Vertical Farming: A Solution to the Future (Chap. 42 in Life On a Treadmill)

In one hundred years, from 1900 to 2000, the global population grew from 1.5 billion to 6 billion, a 4.5 billion person increase. By 2050 the global population is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion. The causes of such massive population growth are the result of advances in healthcare technology, lower mortality rates, and consistent fertility rates. Taking into account the immense technological progress made in the modern era, it is not unlikely that populations will continue to grow at rapidly increasing rates. If we are to meet the needs of a population so large and ever-expanding, alternative approaches to gathering and producing resources is vital. One of the most important resources to sustaining human life is food, and one progressive idea in regards to food production is vertical farming.

A radical idea first proposed by Columbia University professor, Dickson Despommier, vertical farming essentially turns the farm from an outdoor splotch of land stretching for acres to a thirty-story tower where every indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoors acres—in regards to smaller foods, such as strawberries, the conversion is thirty outdoor acres for every indoor one. Since 1999, after introducing the idea to a class of graduate students, it has become Despommier’s mission to transform vertical farming from a pie-in-the-sky idea to a tower-in-the-sky reality. Given the environmental challenges humanity-in-all-its-girth will have to face in the future, vertical farming has the potential to limit the intensity of those future conflicts, now. The intentions of vertical farming are varied.

Despommier wants to do everything from alleviate poverty to convert standard farms into areas of reforestation that can help gobble up carbon in the atmosphere. Vertical farms would be placed in and around major cities and other densely populated areas. This would not only cut emissions by not having to ship food over long distances, but it would lower the cost of food while improving the quality. Additionally, vertical farming can bring affordable and locally grown foods to isolated desert areas where agriculture is a difficult and laborious process. Las Vegas and various Middle Eastern cities are among those agriculturally challenged that are interested in developing vertical farms in order to become self-sufficient.

While the idea is a fairly simple one, the process for building and operating a vertical farm is a bit more complex. The cost of building a thirty-story, self-sustaining tower farm is roughly $200 million. In addition to the building costs, acquiring the space could also prove costly—especially in a major city like New York where land carries a high price tag. Nevertheless, governments—federal and local—can and should fund such projects to some extent. $300 billion in farm subsidies have been given to farms throughout the country, with much of the subsidies accounting for farm insurance in the event of a natural disaster such as a flood or pest infestation. Another benefit of vertical farming is that crop yields will no longer be adversely affected by floods or pests. By eliminating the threat of pests, there will no longer be a need to use harmful chemicals that can create health problems and lead to run-off into streams, which contaminates other parts of the eco-system.

Vertical farming’s greatest flaw is the initial cost as a thirty-story vertical farm that takes up one city block feeds 50,000 people and costs $200 million, not counting the price of the land, which could bring the total cost to around $500 million. However, the long-term gains are worth the initial investment. Crops grow year-round without the threat of pests, natural disasters, or disease. A cyclical irrigation system reuses water that is recycled throughout the building; the farm is powered by energy that comes from breaking down the building’s waste and burning it in addition to wind turbines and solar panels on the roof, with the excess power being returned to the grid. Plants are grown aquaponically, floating along what is essentially a water conveyor belt that uses fish waste as plant nutrients while using the plants to the clean the water for the fish. Cylindrical carts, which rotate periodically to dip the crops in nutrients, use vermiculite-stone-filled trays to grow foodstuffs that can’t be grown aquaponically, such as potatoes and oranges.

The whole thing seems too futuristic to be plausible, but all the technology needed exists and is applicable. Developers throughout the world, from Oregon to Shanghai, are currently working on ways to implement vertical farming on a smaller-scale, while Dispommier is trying to get funding to build his thirty-story prototype in New York City.

Yet there is a more practical application that would come at lower cost and would have greater societal benefit, and Dispommier touched on it in an interview with Scientific American magazine: “You and I can afford to pay for the food we want, but what about the person who spends 50 percent of his income on food? Let’s take indoor farming to places where it’s really needed. Let’s go to Darfur. Let’s go to Mali. Let’s go to Myanmar. They have no food, no water, nothing. We can make these enclosed farm units like MASH units. We can make them modular—string them together in the desert or stack them on top of one another. Let the rich countries pay for it. I can guarantee you that if I am personally in charge of a vertical farm in the South Bronx or the middle of Harlem, another project will be going up at the same time in a poor country. There has to be some social justice here.”

It is that “social justice”, which Dispommier speaks of that is at the core of the vertical farming concept. One area that is in dire need of an efficient agricultural system is Zimbabwe. Decades after British colonial rule, white colonists made up one percent of the population while controlling seventy percent of the arable farmland. President Mugabe made it his number one priority to reclaim the land, but by 1999, the legislative steps to seize the land and redistribute it had failed, causing many Zimbabweans to seize the land themselves. By 2000, one thousand of the farms had been reclaimed through illegal means, which Mugabe’s administration supported. As a result of the land reform, harvests have been hindered as well as Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector’s capability to produce and export products.

Based on estimates from 2001, agriculture in Zimbabwe accounts for 20% of the country’s GDP and 40% of its export earnings. However, data from 2007 shows a tremendous decline in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector. Seventy percent of commercial farmland has been destroyed, causing a drop-off in working commercial farms from 4,300 large-scale farms in 2000 to around 350-400 in 2007. Additionally, Zimbabwe’s exports have declined from $50 billion in 1997 to a meager $7 billion in 2005. As a result, Zimbabwe’s ability to import necessary goods, such as food, has been stifled due to the financial and political conflicts. A major cause for the economic turmoil, which stems largely from the collapse of the agricultural sector, is due to the violence that surrounded the land reclamation of 2000. Since much of the arable farmland in Zimbabwe has been destroyed, implementing vertical farming might be an excellent and efficient way to help restore Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector while making a strong case for vertical farming’s potential to alleviate many of the problems that come with large-scale commercial farming. After all, if vertical farming can work in a region of crisis then it can certainly work in areas that are prosperous.

The potential for vertical farming is great, and if we plan to prevent or overcome the challenges of the future, we must not be afraid to try alternative options, especially if they can be as beneficial as vertical farming. Given the amount of aid that has been squandered by giving Africans food rather than teaching them how to cultivate it, vertical farming can serve as the first step to a selfsufficient Africa. Once Africa no longer needs to rely on the rest of the world for its survival that is when it can finally escape the misery that has tortured the continent for centuries. Vertical farming can provide that opportunity, not just to Africa, but to the entire world. And if it’s too late to save Earth, vertical farming will be the only possible way to sustain life on Mars, which is something to think about.

This essay appears in Life On a Treadmill: The Collected Works of a Successful Failure

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