Lessons from the front line: Innovative technologies for urban agriculture and nutrition

A man harvests corn and barley in Hazzaleen, West Bank, where the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is providing emergency support to endangered livelihoods that are dependent on livestock. FAO also has emergency urban agriculture projects such as aquaponics and vertical gardens in the area. Photo by: Marco Longari / FAO

Today we enter the last 500 days of the Millennium Development Goals, the global framework which has guided international development policy since September 2000, and will begin to usher in a new era for global development.

With time fast approaching to replace the MDGs with new wide-ranging objectives, we need to start learning from, harnessing and scaling up innovative, climate-smart solutions that are already reaping rewards, wherever they are located. It’s therefore timely that everyone begins to reflect on our achievements to date and to highlight those programs that have made a positive contribution.  

As an urban agriculture consultant, my focus is often on MDG 1, the goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. For the last two years, I’ve been working as a consultant with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on different emergency urban agriculture projects, one of which piloted the use of aquaponics and vertical gardens. We know that the urban agriculture systems that we are working with in Gaza will not solve the problem on their own but they should certainly be part of the conversation.

As we know, every setting presents a unique set of challenges. In the case of Gaza, many of these challenges are man-made. Conflict — particularly ongoing air strikes — has severely damaged infrastructure, and blockades and sanctions have left arable land and viable fisheries out of the reach of the majority of the population. This has resulted in direct losses to the local agriculture and fisheries sectors, losses which are estimated at approximately $180 million and $50 million respectively, and have significantly harmed local food production.

This legacy of conflict and instability has created a sustained humanitarian crisis in which the population has become largely dependent on external assistance. Lack of available land for agriculture, accelerated soil degradation, chronically poor water quality for agriculture, staggering unemployment rates (40.8 percent in 2014), and restricted movement of people and goods have created a situation where economic access to food is severely restricted for up to 60 percent of the population. As of 2013, the rate of food insecurity in the Gaza Strip was 57 percent, according to FAO, UNWRA and the World Food Program.

The challenge in Gaza lies in finding secure and sustainable methods of producing nutrient-rich food in limited spaces within an unstable urban environment. With this in mind, we looked at how small-scale integrated agriculture and aquaculture systems could work to help individuals produce their own food for consumption. FAO helped to implement an emergency food program supported by the Belgian government which installed vertical rooftop gardens connected to fish tanks as well as fully integrated aquaponics systems, aimed at recycling water in this resource-scarce environment.

While we are researching — and need to continue to research — new and innovative new techniques, these systems possess a number of clear advantages that make them applicable to the situation in Gaza. They require minimal space, produce high quality and predictable yields, are scalable and adaptable, and are both relatively simple and cheap to install. Aquaponics is also a hugely sustainable method of producing food, being extremely water efficient, requiring minimal inputs and producing zero waste.  

It’s also not just in Gaza that these approaches are delivering results. Recently I met with colleagues at INMED Partnerships for Children, who — like FAO — are pioneering the use of aquaponics in a diverse range of settings. They have successfully piloted projects in Jamaica, Peru and South Africa in different urban and rural contexts, including prisons, schools, and women’s and youth-led cooperatives. FAO and INMED share the same ultimate goals to sustainably improve agricultural yields, promote better nutrition and enhance global food security.

So how can we elevate these learnings and scale-up programs that take a more technological approach to addressing inherent societal and agricultural challenges? INMED has worked with a range of global experts, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank and others to share knowledge about adaptive agricultural programs and how to deliver the best possible results, not only in terms of increased production of nutrient-rich food but also to create viable community-centered businesses based on aquaponics produce.  

Working in the field, on the frontline of development policy and programming, many of us are making great progress in generating and realizing new solutions to food production and security challenges. We may be close to fulfilling the hunger target for MDG 1, but with 842 million people estimated to be undernourished and more than 99 million children under five still undernourished and underweight, there is clearly more to do. We need to take that extra step to put ideas and policies into practice on a larger scale and to have trust in methods that are already proving their worth on the ground.

Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Chris Somerville

    Chris Somerville is an agronomist and urban agriculture consultant with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Chris holds a master’s in development studies and, since January 2012, has led on a number of UNFAO urban agriculture projects in Gaza, including those pioneering the use of aquaponics and vertical gardens.