Growing UP – Is Vertical Farming the Way of the Future?
April 30, 2012 | Desa Philadelphia
Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier admits that when his book The Vertical Farm, Feeding the World in the 21st Century was released, he wasn’t entirely optimistic about the idea catching on immediately. After all, his proposition that cities and towns should develop local, indoor, entirely sustainable, multi-story farms is antithetical to the industrialized, globalized farm practices that became the norm in the last century.
However, just two years after the book’s release, vertical farm projects are beginning to crop up in the United States and other countries including Singapore, Korea and Sweden. The projects are multi-faceted, varying in size, expectations and, of course, cost. But the real measure that the idea is catching on, says Despommier, is that developers have already moved beyond demonstrations and proof-of-concepts to launch vertical farms as business ventures. “In Singapore they want to make it a reality in the entire city. The one in Sweden is not a proof of concept; it is the concept,” he says. “So if you are wondering whether this will become a big deal or not, I think it is a big deal now.”
Of course indoor farming isn’t new. In his book, which was recently released in paperback, Despommier manages to give a very readable history of the evolution of agricultural practices of the last several thousand years, including the development of controlled environment greenhouses as a viable alternative to soil-based farming. However, what Despommier is really advancing are farm practices that are at once retroactive (returning to sustainability as an essential component) and futuristic (relying on cutting-edge technology to operate). And revolutionary.
Why Vertical Farming?
Over the last ten years Despommier has worked with 106 of his students to develop the vertical farming model, “a concept whose premise is easy to envision,” he writes. The crux of it, he explains in the book, is to “stack up ‘high-tech’ greenhouses on top of each other and locate these ‘super’ indoor farms inside the urban landscape, close to where most of us have chosen to live.”
Perhaps an even more simplistic way of describing Despommier’s proposal is to say that he essentially wants to develop skyscrapers expressly for growing food. But the concept goes far beyond that most obvious characteristic—that is, the verticalness of it. It is, says Despommier, a way to respond to many of the issues facing conventional agriculture today as well as address many of the environmental problems caused by the way we currently farm. Growing food in a vertical farm would allow:
- Year round farming, regardless of weather
- Cities to address sprawl and potential overcrowding by growing up instead of out
- Creation of reliable sources of food for exploding populations (the UN projects the world population could reach 10 billion by 2100. Most of those people will be living in or near cities)
- Creation of jobs for local residents
- Realistic budgeting since crop losses due to shipping and/or storage would be mitigated, reducing price spikes
As interesting (and perhaps as important), however, is Despommier’s argument that vertical farms should be businesses rather than say government or NGO projects. Vertical farms, he writes, should be “cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained and safe to operate.” That would aid their ability to be “independent of economic subsidies and outside support once they are up and running, which means they should generate income for the owners.”
The Way Forward
The driving thrust of Despommier’s advocacy for vertical farming is that it would address many of the environmental problems caused by conventional farming. In a chapter titled The Vertical Farm: Advantages, Despommier writes that indoor mass farming would allow restoration of the world’s agricultural acreage, much like the prairies of the Midwest had to restore themselves after the dustbowl.
In Despommier’s models, vertical farms would employ hydroponic and aeroponic technologies and wouldn’t require use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They would also use a lot less water than traditional agriculture and the water would be recycled for use within the farm. Despommier even proposes recycling grey water (waste water from which solids have been removed) through dedicated plants (not used for food), then capturing the pure water the plants filter to provide drinking water to city residents. Even postharvest plant materials would be valuable, to be incinerated to generate energy and, in some cases, for use as animal feed. These benefits are in addition to the obvious benefits of reducing food mile from farm to table.
Now that vertical farming has moved from concept to practice, Despommier is working on a book presenting his theories on how to design cities that employ vertical farms. “That means you have to think about how a city behaves from scratch,” he says. “What would its characteristic be and how would it behave? It would never behave any way but ecologically if we were to have an ethic about it. So we would have to use technology to create a city that mimics the way nature behaves.”
The next step will also be figuring out how to make this concept, conceived as a business proposition, one that could benefit populations everywhere. Despommier says that while it will likely be richer, more developed countries that design, test and initially create the first vertical farms, the concept has the potential to greatly benefit the developing world. “The most email I get is from less developed countries, from India, China, South and Central America, and all of them want vertical farms,” says Despommier. He says he hopes rich countries, realizing the benefits of vertical farms, will be willing to provide modular designs to less developed regions of the world. “Right now vertical farming is an elitist activity,” says Despommier. “Hopefully some of those rich countries will realize that (vertical farming) should be shared.”