Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Food Source

Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Food Source

Published: 2021.09.11
Accepted: 2021.09.08
Former Director
Strategic Planning and Innovation Management Centre, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
Economic and Social Science Research Centre, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)


The world population has grown significantly, and as a result many more people have moved into cities. This process is known as urbanization. Urbanization is always associated with high density of people living in small area and urban poverty. Urbanization also has reduced land for agriculture. In general, the Bottom 40% (B40) income group of the urban community spent between 50% and 70% of their income on food. Urban agriculture is an alternative food source for urban community. The Malaysian government encourages the urban community to be involved in urban agriculture activities by introducing many urban farming programs and provides many incentives. The implementation of urban agriculture projects has proven that it could benefit the urban community in reducing their cost of living, improve the landscape in the area and as an alternative for food source.

Keywords: Urbanization, urban agriculture, urban community, source of food


Urbanization is a new phenomenon for developing countries, including Malaysia. It is a process through which cities are grown, more people come and live in the area. The process of urbanization has led to the migration of people from rural to the urban area. Currently, it is estimated that more than half of the world population is living in the urban area. Urban area is always associated with dense population, the construction of high-rise buildings, has greater economic dependence on trade and less agriculture activities.

According to a guideline by the World Bank, urban area is an area with a population of more than 100,000 people. In general, Malaysia has 19 urban areas with more than 100,000 people, of which, one area has more than five million people (Kuala Lumpur), two areas have between one million and five million people (Pulau Pinang and Johor Bahru), five areas of 500,000 to one million people, and eleven urban areas of between 100,000 and 500,000 people. The Department of Statistics, Malaysia reported that in 2020, around 76% of the population live in urban areas. Most populations are concentrated in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, Johor Bahru, Ipoh, Penang Island and Alor Setar in West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It is projected that the percentage of people living in the urban area will increase to 80% in 2050.

Urban area is always associated with urban poverty. According to a report by Khazanah Research Institute Malaysia in 2018, despite that the household income has steadily increased from 1970 to 2018, the number of people trapped in urban poverty has increased significantly. Statistics show that about 56% of the population in the urban areas are comprised of the Bottom 40 (B40) income group. Malaysian are categorized into three different income groups: Top 20% (T20), Middle 40% (M40) and Bottom 40% (B40). The income of the B40 group ranges between RM1,849.00 (US$440.00) and RM4,396.00 (US$1,047.00) a month.  This group spent between 50 and 70% of their income to buy food that caused them to face the ‘urban poor’ phenomena (Von Braun, 2008). According to the Khazanah Research Institute (2019), 94.6% of all households in urban areas spent their income, mostly on food than on any other items. To overcome this situation, the government of Malaysia has introduced various strategies and incentives. One of the initiatives was through the concept of urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture represents an opportunity for improving food supply, health conditions, economic development, social networking, and environmental sustainability. It is estimated that between 25% and 30 % of urban population are involved in the agri-food sector. Urban agriculture will gain in recognition for its benefits and services because urban population and rural–urban migrations are increasing. It is timely for the government to promote urban agriculture as a new source of food for urban community, as well as for economic development. This paper highlights the development of urban agriculture and presents some initiatives by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry Malaysia.


Urban agriculture can be defined as the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city (Mougeot, 1998).  It involves animal husbandry, aquaculture, agroforestry, beekeeping, and horticulture. These activities occur in sub-urban as well as urban areas. The FAO, on the other hand, gives the definition of urban agriculture as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities to provide fresh food, generate employment, recycle wastes and strengthen cities’ resilience to climate change (FAO, 2020). Urban agriculture offers a promising concept as it emphasizes the integration of agriculture into urban socioeconomic and ecological systems (Mougeot, 2000). It is an approach for a better food supply system in urban and sub-urban areas.

The concept of urban agriculture is believed to have started in 3,500 B.C. It has evolved from planting crops and breeding animals in the housing compound to produce food crops in a larger land area.  In the early 20th century, the concept of urban agriculture was expanded. For example, in the early 1900s, the sharing of garden was introduced and became a popular way to help the urban poor become self-supplier of food. At that time, poor families in the cities in Europe were given land to garden. The poor families cultivated food crops and breeding animals for their own consumption, and source of income. Urban agriculture helps the urban community to exit from poverty phenomena.

However, according to the United Nation System, the interest toward modern urban agriculture began to grow in the early 1980s. After that year, the implementation of urban agriculture has a steady rise in many cities in the world. For example, the Lisbon city in Portugal promotes and developed a city farm in the 1990s, and becomes tour attraction until now. The Montreal city in Canada has incorporated urban agriculture as a permanent land use of municipal parks, in which it has a large community garden program. The Delft city in the Netherlands, on the other hand, has combined urban agriculture with several other land uses in a heavily populated area.

The government of Singapore promotes rooftop farms as the land is limited. In 2019, the government has collaborated with a local company, and constructed a 1,800-square meter farm on top of a multi-story car park. This project has successfully produced about four tons of vegetables monthly, which are marketed through supermarket chains. The Singapore government encourages more companies to invest in urban agriculture as a strategy to create a green environment, and at the same time to produce healthy and safe fresh agriculture produce.

