Dr. Dickson Despommier, a former professor at Columbia University and champion of vertical farming, has released a new book on The Vertical Farm Project. The book puts forth his argument about the future of urban agriculture through vertical farms.
Worldchanging has covered the debate over vertical farms quite a bit (see the list at the end of this post for links), and the idea is certainly a controversial one. I've not yet read the book, but it would be interesting to know if Despommier addresses some of the challenges to the concept pointed out by others, such as the need for a proven business model for wide-scale application, and how vertical farms can grow food without herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers and operate in a low-carbon way despite high energy needs.
The video below shows Despommier introducing his ideas about vertical farms as a "closed loop agricultural cycle" that provides safe food and water to growing urban population:
See these stories in the Worldchanging archives for more on the worldchanging potential of vertical farms, an actual small scale application, and some of the criticism the concept must address to really be brought to scale:
Since moving into the Los Angles half-way house two years ago, residents of the Rainbow Apartments have been devising a plan to start their own urban garden. After a few trials and errors, the novice gardeners have now succeeded in creating a 34-foot-long plot bursting with strawberries, tomatoes, basil and other herbs and vegetables, which grow vertically against their cinder block building. ¶ In addition to providing them with fresh, nutritious food, the residents have found that the garden has given them a way to connect with each other and build a supportive community...
Columbia Professor Dickson Despommier has generated a fair amount of attention with his concept for "vertical farms," stacked, self-contained urban biosystems that would -- theoretically -- supply fresh produce for city residents year round. The New York Times showcased outlandish artists' conceptions of what such farms might look like. Colbert did his shtick. Twelve pilot projects are supposedly under consideration, in locations as far-flung as China and Dubai. ¶ The concept has captured the imagination of at least the sliver of the public (including the editors at Worldchanging), who laments the enormous resource demands of our food production system and yearns for something easier on the land, easier on our aquifers, and less demanding of fossil fuels. Vertical farms seem to promise all that. ¶ Promising, of course, is different than delivering. Construction requires a lot of energy. Keeping vegetables warm in winter requires a lot of energy. Recycling water requires a lot of energy. Generating artificial sunlight requires a lot of energy. In other words, the secret ingredient that makes vertical farms work (assuming they work at all) is boatloads of energy. No one seems to have actually done the math on the monetary and environmental costs of such a scheme, but they would no doubt be considerable. ¶ Perhaps those costs pencil out (although they almost certainly do not), but the plausibility of the idea itself is in some ways beside the point. Whatever the merits of vertical farms, the enthusiasm with which this idea has been received suggests that we're becoming mightily reductive in the way that we think about sustainability...
...to focus on just one technology, let's look at the potential impact of vertical farming. ¶ There's a great site introducing the concept called, logically enough, the vertical farm project. This site will give you an extensive introduction to the idea of doing intensive hydroponics agriculture in urban hi-rises, and it includes a lot of architectural plans, systems analyses and hard numbers. Cost is somewhat skirted-around, but doesn't appear to be prohibitive when you factor in the fertilizer, pesticide, transportation and storage costs of our current mode of production. ¶ It seems crazy to talk about farming in a hi-rise; the vision it gives rise to is of a kind of student-residence crammed with pot-smoking hippies who've traded their carpets for wheat. In fact, the approach is pretty hard-nosed and industrial, with very high outputs as its aim. And here's where it gets interesting from the point of view of our ambition to rewild the country: in the study entitled "Feeding 50,000 People, Anisa Buck, Stacy Goldberg and others conclude that a single building covering one city block, and up to 48 stories high depending on the design, can grow enough food to sustain 50,000 people. This calculation doesn't require any magical technology; there's no fairy-dust being evoked here, we could build such a structure now. ¶ So, let's do the math...
It's hard to tire of projects that involve wallpapering, paneling, and roofing urban structures with plant life. Though it's becoming a more common design approach for enhancing air quality, catching runoff, highlighting the "green" aspects of a building, and sometimes even providing food, it always has an unexpected effect, accustomed as we are to surfaces made with impermeable and dull materials...[the concept of vertical farming] had a recent update in New York Magazine.Since we discussed the concept, developed by Dickson Despommier, who teaches environmental science and microbiology at Columbia, a whole lot more people are on board with the climate change issue. So his proposal to put agriculture into skyscrapers and reallocate land to forests in the interested of sequestering carbon and slowing global warming now has the attention of more than just design junkies and eco-imagineers. It's become an attractive possibility to venture capitalists from all over the world. The idea factors in not only the climate aspect, but also impending population explosions, looking at taking food cultivation upwards instead of outwards as it grows to accommodate greater numbers of people
On an urban planet, closing urban resource and energy loops -- creating zero-waste systems for meeting the needs of people who live in highly dense cities -- floats in front of us, grail-like, as a goal. ¶ No one quite knows how to get it done, yet. But more and more interesting pieces of the puzzle are piling up, like smart places, smart grids and product service systems...Here's another piece of the puzzle -- vertical farming:...it's a provocative idea, and might fit together with some of the innovations discussed above in novel and worldchanging ways.
If anyone wants to try this at home, you should check out Vertical Veg:
"Vertical Veg is a new not-for-profit enterprise that inspires and supports food growing in small urban places. We're into high yields, delicious food, diversity, beauty, sustainability, community and fun."
This is a totally new concept to me. I was quite heavily involved in Permaculture a few years ago but have been out of the loop on new ideas for sustainability in food production. Living in a rural environment, we are more concerned with being able to reduce, re-use & create sustainable food production on small plots. I will have to read this new book to get more up to speed. I can see how energy use in northern climates in winter would be a huge hindrance to the concept's feasibility.