Farming in the Concrete Jungle

If anywhere in the world can be described as a concrete jungle, Tokyo and surrounding urban areas would qualify.

The Japanese capital, currently home to about 13 million people, is part of a continuous stretch of houses, buildings, rail and road infrastructure, as well as industry — enough to accommodate 36 million in total, which is the city’s work-day population.

Yet Tokyo has under 8,000 hectares of agricultural land, most of it hosting vegetable-fruit-flower farming and representing only 0.2% of Japan’s farm households, according to government statistics.

All this in a country with only 2.5% of the arable land that the United States has and a food self-sufficiency rate of just 40%.

The challenge of supplying nutritious, safe and environmentally sustainable food to city dwellers is therefore substantial. But, with the right information, is it possible to grow your own in Tokyo? Is it feasible to farm organically in the concrete jungle? And if so, what sort of costs and benefits could come from doing so? These are the questions I sought to answer as I embarked upon an informal study and rented a very small plot.

A menu of growing choices

Since the 1990s, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has opened both public and private spaces in which Tokyo residents can farm little pockets of land. Since then, interest in farming has been increasing, especially since Japanese baby boomers born after World War II have begun to retire. At the other end of the scale, young people too are becoming more attracted to farming as their hobby, thanks mainly to the influence of some agriculture-supporting role models.

The vast majority of Tokyoites rent apartments with barely enough space to grow anything. Still, it is possible to have kitchen gardens and much more. There are, surprisingly, several urban farming options, including rooftop gardens and underground urban farms like Pasona.

Farming in the concrete jungle

Photo by Alva Lim.

“People were attracted by the opportunity to grow quality produce with friends and family in an open space and with access to information on how to improve their growing techniques.”

Of course, indoor growing facilities mean higher production costs to cover things like air-conditioning to maintain temperatures and humidity, or computer controls for ensuring optimal conditions of carbon dioxide, light and water. Furthermore, indoor systems have high carbon footprints due to the energy needed to maintain unnatural conditions like artificial heat.

Urban agriculture study

For this study, I examined the benefits and costs of low-carbon, seasonal, organic vegetable farming on a private rental plot over the 2010 summer period (May – September). I rented a 6-square-meter plot on a private urban farm in Tokyo’s west where I grew five summer crops: tomatoes, mini tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter melon, eggplant and green peppers.

I estimated the cash costs and cash returns for all crops. Costs included seeds (US$5-6 a pack), seedlings ($3.50) and the rental fee paid for the land ($302). The rental fee included access to farm equipment, such as hoes, spades, poles and nets, water, organic compost and assistance from farm staff members on cultivating techniques, etc. I also included transportation costs from the plot to home or work which were $5-10 return, depending on the distance (although there can of course be costs associated with going to the supermarket).

The total cost of the plot for the season was $686 with the rental representing 44% of the total cost.

Total revenues were determined by calculating the value of crop yields, based on Tokyo market prices taken from organic vegetables in three supermarkets and one weekend open market. Average prices for tomatoes were $0.6-$1.40 each, mini-tomato $3-$4.40 per pack, cucumbers $0.8-$1.40 each, bitter melon $1.20-$3.30 each, eggplant $0.6-$1 each, and green pepper $0.2-$1.10 each.

Average yield levels per plot over the season were as follows: 45 tomatoes, 3.5 kilograms of mini-tomatoes, 45 cucumbers, 20 bitter melons, 25 eggplants and 35 green peppers. Based on average prices this represented total revenue of $316, a cost benefit ratio of 0.46 and therefore a loss of $350. (However, it is important to consider the ‘hidden environmental costs’ of conventional supermarket food such as all the energy used in transportation and storage and damage caused by synthetic fertilisers and pesticides).

More than the money

Despite the fact that the financial costs of urban farming in a rental plot were higher than the value of the produce harvested, Tokyo residents had many non-monetary reasons for growing their own. Based on observations and casual conversations with other people at this 303-plot rental facility, the most common of these was eating healthily through seasonal, local and organic produce.

It was clear that many of the urban farmers had not had experience farming before. Yet people were attracted by the opportunity to grow quality produce with friends and family in an open space and with access to information on how to improve their growing techniques. People were also motivated by what they believe is fresher, and better-tasting produce.

farming-in-the-concrete-jungle-2

“It was clear that many of the urban farmers had not had experience farming before.”

Prominent groups included the elderly and young mothers concerned about the quality of the food they feed to their children. Less common were salary-men and women (full-time office workers) whose long hours prohibit them from detouring to their plots on the way home, at any reasonable hour.

Despite not saving money by growing things in a private facility, members chose to invest their money and time into learning to cultivate vegetables, perhaps for a future where they can more easily do it at home.

Overall, people seemed genuinely happy with the chance to pursue urban farming and share these benefits with their family and community, something that adds up to more than the cost of production.

