Vertical Farming: The Farm Comes To Town

Inside representation of a vertical farm

The Bible features Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of five thousand with only two fish and five loaves of bread. A professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University claims he can feed 50,000 through a new form of farming [1].

Dr. Dickson Despommier is the main figure in advocating vertical farming as the future of food production. The professor formed the idea when he and his graduate students realized from a calculation that rooftop gardening would not successfully feed a certain quota of New York City dwellers. He then mused if stacking gardens in levels could help increase production [2]. That seed was planted eleven years ago. Now Despommier’s idea has germinated into an informative website, www.verticalfarm.com, and attracted several expressions of interest from international countries, engineering firms, and governmental organizations [3].

A vertical farm, or “farmscraper,” is essentially a greenhouse located within an urban area. Before Despommier’s proposal, people had already considered the idea of introducing independent food production into cities, as evident in small and scattered appearances of rooftop gardening [4]. But transplanting a mere home garden into the city did not solve the problem for the professor. He envisioned relocating entire greenhouses with base areas that span a city block. Better yet, stack thirty greenhouses on top of each other; construct about 150 of these vertical farms; and then, Despommier estimates, everybody in New York City will have fresh produce to eat [5].

Despommier envisions the ideal vertical farm to not only sustain its own processes, but also produce clean water and energy. In order to provide water for the crops, a vertical farm will be able to recycle municipal wastewater by filtration and collect rainwater [6]. Dehumidifying the inside air recollects water from plant-produced moisture, which can distribute as much as 60 million gallons of bottled water each year [7]. With respect to energy consumption, solar panels and wind spires power the heating and lighting for each floor [8]. Additional energy needs can be met with a 50% efficient process called plasma-gasification, which combusts any waste food product, such as the leaves and stalks from corn [9]. Lastly, nitrogen and other fertile nutrients can be derived from animal waste or the city sewage water [10].

The professor’s design certainly sounds nifty and futuristic, but at the same time, it does appear to require heavy costs in construction and operation. Building 150 of thirty-story skyscrapers is not as simple as creating civilization with Legos. So why bother switching to vertical farming? After all, the world has survived so far without it. Furthermore, some societies center their lifestyles around conventional, outdoor agriculture on soil.

Dr. Despommier reminds skeptics to consider future circumstances. A United Nations demographic study predicts that by the year 2050 three billion more people will have added to our current population of six billion [11]. 80% of available arable land is already in use; the remaining 20% will clearly be insufficient to feed an additional three billion mouths [12]. Consequences of changing weather patterns, such as rising sea levels and accelerated desertification, will only take away more potential farmland [13].

In addition, Despommier emphasizes the currently increasing trend of people moving into the cities. An issue with urban areas is that virtually all food has to be grown elsewhere and transported in [14]. Adding three billion more city residents will overstrain the dependence on arable land that has already been statistically proven to be inadequate and waning in sustainability. Consequently, shifting the center of food production to where most people will be living is more efficient. Building upwards rather than outwards minimizes the usage of scarce urban space.

The immediate benefit of growing food indoors is an environment that can be controlled all day and year-round. Temperature, humidity, and lighting can all be customized for specific crops, yielding optimal growth [15]. Year-round harvests will certainly help curb global hunger.

The isolation of crops from external factors reduces disease transfer caused by untreated animal waste and eliminates weather-related damages [16]. Consequently, food production increases and becomes more reliable. Even if a disease were to destroy all crops, the controlled indoor conditions allow for an immediate replanting the next day, whereas the same situation with outdoor agriculture may require waiting until the next season. Moving farming inside a greenhouse does not remove all problems, but it does make them easier to manage.

Outdoor soil farming significantly damages the environment through a process called agricultural runoff. Excess water in the fields mixes with the herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers in the soil. Then, erosion moves this contaminated water into rivers and lakes, often poisoning ecosystems [17]. On the other hand, indoor farming eliminates the issue of invasive weeds or insects; thus, food is produced organically. Additionally, water in the greenhouse remains within and does not become toxic agricultural runoff.

Because Despommier’s vertical farm designs only require an area of a city block, the need to clear forests for farmland drops sharply. Although several years are needed to return to the natural state, Despommier estimates that one acre of indoor farming reforests ten to twenty acres [18]. The professor strongly believes reforestation is the only permanent solution to stabilizing climate change. A more obvious advantage of the stacked design is that the same output from hundreds of acres can be achieved from the area of a city block, depending on the number of stories built. For instance, twenty-one stories can be as efficient as 588 acres with respect to lettuce production [19].

In accordance with today’s consumers consciously seeking out locally grown foods, vertical farming makes the city its own provider of fresh produce. Food no longer needs to be shipped in, saving fossil fuel emissions and transportation costs [20]. Also, schools, restaurants, and hospitals in cities will readily have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, increasing the presence of quality foods in people’s diets. As a long-term benefit, cities can expect to see fewer cases of childhood obesity and type-II diabetes [21].

The construction and operation of new vertical farms open up numerous job opportunities, such as managers, research scientists, and control room analysts [22]. Once completely finished, vertical farmscrapers add an aesthetically pleasing touch to the city’s appearance with transparent windows exhibiting the lush green color of various plants [23]. In addition to attracting tourism, vertical farms filter out pollutants from the city air and release oxygen for easier breathing and better health [24].

