Farmer on the Roof

(Photo courtesy of Tarek Hosni)

As the world population grows towards 10 billion inhabitants by 2050, most new citizens will be born in cities. Agribusiness has replaced bucolic family farms at a similarly rapid rate, wreaking havoc on the environment in the process. Faced with the prospect of more mouths to feed and worsening environmental conditions, urban farmers believe that enabling city dwellers to grow their own food is the future of modern agriculture.

Christian Echternacht of Berlin’s Efficient City Farming (ECF) believes that urban farmers act on a simple imperative to make farming more sustainable. “Seventeen percent of global carbon dioxide emissions derive from agricultural production, and on average, Germans emit 10 tons of CO2 a year,” he said. “To reduce my personal 1.7 tons, I can eat less. Or I can just eat products that come from CO2 neutral agricultural systems that don’t use transportation.”

ECF is building one such CO2-neutral agricultural system on top of an abandoned malt factory rooftop, in the form of the world’s largest aquaponic farm. Using almost 90 percent less water than traditional growing methods, aquaponic systems raise fish and vegetables symbiotically.  In what Echternacht describes as “a perfect cycle,” a biofilter convert’s fish waste into fertilizer, water is continuously cycled from the fish tanks to the hydroponic plant beds, and plants also bind the CO2 produced by fish farming.

Not only do urban farms use resources efficiently, they also reduce the environmental cost of transportation as well. Planes and barges must burn fossil fuels to ship bananas from Costa Rica to Canada and cucumbers from Mexico to France. But urban farmers like those at Montreal’s Lufa Farms believe that rooftop farms are an excellent way to encourage an “eat local” philosophy.

Lufa sends daily baskets of produce to 1,000 closely located households that own a share in the farm. By 9 a.m., three workers have picked all of the day’s produce; by 6 p.m., the baskets are delivered. “With our system, there is so little waste because we don’t guess what consumers will buy; they’re happy to get what is local and seasonal,” said Lauren Rathmell, Lufa’s greenhouse director.

Most farmers agree that investor and government interest in rooftop farms has skyrocketed in recent years. “Rooftop farming is absolutely scalable,” said Rathmell. “We just celebrated our first anniversary, and we’re already profitable at this point. There are multiple government districts competing for the contract to our second farm.” While the trendiness of urban farming has increased investment, being “eco-friendly” remains a First World fetish. In other parts of the world, the notion of having a garden on one’s roof already seems strange let alone the idea of a hydroponic farm with no soil.

According to Tarek Hosny, co-founder of Cairo’s Schaduf, “Some people will definitely think [urban farming] is cool, particularly the younger generation. It goes along with being health conscious and environmentally conscious, but others will always think it’s kind of bizarre.” Schaduf, named for an ancient Egyptian method of irrigation, has developed a rooftop hydroponic system that uses recycled water to grow produce in one of the world’s driest regions. Through the use of this technology, Schaduf even aims to fight poverty.

Households purchase the systems for around $1,000, largely financed by micro-

Finance loans, and they repay the loans by selling crops in local street markets.

Though Schaduf is in its testing stage and currently has only four customers, Hosny believes that its model will succeed because of its ease of adoption. “Especially for those who are expected to stay at home, either for cultural reasons or otherwise, rooftop farming is very convenient,” said Hosny. “If you are a woman at home anyway, putting some minimal effort into tending to the farm on your rooftop can generate a lot of supplemental income.”

Hosny added, “There is no reason there cannot be a farm on every rooftop.” Indeed, urban farmers hope that this rising trend will catch on globally as it already has among western urbanites. Though hydroponic systems do involve significant start-up costs, the convenience and efficiency of rooftop farming will eventually win over those who hesitate at the thought of growing lettuce on their roof. The hope is that a future where everyone, from New York lawyers to Middle Eastern housewives, is a farmer may not be far off.

Ashley Wu ’15 is in Morse College. Contact her at