Creative Commons License
Farming in the concrete jungle by Jintana Kawasaki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION BELOW

Author

Dr. Jintana Kawasaki was educated in Thailand and Japan. She holds a Ph.D. in International Bio-Business from Tokyo University of Agriculture, during which she studied the sustainability of organic vegetable farming in comparison with other production systems in Thailand. She also holds a M.Sc in Agricultural Economics in the School of Economics from Kasetsart University (Bangkok, Thailand). Before joining the United Nations University Institute for Sustainabiltiy and Peace (UNU-ISP) in 2009, she was a lecturer at Kasetsart University and Khon Kaen University’s Department of Agriculturalk Economics. At UNU-ISP she has focused her research on the impact of climate change on rice yields, and an economic assessment of its impacts in Thailand.

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    This is inspiring! Just this afternoon our household received our first delivery of locally grown, organic produce from a nearby farm (using a recently inaugurated Consumer Supported Agriculture program). It is looking very fresh and good, and we’re feeling happy to support our local farms. Our next step may well be to begin growing our own, and thanks to Jintana-san, I’ve got some new motivation to begin doing so sooner than later!

  • Jamie

    Interesting article. Looks like you did your experiment at Agris Seijo? If only there was a way to quantify the benefits of community inclusion/information exchange at plots held over the long term. It’s amazing how much more you can learn/cut costs in the second year of farming, as well as gain the trust of long-term (usually resident) investors with the local knowledge to point you down the most cost-effective track. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against urban agriculture in Tokyo for a number of reasons, including government policy that encourages farmers to be label their land as “green areas” for a large part of the year to avoid hefty taxes. That is, there’s a large cost to identifying yourself as an “urban farmer”. I wonder if privately-owned and increasingly community-absent (or rather”gated-community”) models of farming in the city are the answer. City-provided 市民農園’s also have this privatizing, exclusive-community feel to them. Tokyo and other major Asian metropolis’s pride themselves on a history of intertwined rural-urban relationships among their residents and a more marbled green-to-concrete ratio than that of western city models. But with all the city regulations that make it easier to build apartment complexes than retain workable land, it’s really impossible for low-income participants to compete with inheritance and/or privately-owned farm-boom establishments. If only policy reflected the need for a authentic community gardens in Tokyo..

  • Darek Gondor

    There is a great satisfaction benefit from doing things yourself, whether its fixing your watch, your car, or growing food… and the idea is being taken seriously by researchers. I would like to share the following link about the joys of making and doing:

    http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/en/Online-discussions/Blogs/Global-green-economics/The-joys-of-making-and-doing-ISEE-2010

    • AlanZulch

      Darek, thank you for this article on the joys and benefits of so-called ‘high-tech self-providing’. Last night, in celebration of receiving our first locally-grown CSA delivery (mentioned below in my first post), I broke out our long-ago-purchased-but-never-used bread machine. For me, it’s the perfect example of what the author was writing about.

      Years ago I felt drawn to baking bread, but my time/priorities precluded me from doing so, and the machine sat. I began feeling guilty having such a relatively high-production-value indulgence, but when I finally decided it was more of a waste to let it sit idle than to use it, using it felt very good, both in the process of preparing the mix and, of course, smelling the warm loaf when it was done. But what really pleased me was the response I got from my family.

      I’d like to think my bread machine is helping me ease my transition into more broad-based and consistent self-sufficiency, preferably without need for such high-tech devices, but the article has given me, er, food for thought (sorry), that perhaps there is an enduring place for high-tech while self-providing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wordsworm Steven Young

    No offence to the writer, and it’s a trivial expense that was counted that shouldn’t have been: the seeds. I’ve done gardening, and do you want to know where I got the seeds? From the year’s previous crop.

    I’d be more curious about finding editable vegetables that can grow in fluorescent lighting which is used in the house during the evening, and the natural light that finds its way during the day. There’s also mushroom farming which requires little light, but some expertise from what I gather.

    I’ve had no problem growing lush vines in my house, so, I can’t help but think that with a little composter and space on the wall, on the window sill, etc. Seems to me that some food could be grown like this.

    • marknotaras

      Steven, those are very good ideas. Do you have more information for people with limited spaces? Lack of space defines life in Tokyo, as you probably know. I don’t believe restricted urban farming models are the overall answer – hopefully they lead us to genuine community models as Jaime suggests. But it goes to show you that some people (call this a micro-movement?) are doing what they can, even if they have to buy seeds.

