Thursday, December 9, 2010
Now that there are hardly any farmers left to migrate from the cornfields to the city, farms themselves are poised to make the big move. This, at least, is the premise of Dickson Despommier’s The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, a new book in which the medical ecologist envisions a utopian future where plastic skyscrapers rise out of “squalid urban blight” to produce bumper crops of high-tech veggies and turn even our filthiest municipalities into “the functional urban equivalent(s) of a natural ecosystem.”
Despommier thinks we should be producing our food closer to where we eat it. He embraces a techno-progressive approach that out-industrializes the Big Ag factory farms that locavores typically loathe. For him, transparent buildings made out of self-cleaning plastic, sterile grow rooms with double-locking doors, and genetically modified plants that can detect and warn against verboten pathogens are the keys to environmental sustainability and healthier food.
According to Despommier, traditional agricultural production requires too much land, too much water, and far too many pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Irrigating farmland consumes 70 percent of our fresh water, he writes, and the runoff that results from this irrigation “is by far the world’s most damaging source of pollution.” Forsaking synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is one response to this problem, but organic farming produces less food than chemical farming does, and even chemical farming won’t be able to yield enough food for the world as it adds another 3 billion hungry mouths over the next 40 years. To feed them using current techniques, we’d need a land-mass the size of Brazil and in his estimation “that amount of additional arable land simply does not exist.”
CHEMICAL FARMING WON’T YIELD ENOUGH FOOD FOR THE WORLD AS IT ADDS ANOTHER 3 BILLION.
In Despommier’s “vertical farm,” vegetables and fruits would be grown hydroponically. There’d be lettuce on one floor, green beans on another, peppers in the penthouse. Hydroponics and a related technology called aeroponics use 70 to 95 percent less water than conventional farming does. Growing crops indoors allows for year-round production and guards against weather-related crop failure. Building vertical farms in the cities where most food is ultimately consumed would conserve fossil fuels needed for transport, curtail spoilage, and allow for the reforestation of agriculture land, thus offsetting carbon emissions and increasing biodiversity.
Despommier conceived of vertical farms in 1999, and with the help of his graduate students at Columbia, he’s been refining the idea ever since. But while Despommier’s ideas have attracted substantial attention, they’ve also generated substantial skepticism. For example, can massive urban greenhouses truly function without pesticides when marijuana growers with modest hydroponic setups seem to spend most of their waking hours battling fungus gnats? Can vertical farm revenues match the costs of erecting a plastic skyscraper?
Still, Despommier’s ideas have already inspired entrepreneurs around the globe.
In Chicago, a developer named John Edel has purchased a former meatpacking plant and is turning it into a vertical farm that will grow organic produce and also serve as a space for small food-processing businesses and a brewery. The four-story facility, which Edel has dubbed The Plant, will be using acquaponics: Fish are raised in tanks, their waste will fertilize hydroponically-grown produce, and the produce will in turn filter water for the fish. He’s also building an anaerobic digester that will use waste materials to generate power.
Its old-school industrial brick facade may lack the sci-fi pop of some vertical farm designs, but a new approach to food is taking root.