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Oct 132010

By Samantha Weinstein
Green Right Now

NEW YORK CITY – New York City has one of the most recognizable skylines in the world. Its famously tall buildings provide maximum occupancy for minimum space, making an ideal situation for a rapidly growing population.

When millions of immigrants flocked to America in the late 1800’s, the scramble to house them all caused the city to grow up instead of out and skyscrapers sprouted like weeds.

The human population continues to grow. By the year 2050, there will be another 3 billion people. By that time 80 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.

We have enough skyscrapers to house people. Now we need skyscrapers to house the food needed to feed those people.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, developed the concept of a vertical farm while challenging his students to come up with new farming techniques to feed 50,000 city-dwellers. He proposes that a vertical farm the size of a New York City block, spiraling skyward is what is essentially, a bunch of greenhouses stacked on top of each other, would be able to feed 50,000 people on a 1,500 calorie diet.

Vertical farms present a solution to supply food so depleted farm lands can be restored.

Vertical farms could solve or alleviate so many environmental problems, their benefits are almost boundless, says Despommier in his new book, The Vertical Farm:  Feeding the World in the 21st Century, ( Thomas Dunne Books). This unique urban agriculture method saves on pesticides, because the plants are grown in controlled areas; drastically reduces the transit costs associated with delivering fresh food to the city; averts waste caused by large distances between food production and consumption;  saves water and could be used to create drinking water from gray water. And, of course, all this would create jobs.

We spoke to Dr. Despommier about his innovative concept and why he believes we need to embrace greenhouses in the sky.

What is vertical farming? Can you give a basic overview?

A vertical farm should be a multi-story building, totally transparent, near or in cities that grows lots of food for everybody. It is based on the concept of a high-tech greenhouse. The science and technology involved already exists. What doesn’t exist yet is the integration of those systems through the engineering of a tall building that would allow the water, the heat and the harvesting of the crops to occur. We haven’t yet got the experimental farm up and running yet to test all of these ideas but, I can tell you that within another year that will be true as well.

So you predict, or have in the works that within the next year you will have a prototype?

Exactly, right now we are seeking funds for this. It doesn’t mean that we will be the first. There are lots of other groups looking for the same thing, so my prediction is that in another year you won’t be coming to me. You will be going to a group in Korea or Beijing, the Middle East, maybe even Europe to see one.

How does a vertical farm work?

It employs two technologies: hydroponics and aeroponics. Hydroponics has been around since the 1930’s and it is employed now all over the world in greenhouses. [It allows plants to grow in a nutrient-rich solution without the need for soil.] Aeroponics is a system in which the nutrient solution is sprayed on the plants like a mist, so it uses even less water than hydroponics. Hydroponics uses about 70 percent less water than conventional agriculture.

A vertical farm could operate 24/7.

Is there anything that you can’t grow in a vertical farm?

Cows…horses…(laughs). I wouldn’t do that, but free-range chickens, poultry, fish of various kinds, crustaceans, mollusks, you can do all of those indoors, and by connecting them with vertical farms that can raise food for them, you can actually make what is called a ‘closed loop system.’ By connecting these various buildings into a complex, you can probably raise 60-80 percent of the nutrition needs of a large population.

For every indoor acre of land that you create with these vertical farms, you can generate the equivalent of 10-12 outdoor acres of land. You can make the farmers the stewards of the earth, give them the proper payment for carbon credits while they are watching their forests re-grow, and at the same time, supply people in the cities with a wonderful, healthy supply of sustainable food.

How many people will you be able to feed with a vertical farm?

To feed 50,000 people on a 1,500 calorie diet, it would have to be 30 stories tall and occupy one square New York City block. To feed the entire city of New York it would take about 135 buildings. By situating those buildings several miles outside of the city, you would still connect the food supply with the earth without sacrificing valuable real estate that might be compromised if you were to situate this on Broadway and 42nd street. An air force base, Governors Island, lots of other abandoned properties in New York would be viable candidates for this. Also, outdoors the crop yields are annual, but indoors they are continuous. That’s where the give back comes in because you have no weather related crop failures. For instance, with corn, you get one crop a year, right? Well, indoors you get a crop every 8 weeks.

