Lufa Farms Ahuntsic at sunset

Lufa Farms Ahuntsic at sunset by Lufa Farms. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Imagine a city that produces enough food to feed its population, a city that grows food without monopolizing more land; imagine a city of rooftop farms. This vision is precisely what the founders of Lufa Farms are aiming to make reality. In 2011, Lufa built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse atop a building in Montreal, Quebec.

The greenhouse was the result of a number of years’ research and planning headed by Mohamed Hage, founder and CEO of Lufa Farms, and so far the 31,000 square-foot farm feeds an estimated 2,000 people a week. In the context of an entire city, 2,000 may seem like a small number, but Lufa Farms is just getting started. Their first greenhouse is a prototype for a model they hope to expand to rooftops across the city, changing the way cities eat by providing fresh, local, sustainable food.

When Hage first began thinking about a new way of feeding cities, he had four key principles in mind: use no new land; use water more responsibly; use biocontrols instead of pesticides; and select plants for flavour and texture rather than durability. The result is a method of producing food with minimal environmental impact, while maintaining commercial level yields. After some deliberation, Hage and his team decided to use hydroponics even though it is not eligible for organic certification in Canada. This is because hydroponics relies on mined non-renewable nutrients such as iron and potassium for fertilizer. However, since 100 per cent of the water used in Lufa’s hydroponic system is recirculated, they reduce their nutrient consumption by an estimated 90 per cent. They also use recaptured rainwater for irrigation, which serves to divert water from the city’s sewer system.

In addition to using water more responsibly, Lufa does not use any synthetic herbicides, fungicides or insecticides. Instead they rely on biological controls, like other insects, to prevent pests. They’ve also reduced energy consumption simply by being on a roof. Beyond not using new land, rooftop greenhouses use less energy for heating than those on land, while also reducing the heat island effect of black tar rooftops, meaning that the building doesn’t use as much energy to cool itself when it’s hot. Being in the city further offsets their energy consumption through reduced packaging and transportation to consumers. Since produce is harvested the morning it’s distributed, they also save energy by not using refrigeration.

In 2013, Lufa built a second greenhouse in Laval just north of Montreal, and though it’s only about 10,000 square feet larger than their prototype, it will produce twice as much food. Lufa has also partnered with a number of other producers to provide customers with sustainable, organic products they can’t provide themselves, such as dairy, baked goods, pasta and fruit. Much like a CSA, customers subscribe for a weekly basket. The basket can be customized or contain a selection decided by the farm. Lufa has a number of drop-off locations throughout Montreal at establishments such as cafes and yoga studios.

Lufa Farms’ success thus far is proving that urban agriculture has massive potential to change not just how cities eat, but how we use city space. It’s an example of just what we can accomplish by blending new technologies, like hydroponics, with older agricultural techniques, like using natural biological processes as pest management.

One of the problems the food movement often runs into is meeting the increasing demand for food while using more sustainable, though often slower, methods. Local distribution can mitigate some of the waste associated with transporting food long distances, which Lufa Farms is doing with their model. They’re also poised to provide comparable yields to meet demand even as they address environmental concerns. They’re giving us a vision of a truly sustainable future for both food and cities.

Genevieve is earning her master's degree in Environmental Studies at York University with a focus on sustainable food systems, food education and food literature. In The Mouthful, she blogs about the environmental politics and possibilities of food. Genevieve is a certified pastry chef and aspiring novelist. She lives in Toronto. @GFullan

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