Science and economics predict that agriculture will be an industry in high demand in the not too distant future. It is an industry that provides the fuel for everyday life, yet it is frequently taken for granted. In highly developed nations like the United States, agriculture has become a mega industry. Gargantuan farms are sprawled across the heartland and food production has become corporatized for a faster turnout rate. We see an extensive use of preservatives and other chemicals that make the consumer skeptical about the quality of food which is also highlighted by the socioeconomic gap. Food deserts lie in the inner cities across America. “Food desert” is the colloquial name for nutritional dead zones in which one can find fast food restaurants, but not a proper super market that provides nutritional options like fruits or vegetables. The availability of food is a characteristic of socioeconomic standing and arguably a human right that everyone is entitled to.
In 2011 Chicago’s food desert population was estimated to be around 384,000, a third of which were children. While there have been state initiatives to bring produce to deprived areas of cities such as Chicago’s “Fresh Moves” and “Growing Power”, food deserts still persist. The south and west side of Chicago are not unique circumstances, there are areas strikingly similar across the United States. These areas are not only deprived of nutrition, but also from investment. Chicago is a hotbed of economic activity and with the addition of its tourist attractions like sporting events and concerts, the city is able to receive millions of dollars each year, but this wealth does not percolate to the poorer areas of the city.
The solution is a tale of two cities, Oakland, CA and Bangkok, Thailand, each telling its story of green entrepreneurship. In Oakland, Elaine Brown, a former chairperson of the Black Panther Party founded an urban farming business,West Oakland Farms where each of its workers are not only employees, they are also owners.
The organization started by using seed funds from the county and leasing property from the city. Though various nonprofit developers had taken control of the site over the past three decades, none of their projects had come to fruition; the corner lot remained vacant, overrun with squatters, graffiti and weeds. Since this new development of urban farming, production has risen rapidly. Brown claims that despite its focus in agriculture, the real purpose of this business is to employ “Black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”
This business is also a model to counter the prison industrial complex, as frequently inmates who leave prison have little to their name and see no other avenues but a continued life of crime. Unlike many nonprofit organizations which have been criticized for their own unique brand of paternalism, this business is for profit and puts people in charge of their own collectively owned farm. It takes the poor and turns them into business owners, who must utilize their own creative thinking to not only stay afloat but also to grow.
However, the land isn’t big enough to sustain a large farming enterprise, and they face the possibility of shrinking acreage for some crops. A successful business knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, and Brown expects to continue the farming business with additional worker-owned businesses such as: affordable housing, a fitness center, a food market and a center for 3-D printing. But in regards to urban farming, the hindrances of acreage are being countered in a variety of simple ways.
On the rooftops of Bangkok, a peculiar super food is being grown. It is known as Spirulina, a single celled organism that can grow naturally in the fresh waters of Thailand due to the temperature. It is a super food not only because of the wide array of nutrients it provides but also because it can be grown very quickly, cheaply and does not require a lot of acreage. It is also very malleable in the sense that it can be molded to form pastas, sausages, patties, spreads, and even facial masks. This is a food that can be easily grown on the roof tops of many American cities such as Oakland. Once in production, urban farms can see increased output from having a new exotic super food on the market, and food deserts in the inner city will gradually vanish.
Rooftop gardening does not have to be limited to spirulina. Green rooftops are already in place in many cities. The purpose of green rooftops is to combat the urban heating effect and improve the air quality in the city. They have been on the rise in Chicago as part of the city’s pledge to make Chicago the greenest city in America and have been used to grow aesthetic plant life as well as produce. This is a phenomenon that provides opportunity to the big businessman as well as the fledging upstart, and even the newly released inmate. Green entrepreneurship through agriculture is a business that one can literally start in their own backyard and as humanity distances itself from nature, this form of business helps to reintroduce ourselves to our “roots”.