The Vertical Farm

Eco-Laboratory by Weber Thompson.
The first time I came across the Vertical Farm concept, it was in an issue of Popular Science.  A large pullout showed an awe-inspiring skyscraper with a white-bearded man posing in front, cupping an ear of corn and staring off in the distance.  The Future of Farming.

Upon hearing of aquaponics I was immediately reminded of that pullout and dug out my old PopSci issue.  A few days later I checked out, "The Vertical Farm," by Dr. Dickson Despommier, from my local library.

"The Vertical Farm" is a two part book.  We start off looking at the past and current state of agriculture, coming to the conclusion it is failing to provide nutritious foods, it is insufficient to sustain us in the future and the ecological destruction caused my modern farming methods has taken an incredible toll on the planet.

Dr. Despommier's solution is to utilize skyscrapers to grow food hydroponically in the middle of cities.  According to Dr. Despommier, the vertical farm has a number of advantages over traditional agricultural methods.  In the remainder of this article I discuss his proposed advantages and in my next article I will argue aquaponics not only has these benefits, but it takes them to a whole new level and then adds more.

"The Living Skyscraper:
Farming the Urban Skyline"
by Blake Kurasek
1.  Year-round crop production.  By growing crops inside controlled environments, crop production is not dependent upon the seasons.  Instead of one season of tomatoes, staggered planted tomatoes can be harvested year round.

Related:  CEA and grow lights

2.  No Weather-related Crop Failures.  As I write this, the corn crop in Iowa is in trouble.  There has been very little rain this season and the crops have suffered accordingly.  By growing foods in controlled environments, droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural phenomena are irrelevant (assuming the vertical farm survived the tornado).  The world will feel the effects of the drought in corn country since products from Coca Cola to Starbucks, ethanol to beef all contain corn products and the increased price per bushel of corn is going to permeate the global economy.

3.  No Agricultural Runoff.  "According to the USDA, Agricultural nonpoint source pollution is the primary cause of pollution in the U.S." - The Vertical Farm.  Soil is composed of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, rock, etc. and when it rains the runoff inevitably ends up in streams and heads down river.  By growing hydroponically in a controlled environment, these toxic chemicals are unnecessary.

4.  Allowance for Ecosystem Restoration.  The first part of The Vertical Farm talks about the current state of the ecosystem, specifically how poor a state it is in.  By moving agriculture into city skyscrapers, Dr. Despommier argues traditional agriculture won't be necessary and the land can be turned back over to nature to recover.

5.  No Use of Pesticides, Herbicides, or Fertilizers.  Guess what?  There are no weeds to pull in hydroponic/aeroponic/aquaponic systems!  Dr. Despommier argues hydroponics is a superior method of growing foods; by adding only the nutrients the plants need to the water the plants live in, a balance is achieved.  The plants absorb all the nutrients and clean the water.  The nitty-gritty details on this point are really where aquaponics and hydroponics shine as an alternative to traditional agriculture.  But I disagree with Dr. Despommier on this point and believe aquaponics is a far superior method to hydroponics.

6.  Use of 70-95 percent less water.  According to The Vertical Farm, "Today, traditional agriculture uses around 70 percent of all the available freshwater on earth, and in doing so pollutes it, rendering it unusable for those living downstream." Water is by far the most precious resource on Earth. The pollution of our water by traditional agriculture is the primary need to alter our farming methods. Of all the benefits on this list, this is the most important.

7. Greatly reduced food miles. A common argument for alternative farming is that the average distance food travels from farm to table is 1500 miles. That is a staggering number! The Vertical Farm proposes growing food in the center of cities, drastically cutting this distance down. I propose an even greater reduction in food miles by growing food at your home!

8. More Control of Food Safety and Security. The Vertical Farm is designed using the same equipment hospitals use in intensive care units to prevent pathogens and pests from affecting the crops. Security is proposed to prevent people from sabotaging the environment.

Artist's rendition of a
desertVertical Farm
9. New Employment Opportunities. When farming exists in a skyscraper there are plenty of job opportunities. The traditional farmer goes through stages: they buy their seeds, tills, fertilizes, plants, maintains, harvests and sells. In the Vertical Farm, the crops exist in all of these stages all the time, necessitating the need for labor.

10. Purification of Grey Water to Drinking Water. Grey water reclamation will become an even hotter topic as the scarcity of clean water becomes more desperate. Plants provide a natural (bio) filtration process that can clean toxins out of the water. Clean water from plant transpiration can be recovered using dehumidifiers. While you can't eat the plants, Dr. Despommier argues the plants can be incinerated using plasma arc gasification to create energy.

11. Animal Feed from Post-harvest Plant Material. You don't eat all parts of a plant and what is leftover can be used as animal feed. I argue you can take this one step further and suggest you could also compost this material for seedling beds.

Wow, those are some good arguments!  

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Vertical Farm. But there are problems here. Firstly, and even Dr. Despommier freely admits, you need to suspend your belief any government will sponsor a vertical farm. States are so strapped for cash, projects like this, on the scale proposed, are pipe dreams. I find it hard to believe a project like this will ever be subsidized, a need the author believes is necessary.  

Second, if the project did get off the ground, the costs are staggering to the point the product may not be affordable. The price drives consumer choice. Yes, there are niche demographics that are willing to pay a premium for a premium product, like customers of farmer markets or Whole Foods. I must say, I feel different now shopping at a store like Whole Foods. I might buy avocados grown in a sustainable way, but they are grown in Mexico. Is it really better to buy foods grown so far away? Do the benefits offset the the food miles? I don't think so. Enter the birth of groups like The Hundred Mile Diet.

The Vertical Farm - Dr. Dickson DespommierWhen I finished The Vertical Farm I admit I was disappointed. Like Food, Inc. I was left with the question, "What can I do now?". I want to buy foods that are better for my family, better for the environment, better for society. How am I supposed to source locally grown organic tomatoes in January?

But there is an even better method than the vertical farm, a more sustainable method, that takes these advantages to a whole new level and I will show you what you can do right now.

Related:  Grow Lights and Automation


Need help monitoring your aquaponics system?  Check out Aquaponics Tracker, an Android app for keeping tabs on the key parameters that keep your system healthy.

1 comment:

  1. If you have a chance try looking into Terrasphere Systems: Vertical Farming system at its best.