Detroit Urban Farming Gets Boost From New Michigan State University Agricultural Innovation Initiative

Detroit Partners With Michigan State University In Ambitious Urban Agriculture Venture

Michigan State University sees Detroit as a future pioneer for urban agriculture.

America's first land-grant university announced Wednesday it will invest $1.5 million over the next three years to help turn the city into a world hub for food system innovation.

The university signed a memorandum of understanding with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing Wednesday afternoon to begin laying the groundwork for the program, which they are calling the MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster. The memorandum does not create any financial obligations for either party, but allows them to explore the creation of the innovation hub and begin working towards a joint development contract.

“We want to demonstrate that innovation based on metropolitan food production can create new businesses and jobs, return idle land to productivity and grow a more environmentally sustainable and economically vital city,” Bing said in a statement.

As the earth's population continues to concentrate in cities and resources become more scarce, the university believes that the world will become increasingly dependent on urban farming to meet its food needs.

“By 2050, food production will need to double – using less water and energy than today," MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said in a release. "We see great opportunity to do good locally and connect globally.”

At press conference at Mayor Bing's office on Wednesday, Simon said that, by positioning itself as a leader in urban agriculture, Detroit would be able to take advantage of opportunities presented by the Farm Bill, which recently passed the U.S. Senate and is now in consideration in the House of Representatives.

Organizers say the exact schematics of the project still need to be determined by the city's stakeholders. They hope to involve about 80 local organizations active in Detroit's food network including D-Town farms, Eastern Market and the Greening of Detroit in the planning process. Mayor Bing hopes to integrate the initiative with the Detroit Works long-term framework for city planning.

The university hopes that the project will encourage increased cooperation between local food creators and distributors. Another idea? Positioning Detroit to become known as a food exporter. At the press conference, Dr. Richard Foster of MSU's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources said the general goal of the innovation cluster is to create a system that's both "socially acceptable and creates an abundance of food."

"If it's socially acceptable, it means that racial justice issues we face in this state [and city] are actually considered," he said. "It means economic and wealth distribution will have to be considered."

The university will primarily be involved in creating an agricultural knowledge base in the city. They envision creating a small 8 to 10 acre physical site that may include a state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Although details are still speculative, MSU hopes to give local farmers access to cutting edge farming technologies, like an advanced aerogel plastic that will allow greenhouses to conserve five times more heat than conventional plastic coverings, or energy-efficient lights that provide plants with only the wavelengths they need to grow.

The university also hopes to play a role by conducting relevant plant research on their East Lansing, Mich. campus and helping develop soil remediation and indoor growing techniques.

"Intensive indoor agriculture is going to be the global solution [for food security] to cities like Mexico City like Sao Paolo [in Brazil]," said Dr. Foster, "because they're not going to have a land base they're going to have to grow up and in a 300 mile radius of that city."

He believes as an innovator in urban agriculture Detroit could develop indoor farming systems that have zero energy loss and 90 percent water efficiency, and then manufacture equipment for those systems and sell them worldwide.

MSU and the City of Detroit hope to attract more participation and investment in the innovation cluster as it develops.

The next step for the project is an input session for community stakeholders scheduled for July 11 and 12. Although Detroit is known for its contentious politics, Dr. Foster said he is confident the project is on solid ground.

"The groups have indicated their willingness and not only their willingness, but their enthusiasm," he said. "In coming together they've set all their individual things, not totally aside, [but enough] to create the vision for all of us to be successful."

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