water that will in turn affect the environment. Alternatively, we could put more land into production, but land conversion (such as forest clearing) can lead to the loss of plant and animal species and increase carbon loss to the atmosphere. This two-pronged problem – an ever-increasing food demand coupled with agriculture’s growing impact on the environment – is one of humanity’s great challenges. These issues helped inspire our new urban agriculture research project called Growing Science.
Urban agriculture can be a part of solution to modern food challenges. Over 3.5 billion people currently live in urban areas, and the rate of urbanization across the globe is increasing. Developing infrastructure for growing food efficiently in urban areas will increase produce availability for urban residents. In addition, empowering urban communities to efficiently and safely grow crops can help food systems be more resilient to environmental and social disturbances. However, there is not a lot of research on the science of urban agriculture. Work is particularly needed both to improve production efficiency in urban environments and to engage citizens about pressing agricultural issues.
The aim of Growing Science is to combine research on urban agriculture with educational and outreach activities. The research is led by three University of St. Thomas Biology students (Jake Anderson, Kristen Bastug, Sam Harvey), with help from UST Biology faculty (Adam Kay, Chip Small), UST Dining Services, St. Paul Parks and Recreation, and several other students and interns (described here). A main goal of the project is to test how fertilizer strategy affects crop yields and environmental impacts. The main fertilizers are six types of compost consisting of different mixes of barley, cow manure, leaves, and pine bark fines. They are produced by our community partners, Giving Tree Gardens and Kern Landscape Resources. Yields and environmental impacts associated with each compost type are being compared to those from synthetic-fertilizer and no-fertilizer plots. The treatments are applied to raised beds established at two community centers (West 7th and Conway) in St. Paul, MN. Each bed has a mix of conventional and heirloom beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes and other crops. Students regularly measure yield (amount of vegetable production) and nutrient run-off (using a piece of equipment called a lysimeter).
The Growing Science team is also engaging the community with the project. In addition to the beautiful raised beds, the team has added engravings, an archway, perennial flowers, and attractive signs (designed by artist Abby Kapler). In the near future, the team will add benches for community members to come and relax amid the gardens, and a mailbox containing laminated booklets with a brief description of the project. The team informally talks with community members, and whoever passes by the sites, about the research. Soon, they will hold events and educational presentations throughout the community to discuss efficient and sustainable urban agriculture. The team also sells all of their produce to UST Dining Services, bringing fresh, locally grown vegetables to campus.
The project, established in 2014, is scheduled to continue through 2016.