Vertical farming capitalizes on NASA-developed watering techniques called hydroponics and aeroponics [25]. Both methods do not require soil for nutrients. While hydroponics grows plants in a nutrient-enriched water bath, aeroponics sprays plants with a mist containing necessary minerals. Not only does indoor farming eliminate agricultural runoff, but also hydroponics uses 70% less water than conventional outdoor farming in soil [26]. Aeroponics epitomizes conservation by shaving off another 70% from the water usage in hydroponics [27]. Countries, in particular where water is scarce, may benefit from the low water consumption and recycling of water in vertical farms.

In general, the arguments of critics share two main concerns. Vertical farms are too expensive to build, and with current technology, the energy cost of operation exceeds that of traditional farming [28]. Analysts have calculated that the construction of a twenty-one story farm costs $84 million, in addition to annual operation costs of $5 million [29]. A relatively small $18 million in annual revenue does not offset the exorbitant price tag [30]. If vertical farms ever begin production, urban-grown produce will be much more expensive than imports from conventional farms until construction and operation costs drop significantly. Critics mention lighting, water delivery systems, thermostat and humidity controls, and waste recycling in particular as components to be improved [31].

Ted Caplow, executive director of a New York firm that builds urban greenhouses, cautions that not all crops save resources when grown indoors, listing wheat, corn, and rice as examples [32]. In addition, Professor Bruce Bugbee of Utah State University’s crop physiology department reveals that the vertical structure of the farmscraper requires more energy than advertised. Plants on lower floors do not have adequate access to sunlight and would need artificial lighting and conveyor belts to raise them to upper levels [33]. Also, Bugbee points out that during the winter in a typical Northern city the sunlight is only five to ten percent as intense as summer levels [34]. Artificial lighting will again be needed, which generates a hefty electric bill.

Despommier foresees the first vertical farm within fifteen years [35]. He insists that conditions are ripe and that all necessary technology exist already to implement a vertical farm in New York City. Money and political support are all that remain, both of which may be easier to acquire once vertical farms have been publicly shown to work as advertised [36]. Thus, Despommier views a $20 million prototype of a five-story farmscraper with one-eighth the area of a city block as the best place to start [37].

The professor also feels strongly about the source of funding. He states that most aid should come from entrepreneurs and clean energy investors who see that urban, indoor farming can be profitable [38]. Despommier continues that city governments should also contribute since vertical farms would help cities meet green goals, attract revenue, and market produce [39].

Critics are correct in pointing out that a vertical farm with today’s technology costs too much to construct and operate. Efficiency improvements in various components, such as watering and lighting, are certainly needed. The truth and merit in the opposition’s position is exactly the reason why Dr. Despommier’s goal to use a small-scale prototype as a research facility is so urgent. Experimenting with new techniques to achieve vertical farming’s advertised benefits is worth the anticipated $20 million. Once vertical farming can jump into full production in cities all around the world, we will avoid future starvation and slow down disastrous climate change. Peter Head, director of greenhouse design company Arup, voices the nature of this debate perfectly, “It isn’t a matter of whether we think it would be nice to do urban farming or not. It’s a matter of whether we are going to survive” [40].

References

  1. Vogel, Gretchen. “Upending the Traditional Farm.” Science, February 2008: 752-3.
  2. Walsh, Bryan. Vertical Farming. December 11, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1865974,00.html (accessed April 1, 2010).
  3. Despommier, Dickson D., interview by Jim Lapides. Interview With Dickson Despommier American Society of Landscape Architects, (April 2009).
  4. Vogel, “Upending the Traditional Farm,” 752.
  5. Walsh, Vertical Farming.
  6. Chamberlain, Lisa. Skyfarming. New York Magazine. April 1, 2007. http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/ (accessed April 2, 2010).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Despommier, Interview with Dickson Despommier.
  10. Chamberlain, Skyfarming.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Woolley, Hillary. Farming goes vertical. Business 2.0 Magazine. September 11, 2007. http://money.cnn.com/2007/09/10/technology/farming_vertical.biz2/index.htm (accessed April 2, 2010).
  13. Chamberlain, Skyfarming.
  14. Cooke, Jeremy. Vertical Farming in the Big Apple. June 19, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6752795.stm (accessed April 1, 2010).
  15. Nelson, Bryn. Could Vertical Farming Be The Future? December 12, 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21154137/ (accessed April 1, 2010).
  16. Despommier, Interview with Dickson Despommier.
  17. Walsh, Vertical Farming.
  18. Despommier, Dickson D. “A Farm on Every Floor.” New York Times, August 24, 2009, New York ed.: A19.
  19. Woolley, Farming goes vertical.
  20. Cooke, Vertical Farming in the Big Apple.
  21. Despommier, “A Farm on Every Floor,” A19.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Nelson, Could Vertical Farming Be The Future?
  26. Despommier, Interview with Dickson Despommier.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Chamberlain, Skyfarming.
  29. Woolley, Farming goes vertical.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Nelson, Could Vertical Farming Be The Future?
  32. Vogel, “Upending the Traditional Farm,” 752.
  33. Nelson, Could Vertical Farming Be The Future?
  34. Ibid.
  35. Despommier, Interview with Dickson Despommier.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Despommier, “A Farm on Every Floor,” A19.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Vogel, “Upending the Traditional Farm,” 753.