      Here is a great quote on seeds from Vandana Shiva:

      “I see hope in the seed, for me seed is my teacher”

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQDqEUd53YQ&feature=channel

  • Mark Ridsdill Smith

    Hi Jintana
    I enjoyed your article and interesting experiment. I thought you might be interested in a similar project i’m involved in. I don’t have a garden or an allotment – so I’m measuring how much I can grow on my window sills and small balconies. I’m constantly surprised by how much is possible – and of course you save the time and money involved in travelling to a plot! You can see my results, so far here: http://www.verticalveg.org.uk/growing-diary/

  • Jintana Kawasaki

    Thank you very much for all of comments and sharing of your experience with me.
    Jamie-you are right my experiment at Agris Seijo where are located near my place. I applied for a public space but I have no idea how can I get it with long waiting lists
    Steven-I grew same vegetables by using of plastic boxes in the house. The products for plastic boxes less than my rental plot-more good test of vegetables. How are your opinion?
    Mark-I like your diary. I believed that value of vegetables will make you exciting but your vegetables products will make you smiles

    • http://www.facebook.com/wordsworm Steven Young

      Jintana – I agree with what you’re saying. I don’t know how much you can get from a few rows of veggies/fruit in the brighter areas of the house, but you surely could get some. Myself, I only have experience growing a few herbs. I like to grow my own parsley. The rest I usually grew in the plot of land. Now I live in Korea, and I haven’t been keeping my thumb green.

      The way Koreans design their apartments leaves a lot to be desired. What I mean is that at the window side of the apartment they often have a closed balcony which is used for laundry. I would have preferred a small well ventilated room to achieve the same end, and the light from the outside preserved for myself and the few plants that I usually keep around.

  • Tokaiterry

    Aloha,
    Urban Farm’s article introduce me to come to this site.
    We are 40 miles west from Tokyo, Shibuya, the city name is Hiratsuka , Kanagawa.
    http://sites.google.com/site/aseagri/
    NPO ASE (Agriculture for Sustainable Earth), one hour from Tokyo by Car.
    Lots of Nature and field, you can use and grow vegetable.
    Tokai Terry

  • seijo

    First if anywhere in the world can be described as a concrete jungle, Tokyo and surrounding urban areas would qualify. Tokyo is the Japanese capital and the home to 13 million people. Yet Tokyo has less than 8,000 hectares of agricultural land, it is only 0.2% of Japan’s farm households and 2.5% of the arable land that the United States has. Is it possible to grow your own food in Tokyo? Is it feasible to farm organically in the concrete jungle? And if so, what sort of costs and benefits could come from doing so? These are the questions I sought to answer as I embarked upon an informal study and rented a very small plot.
    Second I rented a 6-square-meter plot on a private urban farm in Tokyo’s west where I grew five summer crops, and I examined the benefits and costs of low-carbon, seasonal organic vegetable farming over the 2010 summer period(May-September).
    The total cost of the plot for the season was $686 with the rental fee of land representing 44% of the total cost. The total revenues were determined by calculating the value of crop yields, based on Tokyo market prices. That revenue of crops was $316, and therefore a los occurred.
    Finally Despite the fact that the financial costs of urban farming in a rental plot were higher than the value of the produce harvested, Tokyo residents had many non-monetary reasons for growing their own. They could eat healthily through seasonal, local and organic produce, and they were attracted by the opportunity to grow quality produce with friends and family in an open space and with access to information on how to improve their growing techniques.

    seijo student

  • seijo

    First if anywhere in the world can be described as a concrete jungle, Tokyo and surrounding urban areas would qualify. Tokyo is the Japanese capital and the home to 13 million people. Yet Tokyo has less than 8,000 hectares of agricultural land, it is only 0.2% of Japan’s farm households and 2.5% of the arable land that the United States has. Is it possible to grow your own food in Tokyo? Is it feasible to farm organically in the concrete jungle? And if so, what sort of costs and benefits could come from doing so? These are the questions I sought to answer as I embarked upon an informal study and rented a very small plot.
    Second I rented a 6-square-meter plot on a private urban farm in Tokyo’s west where I grew five summer crops, and I examined the benefits and costs of low-carbon, seasonal organic vegetable farming over the 2010 summer period(May-September).
    The total cost of the plot for the season was $686 with the rental fee of land representing 44% of the total cost. The total revenues were determined by calculating the value of crop yields, based on Tokyo market prices. That revenue of crops was $316, and therefore a los occurred.
    Finally Despite the fact that the financial costs of urban farming in a rental plot were higher than the value of the produce harvested, Tokyo residents had many non-monetary reasons for growing their own. They could eat healthily through seasonal, local and organic produce, and they were attracted by the opportunity to grow quality produce with friends and family in an open space and with access to information on how to improve their growing techniques.

  • Nicolas Datiche

    Hello Kawasaki san,

    I’m a french photographer now based in Tokyo. I’m founder of Off Source, photojournailst group who work about humain and environment issues…
    Now in yours yearly projetc we work on urban garden/farm in world city.
    I’m looking for some place like family farm, urban garden… and i found your really interesting text, really great !!!!
    Can i contact you for asking some question ^^?

    Best regards

    Nicolas