Urban agriculture is a business opportunity. It offers employment, creates socioeconomic development, supplies food for the community and generates income for the people as well as for the nation. The practitioners have evolved and adapted new technologies, new knowledge on how to develop urban farming in the urban areas. Urban agriculture has benefited the urban community by providing fresh horticulture goods. It also has ecological benefits by reducing the city wastes, improving urban biodiversity and air quality. In other words, it helps in ensuring food security for the urban community.

Urban agriculture is integrated into urban ecosystem for providing food to the urban community, as well as to other areas. In some cases, the production of urban agriculture has been exported to overseas markets. The implementation of urban agriculture indirectly reduces the cost of transportation and energy because the locations are near by the market places. By implementing urban agriculture, people will get fresh food and increase the mechanism of social integration, economic development and environmental sustainability (Mc Eldowney, 2017). However, the critical issues that always being discussed by the Municipal government is how much space is required to be dedicated for urban agriculture, what production system is the best approach and how much budget is required for this investment. At the same time, the government must also look at the policies and legal matters that support the development of urban agriculture.


Currently, the population of Malaysia is around 32.6 million, and is projected to increase to around 36 million people in 2030. As in 2020, around 77.16% of the population lived in urban area (Statista, 2021) As a result, the demand for food supply is also expected to increase by 70% in order to meet the food needs. Thus, the agriculture sector needs to be more effective and efficient in order to supply the demand by consumers in Malaysia. Urban agriculture plays an important role as part of the supply chain of cheap food within the country (Ramaloo & Siwar, 2016). The roles include other related activities such as transporting, processing and marketing of products to market places or for direct sale. The scale of urban agriculture in Malaysia is determined by the land availability and its size, water availability, climate factor, labor, skills, legislative support, and finance. On average, every urban farming community operates 0.25 acres of land for cultivating vegetables. Most of the community preferred to cultivate Brazilian spinach, chilies and salads. These were followed by herbs, okra, eggplant and mustard green.

In Malaysia, urban agriculture is recognized as an approach to sustainable development that has the potential to provide food in or out of the city. The implementation of urban agriculture is through the establishment of urban farming communities. The urban communities can start to take advantage of small vacant spaces around their homes and cultivate food crops. Currently, there are around 11,000 urban farming communities in Malaysia and the government aims to create 20,000 urban farming communities around the country by the year 2030. Urban farming is a government initiative program to ensure a complete food supply chain and beef up food security in the country.

The Department of Agriculture (DOA) is the leading government agency responsible for monitoring the movement and collection of data and information on urban agriculture activities in Malaysia. The role of the DOA is more intensive on the technical aspects of agriculture, such as determining the appropriate soil pH, planting methods and training for the participants. The training programs cover several areas such as agronomic practices, farm management, marketing, post-harvest handling processing and agribusiness, while extension services include new agricultural techniques and technologies to encourage more urban communities to use new and modern technologies to increase productivity. Meanwhile, the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) plays a role in recommending the high-demand crops in the market and also markets the agricultural produce. The urban agriculture program is also supported by the environmentally friendly Non-Government Organizations (NGO) that are actively dealing with social and environmental issues. Through the urban farming program, the government hopes to help urban dwellers, especially the people from the urban poor to reduce their kitchen expenses by producing some of the vegetables they need. Integrating agriculture into urban planning and development is essential for sustainable development in various aspects of urban life and needs, including food supply, environmental greening, water and urban waste-management, education and recreation.

The Department of Agriculture has implemented the urban agriculture program since 2014, and until recently, a total of 124,988 people in 5,065 locations have benefited.  The urban agriculture program aims to reduce the cost of living in the urban and sub-urban areas, by encouraging the communities to grow food crops for personal use, and the surplus is sold as a source of income. The Department of Agriculture encourages the urban community to grow food crops for their own use in around their respective home and participate in the Community Agriculture Project (KEBUNITI) that is established specifically for residents in the urban and sub-urban areas. The KEBUNITI aims to help the B40 income group to reduce their monthly expenditure on food. The DOA projected that the yield from the urban agriculture will increase from around 1,000 MT in 2014 to 8,800 MT in 2025 and increase the income of the urban agriculture practitioners from RM1,296.00 (US$308.57) in 2021 to RM1,680.00 (US$400.00) in 2025. Figure 1 shows some examples of urban agriculture approach in Malaysia.

Traditionally, urban communities used many approaches in planting the food crops in their home. The introduction of new technologies by MARDI and DOA has attracted the urban communities to adopt and apply them at their home garden or community farms. Four common urban farming technologies were mainly used by urban communities in Malaysia, and they include aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics and vertical farming. Aquaponics technique combines the conventional aquaculture (raising fish, crayfish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Hydroponics and fertigation have almost the same technique to ensure that the nutrients or fertilizers can be supplied directly to the roots of the plants and prevent root diseases. Hydroponics is one of the most popular techniques for quick and simple farming. The vertical farming technique refers to crops that are grown vertically. With this technique, more crops can be produced on a limited land space. This means more food can be produced by using less land (Molden, 2007). 

