The Rise of Urban Agri Couture


Agriculture is seeing unprecedented innovation and investment as the realizations of food pressure, health, and technology collide. Investors and entrepreneurs from Jeff Bezos to SoftBank to Elon Musk have taken notice of the profound changes in the way food is grown and delivered.


In the last decade, the number of farmers markets across America has nearly doubled to over 8,700, according to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory. It is evident that the movement toward sourcing locally is constantly expanding. The farm-to-table trend urges consumers to learn where their food comes from, which is publicly supported by famous chefs like Dan Barber and Thomas Keller.

At the confluence of these trends arises urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture is defined as the practice of growing, harvesting, and distributing food in and around cities and towns. It has grown as a trend in part due to the alarming fact that the typical American meal uses ingredients from an average of five countries. In fact, the combined travel distance (from inception to plate) of the food in one meal is often over 1,500 miles. And this creates a feeling of disconnect between humans and their food, not to mention the negative environmental impact.

With urban agriculture, you can buy greens that were harvested the same day. Maybe you know the farmer who planted those seeds. Or the farm is in walking distance from your apartment. And you never have to question what you’re putting into your body. Simply put, the food travels significantly less distance between where it’s grown and where you eat it.

Cornell Lettuce

It is estimated that more food will be needed in the next fifty years than all farmers in all of history have harvested thus far (FAO). It is imperative that sustainable farming methods become more prevalent in the future. In agriculture, sustainability is synonymous with precision. Urban farms often capitalize on hydroponic methods, which require 80-90% less water than traditional, soil-based approaches.

The Netherlands, for example, uses intensive production methods and precision agriculture to overcome environmental constraints such as its small size and predominantly cloudy weather. In fact, the Netherlands is astonishingly the second largest exporter of vegetables in terms of value. In some places, however, urban farms are economically unjustifiable and still too energy intensive. There is much progress to be made before urban farming can become a standard for agriculture across the globe.

Cornell University has been at the forefront of the growing trend of urban farming for decades. We spoke to Neil Mattson, hydroponic professor and greenhouse extension specialist at Cornell. He's anticipating improvements to urban agriculture, stating, “The interesting thing to me, as a scientist, is also the increased technology which can be adopted in food production: low-cost sensors, energy-efficient LED lights, microprocessors, and data analytics. These can be harnessed to more efficiently grow food.”

Hydroponic babies

When asked what he sees as the future of urban agriculture, he told us the facts: “For starters, the human population is becoming increasingly urban. In 2007 we reached the tipping point where more than half of our population live in cities. This is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.” He then explains, “I think we’ll continue to see a healthy mix of different approaches to urban agriculture (in soil, in containers, in hydroponics) and with varying levels of technology. I believe commercial urban agriculture is going to significantly increase in sectors where crops are either highly perishable or consumer places a value on freshness and quality. Long-term water is going to be key. Globally agriculture uses 70% of our water footprint, so urban agriculture technologies that are more water-efficient are going to become increasingly important.”

One may say that these greenhouses and agricultural centers fit organically in their ecosystems, acting as green sanctuaries in concrete jungles laden with inhabitants. Urban agriculture embodies Íko’s vision for the future: the harmony of technology-dense products with organic greenery. We at Íko see micro urban agriculture as the next stage of farming by which people precisely grow at home through a seamless user experience.

As local becomes the norm, our tailored foodscape is starting to look like agri-couture.


Further reading:

NY Times: Herbs from the Underground:

National Geographic: This tiny country feeds the world:

The Economist: The Future of Agriculture:

The Economist: Does it really stack up:

Santiago Alegria