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Vertical Farming: Feeding our future!

Updated on January 25, 2014
Singapore skyline with a theoretical Vertical Farm!
Singapore skyline with a theoretical Vertical Farm! | Source

Building Up Our Foods

Imagine a world where 2 million people will die world-wide due to hunger and mal-nutrition each and every year. This same world is stricken by wars, in which no one knows what is being fought for. Imagine also the world governments full of corrupt politicians, eager to make a few bucks and a name for themselves, while doing little to protect those that gave them power. Disgusting clouds of pollutants linger over most large cityscapes, causing health and environmental problems. To make matters worse, it seems as the majority of the masses care little for any of these problems, either turning a blind eye or just not understanding what can be done.

Welcome to Earth, population just over 7 trillion, where the imagined becomes a harsh reality. Pollution, greed, hunger, and war are all excepted parts of the human existence. If there is an answer to a problem, should a people ignore that problem? Or should those same people embrace it, no matter how alien it may seem? An answer to two of the world’s issues, pollution and hunger, can be found in such an idea. That idea is called vertical farming, an idea dating back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Today this idea is as controversial as corrupt politicians or the reasons for our wars, though it seems that politics plays a big part in the controversies. Vertical farming can be used to produce both food and electricity, while simultaneously helping to cut CO2 emissions across the globe. There are many voices that argue for and against the idea, but with ample evidence it may be possible to quiet the voice of argument against. In doing this it may be possible to start the healing process, for the planet and its inhabitants.

An Introduction to Vertical Farming

In times of antiquity it was not efficient to ship goods from the fields to a far off city because the food would rot along the way. Most civilizations knew this, so they would build large cities near or around large agricultural areas. One such civilization was Babylon; however they would take it one step farther by adding to their city a great garden of mountainous proportions. The gardens where built, according to ancient texts, amongst a structure built to resemble a mountain. It has been written that King Nebuchadnezzar II had the elaborate gardens built to make his Queen feel more at home. It is quite likely that the citizenry of Babylon would have also benefited from such a local garden center. With the end of the Babylonian city-state the evidence for and the idea of vertical farming nearly disappeared.

It seems that the idea of having large scale farming around or near cities would be the norm for around the next 2 thousand years. This way of life worked great until the Industrial Age and the evolution of transportation. As communities started to move away from agricultural areas they relied more on foods brought from elsewhere. With more and more people living in these large cities, with no local food sources, it is no wonder some thought went into alternative farming methods. In the earliest parts of the 20th century the idea of vertical farming started to reappear, the first was introduced by Life Magazine in 1909, according a website hosted by Jolliet Junior College (the on vertical farming, there have been attempts to create them from as early as 1951 up to the present day.

The definition of a vertical farm is simply the cultivation of plants or animals in skyscraper-like structures, usually using hydroponics (roots are submerged in a liquid nutrient instead of soil), and aeroponics (much like hydroponics except roots are not submerged but instead sprayed constantly with nutrient mix), and artificial lighting (usually fluorescent or LED lights used to imitate natural sun light).

The idea of vertical farms has been altered by experts through the years to encompass many different styles, such as: hybrid workspace/garden skyscrapers, as was created by Kenneth Yeang in Malaysia in 1992; "Tower Hydroponicums", a Vertical Farm concept created in Armenia in 1951; hi-tech towers for agriculture, fathered by Dr. Dickson Despommier in 1999; and according to Cynthia Wagner, a journalist for The Futurist, in 1985 the idea to use abandoned buildings emerged from authors John and Nancy Jack Todd. Though the methods have changed, the end result is the same: Feeding the populace while lowering the environmental impact of agriculture.

Writer John Whitfield, who obtained his PhD in Zoology from the University of Cambridge and has been writing for various magazines since 1997, wrote an article that appears in Nature, a popular science journal, writes: “But growing populations, expanding cities, concerns about food security and climate change have given the idea (Urban Agriculture) a new prominence.” (914) Population growth and climate change can very quickly bring the end of a civilization, however, our current understanding of technology and our planet might help us to finally be in control of our food. In no part of our collective past has the human race had more control and impact on our surroundings. We have sent expeditions to space and the moon, are able to communicate over thousands of miles, and travel large distances in a matter of hours. Still we face levels of malnutrition and starvation that are unprecedented; according to StatisticBrain.com (a website that compiles statistics from many different sources) there are 15 million people who die each year from starvation while another 800 million suffer from malnutrition.

There is some debate whether or not vertical farming is a sustainable method of agriculture. According to the USDA a sustainable practice should:

“· satisfy human food and fiber needs;

· enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;

· make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;

· sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and

· enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

Vertical farming meets all of these criteria (explained more below), as it was created to solve the problem of current non-sustainable farming techniques. It is easy to see that food is an outcome of both styles, although it can be said that with current farming methods there is not enough food. Environmental quality and the impact on nonrenewable resources is another matter. In our current method of farming there is an over use of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and a hand full of other chemicals that are used to produce our food, the use of which has drastic environmental impact and also creates a reliance on nonrenewable resources. In fact, the only criteria that current farming does live up to keeping farming economically viable, which goes without saying why that is important. As for enhancing life, if the number of starving and malnutrition were much less, it would then meet that criterion.

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The Pros

Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University has brought the idea of Vertical Farming to the public’s eye. He has written a book about, dedicated a website to, and done numerous videos for the idea. In the Introduction of his book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, Dr. Despommier writes, “Repairing the environment and still having enough good, healthy food choices may seem like mutually exclusive goals...Not necessarily. One solution lies in vertical farms. These farms would raise food without soil in specially constructed buildings. When farms are successfully moved to cities, we can convert significant amounts of farmland back into whatever ecosystem was there originally…” (3) Dr. Despommier has two things in mind with his version of vertical farming, feeding the multitude of people living in cities and the preservation of environmental integrity. Again using the USDA’s idea of sustainable agriculture one can see that vertical farming does indeed meet the first two criteria.