Some people have criticized vertical farms as being impractical and unable to produce sufficient quantities of food to be a real solution.

I’m stunned by those critics because they are not paying attention to what is already going on. You really have to do the science first. I am suggesting prototypes so you are not jumping in with your feet first. The critics, I guess assume that we wouldn’t do that, like we would just build one and see what happens. You wouldn’t do that for an automobile or a cell phone or a television, so why would we do that for a vertical farm? And I dare say that those inventions probably got resistance from people as well. Critics like to say, “That’ll never work, that’ll never work.” Actually I like hearing that because then I can prove to them that everything can work as long as you put your mind to it.

The biggest lesson you have to learn is that you have to start small and work your way up, just like with cell phones. They started out as big heavy clunkers and the next thing you know, you are buying two cell phones. One is to locate the other cell phone because it’s so small and gets lost all the time! This is just another application of technology whose time has come. It’s up to us to work out the details. The concept is there and I don’t think it is going to go away.

Do you think that vertical farming has the potential to, one day, replace traditional farming?

Let’s put it this way, the outdoor farming situation is going to get worse and worse as climates change. For every degree in increase of the temperature of the atmosphere, we lose 10% of our farmland, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimate of the impact of global warming on agriculture. It’s going to be a tragic situation and in many places it already is. India and China are a good example of half of the world’s population. Their farming has already failed. They cannot supply enough food, so if they don’t adopt some other way of farming, they’re going to crash. Their population will absolutely plummet. This is an alternative for them, and I’ve given talks in China and India and they have been very enthusiastic about wanting to proceed.

And some other places too like Denmark, Holland and Sweden, particularly Holland. They are absolutely on point for this. They want this to happen tomorrow. They are a tiny country and their farming has already failed because they need to start giving land back to the sea in order to prevent the sea levels from rising any further than they have already. They need to farm indoors tomorrow!

What are the biggest obstacles you face trying to…

Money! We are in a situation now where we are suggesting prototypes and when you do that to an investor they are just going to roll their eyes. They can’t make any money building a prototype. Nobody wants to take the first steps in terms of private funding, so we are suggesting a private partnership with public moneys to partner with universities and IT schools to create prototypes, to put them in charge of them and then make this a socially conscious project. I think that we can find a lot of public support. In fact, the singer, Sting has endorsed this and wants to help us move it forward.

We’ve been farming for thousands of years.  Do you worry that people may feel this is too radical an idea?

We have been a species for about 200,000 years but we have only been farming for the last 11,000, so for almost 95 percent of our history as a species we did not farm. My claim is that this is not a natural thing. This is an outgrowth of our increasing intellect. We now have 6.8 billion people all working together via the internet saying “Look, farming was great up until this point but it’s not working anymore.” The land will return. You just have to leave it alone. Knowing that we can leave it alone is the most uplifting aspect.

What would happen if this was put into effect on a grand scale? What would happen to small farmers who are already struggling?

This is what happens already: The farms eventually fail and big corporations step in and say, “It’s okay. I don’t care if your farm fails. We will supply you with seeds and we will pay you a living wage to farm with our seeds.” So you have Monsanto and Cargill and other corporations taking over these small farms. Even if the farms fail on an annual basis for many years, it wouldn’t matter to Cargill because they own so much farmland that 80 percent will succeed regardless. That is why 2 percent of the farmers in the US control 50 percent of the farming. They take advantage of the farms that are already there. They buy their farms and say, “You can stay in business. We will even double the amount of money you made farming, but we want you to farm what we want you to farm.” And some farmers agree to that because they like farming. That’s not a solution though, is it? That’s an industrial application of a failing technology to an increasingly difficult situation where fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides have to be used more and more to produce the same amount of food. It wears out the land and spoils the environment.

I would love to see Cargill or Monsanto switch from producing all these other chemicals to the pesticide-free, chemically-defined diets of plants. They would make just as much money. What a radical concept, right? I’m not saying to put them out of business. That is ridiculous. They are too big. But the owners of those industries have kids and grandkids. They want them to grow up in a healthy environment too.

Dr. Despommier’s book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century was published Oct. 12.

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