The current situation: COVID-19, urban agriculture and the need to change the food system

By Jacob Nickles, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield

Urban agriculture buildings


Jacob Nickles
Jacob Nickles

We are living in one of the most challenging times many of us will have had in our lives. While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our day-to-day lives, it has highlighted just how delicate our food system is.

In my role as not only a researcher, but a small food business operator, I have seen multiple indicators of just how sensitive the system is, with fluctuations in price and stocking uncertainty. COVID-19 has really emphasised the need to not only change the food system, but also how quickly changes in behaviour can immediately affect the environment.

This situation has provided us with the evidence to reinforce the message that we need to focus on looking at how we can produce more of our own food, to do it sustainably and to do it securely. As explored in the May 2020 edition of the N8 AgriFood Urban Agriculture Cluster newsletter, we have the capacity to produce much more of our own food within cities, bringing food security home to local areas by harnessing the idea of urban agriculture.

Over the coming months, as the UK comes to terms with the new distanced way of life, I expect we’ll come to understand some of the broader implications to our current food system, especially when we look at farm labour and its availability or lack thereof. Now is the time to embrace urban agriculture through optimising labour, resources and space, to bring experts together to discuss their challenges, as well as work out constructive solutions and implement substantive change. We need to be able to build resilience into the system, so that in times of crisis we can all afford to eat without facing price fluctuations or reduced product availability.

One way we can help with this, is by providing the public with the tools and knowledge to grow their own food, by simplifying non-traditional growing systems and encouraging the boosted community spirit. Two current projects with these aims in mind run by the University of Sheffield’s newly-launched Institute for Sustainable Food are the Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market and the Resilience Food Project.

The Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market will continue to build on the success of the Urban Farm within the old Junior School in Tinsley. Some questions have been raised about the future of the site given recent problems, particularly around the availability of government and local funding. However, the University of Sheffield has agreed to support the future direction of the Urban Farm, shifting forward towards an educational facility for local school children, undergraduates and apprentices.

In the coming months (COVID-19 safety dependent), the team will be working on the launch of a local market onsite, where local artisans, craftspeople and experts will be invited to sell goods and deliver training. During the course of this launch event, the site will play host to a number of workshops, intended to cover many areas from entry level gardening, to cooking with home grown produce and everything in between.

The event will also focus on building partnerships, with the University of Sheffield facilitating links between community and commercial organisations and local government. The aim of the event will be to bring life back into the former Victorian school and increase access to food for local residents, whilst developing future urban agriculture plans to meet commercial demand.

The Resilience Food Project will see the creation of financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localised high tech intensive food production method. The micro-farms, designed and manufactured in Sheffield (including the electronics!), draw on the very latest research from the University’s departments of Computer Science (Internet of Things, control systems and data analytics), Animal & Plant Science (microbiome control) and Chemistry (novel substrates for soil-free farming), as well as a number of local commercial, council and community partners.

Furthermore, the Department of Geography and The Urban Institute are working on widening our connection into stakeholders, community groups and city initiatives including responses to the recently declared Climate Emergency and the Sheffield City Region Energy Strategy.

The project aims to address some of the big questions around aquaponics and urban agriculture such as financial viability and cost, resource-efficiency, and environmental impact relative to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The intention of the project is to gather evidence that could be used to stimulate investor confidence in the new technology. It also aims to evaluate ‘rainbow revenue streams’ to ensure financial sustainability, for example supplementing income from food production with other sources of income, as well as explore ways to involve communities in the co-production of farms and food particularly in more disadvantaged areas. In addition to this, it aims to understand the benefits to communities and individuals of involvement in urban agriculture in terms of health, wellbeing, community cohesion, prosperity and employment.

When considering the role urban agriculture can play in the food system, there are so many questions to be answered. How much food could feasibly be produced in the UK’s cities? What are the most efficient methods to use? How much would it cost? What resources would be needed? What are the regulatory and policy implications? There are barriers to the uptake of urban agriculture and its potential for food production on a significant scale. High among them is a lack of research in this field.

At the University of Sheffield, we are looking at food security through multidisciplinary lenses. We are also seeking to work alongside city councils, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, farmers, big business, other institutions and the general public, in order to significantly change the food system. To create the changes needed, the whole system must be considered, and this means moving well outside our siloed comfort zones and building relationships within the wider community to co-design solutions in order to achieve successful outcomes.

You can find out more on The Institute for Sustainable Food website. Updates will be added as the projects progress :