According to a report written by Tyler Falk for SmartPlanet.com, “The number of vacant properties in U.S. cities is on the rise and they’re taking a toll on our cities. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the number of vacant properties has risen from 7 million in 2000 to 10 million in 2010.”

Let us now look at the issue presented by Mr. Falk from the health perspective. A paper produced by The UCL-Lancet Commission; a collaboration of the University College London and The Lancet (a leading medical journal), titled “Shaping Cities for Health: complexity and planning of urban environments in the 21st century” gives some examples of what a healthy city might consist of. “A clean, safe, high quality environment (including adequate and affordable housing) and the provision of basic needs (food, water, shelter, income, safety, work) for all people” (2085) are but a couple of the examples given.

As suggested by John and Nancy Jack Todd, turning the abandoned buildings into vertical farms and adding in some of Dr. Despommier’s ideas could turn this problem into an answer to other problems. Using water treatment methods to turn waste water from the inner city to water for the crops and incineration techniques to dispose of organic waste from the food industry to power the lights, which make for a much cleaner cityscape and also making use of nonrenewable resources.

The above image appears in Cynthia Wagner’s article “Vertical Farming: An idea whose time has come back”.
The above image appears in Cynthia Wagner’s article “Vertical Farming: An idea whose time has come back”.

The Cons

The biggest argument against vertical farming is the great cost in building a single structure. According to author Jennifer Cockrall-King in her book titled Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, “These vertical farms, however, would likely come with a $100 million price tag or more – perhaps just one of the reasons they remain more science fiction than food-growing reality” (264). Dr. Dickson Despommier, strays from ever putting even a round estimate to his proposed project. Looking at the design below, one can imagine the great price tag that could be put on a vertical farm.

The cost to build is not the only downside to vertical farming. Writer Emma Marris writes in an article titled “Greenhouses in the sky”, which appears in Nature Magazine, “One downside is easy to spot: the massive amounts of energy required to grow plants indoors…Using coal or gas to grow strawberries and tomatoes is a lot more expensive than energy from the Sun” (374). Dr. Despommier’s idea of vertical farming includes the use of solar panels, wind turbines, and the incineration of organic wastes with the thought that energy consumption can be supplemented with sustainable methods.

Marris also writes, “Most outlandish is his blazing confidence in his idea. In ten years of study, he tells us, he has thought of “no significant disadvantages” to his scheme, except the minor matters of construction costs and farmer displacement” (374). The amount of displaced workers by moving farming to urban settings would be large, but as with all problems there must be a solution. ”For the farmers,” writes Dr. Despommier, “I would lobby long and hard for a political solution allowing them to reap the benefits of sequestering carbon.” (144) Not that this is a real solution, but there would be plenty of jobs in the city for farm workers.

Is It Worth The Effort?

Between the cost of construction, cost of energy consumption, and the amount of dislocated workers in an already unstable economy, it is no wonder that a vertical farm has not been attempted to the extent of Dr. Despommier’s dream. With the advances of technology, however, the future of these agricultural wonders is closer to becoming a reality. The cost of construction aside, if the building can be completely self-sustaining and food production guaranteed year round, it is worth it. In Dr. Despommier’s book on pages 145-146, he gives 11 advantages to vertical farming, they are:

  1. Year-round crop production
  2. No weather-related crop failures
  3. No agricultural runoff
  4. Allowance for ecosystem restoration
  5. No use of pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers
  6. Use of 70-95 percent less water
  7. Greatly reduce food miles
  8. More control of food safety and security
  9. New employment opportunities
  10. Purifications of grey water to drinking water
  11. Animal feed from postharvest plant material

Having considerable monetary cost is one thing, but it seems it is at a cost of 15 million lives a year and almost irreversible damage to our ecosystem. Although Dr. Dickson Despommier’s utopian life may never come to fruition, his dream of creating urban vertical farms is coming closer.

Yes, I believe it is worth the cost. If at any time in your life you have been without either food or employment, or dealt with health concerns related to living an urban life, you will probably agree. If there were a medical pandemic governments and experts would be in search of a cure, no matter the monetary and even some cases the moral expense. Why then do the world governments and experts allow the epidemics of starvation and pollution to go unchecked? Why do they fight against anything new that can help?

Works Citied

Cockrall-King, Jennifer. Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2012. Print.

Despommier, Dickson D. The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. New York: Picador, 2011. Print.

Falk, Tyler. "10 Million Vacant Properties Plague U.S. Cities." SmartPlanet. N.p., 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2013 <http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/cities/10-million-vacant-properties-plague-us-cities/1376>.

Marris, Emma. "Greenhouses in the Sky." Nature 468.18 (2010): 374. Database.

Rydin, Yvonne, Ana Bleahu, et al. "Shaping Cities for Health: Complexity and the Planning of Urban Environments in the 21st Century." Lancet, The 379 (2012): 2079-108. Database.

United States. Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Library. Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms (1999; Revised 2007; Updated Links 6/9/08). Comp. Mary V. Gold. N.p., 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. <http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/terms/srb9902.shtml>.

"Vertical Farm History." Vertical Farminging. N.p., 2011. Web. <http://www3.jjc.edu/ftp/wdc12/jjurkiewicz/history.html>.

Wagner, Cynthia G. "Vertical Farming: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Back." Futurist, The (2010): 68-69. Database.

Whitfield, John. "Seeds of Edible City Architecture." Nature 459.18 (2009): 914-15. Database.

"World Hunger Statistics." Statistic Brain RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.statisticbrain.com/world-hunger-statistics/>.

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© 2013 Jeremy Floyd

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