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Health risks in urban agriculture: a new methodological tool

Available to the leaders of urban agriculture projects, a proactive approach has been put in place inspired by the French national methodology used to manage polluted sites and soils and the HACCP method. Called REFUGE, it can be used to evaluate and manage the health risks linked to metallic trace elements in soils.

Risks in Urban Farms: Management and Evaluation
Updated on 05/28/2019
Published on 09/21/2018

Urban agriculture

In 2050, our planet will be home to around 10 billion people and 70% of them will live in towns and cities. Faced with this rapid urbanisation, it is essential to rethink urban planning by returning agriculture to the areas where people live. Furthermore, in our countries, a breakdown in the links between agriculture, food and consumption goes to explain why increasing numbers of urban dwellers are now expressing a wish to see nature returning to their towns, to reconnect with agricultural cycles and once again become “involved in their own food”.  Growing numbers of urban agriculture projects are springing up, often in the context of experimentation. Some include an entirely new dimension: that of the use of man-made and/or reformed soils that includes the need to take account of the associated health risks. In an almost non-existent regulatory context, the project leaders and local government bodies that host such projects are frequently bereft of guidance.  

Based on this observation, and on preliminary analyses demonstrating a potential health risk associated with the presence of metallic trace elements, a group of scientists from INRA and AgroParisTech decided to develop a decision-support tool for public decision-makers, developers and project leaders involved in urban agriculture.  

The health safety of soils

The methodology adopted by the REFUGE project is based on the EC 178/2002 regulation that lays down procedures relative to the health safety of food products. It has been extrapolated to the case of urban agriculture and takes account of the specificities of each site and the different types of urban agriculture. The methodology is based on three stages.

The first consists in characterising pollution using different approaches: an analysis of soils, substrates and agricultural production, a study of the physicochemical structure of the soils, a study of the mobility and bioavailability of metallic trace elements, and the development of exposure scenarios for people who might visit the site. The aim is to quantify the risk as a function of two main types of exposure: the consumption of agricultural products and the ingestion of soil and dusts.  
The second stage involves the compilation of a Health Control Plan (PMS) to identify the measures necessary to prevent or limit the previously identified risks to users.    
A final stage then concerns support for project leaders (notably associations) for communicating on the issue of pollution, notably to members of these associations supported and to the general public.  
A legal analysis then completes the REFUGE approach. This is based on an analysis of the regulations in existence at a global level, such as those relative to contamination thresholds and the legal responsibilities incumbent upon project leaders or site owners.

For the future…

In view of the demands expressed by professionals, this work will be pursued and include:

  • The compilation of a guide : a collaborative effort carried out in partnership with two metropolitan areas;  
  • The provision of continuing training for personnel in local government, development companies and consultancy firms;
  • The conduct of additional research on organic pollutants such as APH (aromatic polycyclic hydrocarbons) and VOC (volatile organic compounds) present in soils or deposited in the atmosphere;
  • A more detailed quantitative evaluation of the health risk (EQRS) to include the bio-accessible fractions of pollutants (those parts which enter into the general circulation after digestion).
Scientific contact(s):

  • Christine AUBRY INRA-AgroParisTech Joint Research Unit – Science for Action and Sustainable Development: Activities, Products, Territories (UMR SADAPT), 16 rue Claude Bernard 75005 Paris
  • Anne BARBILLON INRA-AgroParisTech Joint Research Unit – Science for Action and Sustainable Development: Activities, Products, Territories (UMR SADAPT), 16 rue Claude Bernard 75005 Paris
  • Nastaran MANOUCHEHRI INRA-AgroParisTech Joint Research Unit for Food Process Engineering (UMR GENIAL), 1 Rue des Olympiades, 91300 MASSY
Associated Division(s):
Science for Action and Development, Science for Food and Bioproduct Engineering
Associated Centre(s):
Versailles-Grignon, Jouy-en-Josas

The REFUGE Project

Risks in Urban Farms: Management and Evaluation (Risques En Fermes Urbaines : Gestion et Evaluation)

The partners

Local government bodies: Ville de Paris, Ville de Saint-Denis, Ville de Rungis
Associations: V’ile Fertile, Ferme du Bonheur, Restos du Cœur, Association Territoire
Research structures: AgroParisTech and INRA for the UMR SADAPT and GENIAL
Other actors: ADEME, ARS 93 and Ile-de-France.

Duration of the project: 2016-2018

This project forms part of a more general study concerning the operation of urban farms in the Paris region. It benefited from a funding grant from AgroParisTech.

URBAN SOILS: a clearer understanding to improve their preservation and exploitation

The REFUGE project forms part of a series of R&D studies designed to better understand urban soils. The objectives of current research on urban soils are to:

  • Define standards for quality indicators relative to these soils (GEOBAPA, SUPRA projects),
  • Set up georeferenced and interoperable databases on soil quality (SUPRA, BDSolU projects),
  • Establish networks to measure soil quality in the context of a participatory observatory involving a broad range of contributors (SUPRA project),
  • Propose decision-support tools that can be applied directly in the context of development and urban projects (DESTISOL, DESTISOL'AU, MUSE projects),
  • Raise awareness, support and train actors in urban development, as well as healthcare professionals and urban users (notably gardeners and urban farmers) as to the potential of soils, the health risks associated with different routes of exposure and the management measures that need to be implemented (JASSUR, POLLUSOLS, REFUGE projects).

R&D on urban soils involves numerous actors such as the ADEME, CEREMA, Plante & Cité technical centre, research institutions, higher education and research establishments, government services, regional and urban government bodies, industry and associations.

At INRA, work on urban soils mainly involves two areas for innovation: "Water, soils and effluents" and “Agriculture and Food in Towns” (see below).


Supporting urban initiatives to design sustainable food systems

REFUGE forms part of the “Urban Agriculture and Food” area of innovation (ALIVE), one of the 17 innovation objectives defined by INRA.  
Our work is focused on three areas:

  • Different types of urban agriculture in the context of multifunctional, sustainable, resilient towns that are adapted to global change,  
  • The processing of foods and the control of health quality in a context of non-standardised raw materials available in small quantities and new practices with respect to foods and urban consumption,
  • The organisation and governance of local food channels and access for all to foods of good nutritional quality.

Contact: francoise.maxime@inra.fr