The government launched the National Economic Recovery Plan (NERP) on 5th June 2020 as a strategy to stimulate the economy worth RM35 (US$8.33) billion. Bearing the theme of “Building the Economy Together”, the NERP aims to aid Malaysia’s economic recovery through empowering the people, propelling businesses and stimulating the economy. Various measures are proposed under the NERP.  These include incentives which are focused on keeping people employed and promoting employment, incentives for technology adoption and digitization, assisting Micro Enterprises and Small and Medium Enterprises, reviving targeted sectors of the economy, attracting foreign investments as well as assisting businesses faced with cash flow issues to sustain their business operations.

One of the incentives is to alleviate the cost of living of the people through the urban agriculture project. The Minister of Agriculture and Food Industry has launched the Urban Agriculture Project on 16th June 2020. Under this initiative, the government provides in-kind benefits that include seeds, fertilizers, farm infrastructure, agriculture equipment, advisory services and training worth RM500.00 (US$119.00) (maximum) for one participant and RM50,000.00 (US$11,905.00) (Maximum) for each community. The government has allocated RM10 (US$2.38) million under the Economic Stimulus Package, and this fund is an additional to the existing Urban Agriculture Development Project within the framework of the 11th Malaysian Development Plan that aims to help the people, especially the B40 income group in urban and sub-urban areas. This project includes the development of new areas and upgrading of the existing projects around apartments/housing estate, which is to be jointly implemented by the residents. Various modern farming methods such as fertigation technology, hydroponics, aeroponics, vertical and conventional planting systems were introduced by the Department of Agriculture. The introduction of new technologies aims to increase the productivity of the small production area and to improve the quality of the agricultural produce.

In addition to fresh crops, the urban agriculture practitioners are encouraged to produce downstream agricultural products such as the Brazilian spinach chips, spinach noodles and other products that could supplement their income. The project is expected to generate additional income, reduce cost of living as well as creating new employment for the B40 income group community. As a complement, the implementation of urban agriculture in the urban and sub-urban areas can foster the spirit of cooperation and building harmony among the population, beautifying the landscape of the residential areas as well as creating a conducive environment. The urban agriculture project is expected to reduce the cost of living of the urban agriculture practitioners for around RM120 (US$28.6) a month.

Impact of urban agriculture

In general, urban agriculture gives great impacts to the urban community as well as to the nation. Some of the benefits in implementing the urban agriculture are as follows:

  • Reduce cost of living

The low-income people relied on urban gardening due to lack of access to foods. The goal of urban agriculture is to promote people to plant food crops for their everyday use. This activity could lower down the cost of kitchen expenditure because of savings made from the reduced amount of storage, transport, middlemen, processing and packaging. The urban agriculture program was targeting public participation and food supply for low-income people as well as contributing to the reduction of household spending. A study by Rasmuna (2020) revealed that the average expense of the participants before the urban agriculture program was recorded to reach RM145.00 (US$34.50) per month. After the program, it is proven that there was a significant reduction of RM66.00 (US$15.70) per month or RM793.00 (US$199.80) per year on average, which signified a positive impact of reducing household expenses of five people, especially for the urban poor who are the target users. The urban agriculture program has reduced the cost of household expenditure (vegetables or fruits) by at least 45.56%. In addition, urban agriculture has saved their cost of daily kitchen expenses, especially for the purchase of fresh vegetables.

  • Improve landscape

As urban areas grow in population, they are often overwhelming the natural environment, destroying ecosystems and overusing the natural resources such as water and fauna. Producing food in the city can improve the environment. In addition to supplying fresh agriculture produce, urban agriculture contributes to a green environment.  Urban agriculture community creates spaces where local residents can enjoy the natural green space. From the same study by Rasmuna (2020) it is confirmed that urban agriculture could optimize the land use of vacant building areas and improve the landscape (55.6%) as well as promote organic farming (58%). The concept of urban farming was also seen as contributing to a healthier lifestyle (45.5%).

  • Food supply

Many studies revealed that urban agriculture is another source of food to the population. Urban agriculture, as a means of improving food supply, is attractive to urban communities as it allows them to work closely in their homes and to provide healthy food. Hence, urban agriculture approach has the potential to increase access to healthy and nutritious food (Blaine et al., 2010). Malaysia as a net food importer is highly exposed to external forces such as the rising food prices and volatile supply of food products in the international market due to adverse climate conditions, natural disasters and hostilities. To achieve national food security, it is crucial for the country to protect existing farm areas and enlarge prime agriculture land, particularly the granary areas for rice cultivation. In this regards, urban agriculture is the best alternative as food suppliers for urban community.


Urban agriculture is one of the suppliers in the urban food system and vital in providing a better quality and food security in the country.  As contrast to the rural agriculture, city residents are the major components to determine the success of urban agriculture development. Since they are not real farmers, they need new knowledge, skills and technologies that could attract them to be involved continuously in the development of the urban agriculture.  At the same time, they need the support from the government in terms of clear policies and direction for the future of urban agriculture.


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