Thinking Up: The Next Step

What if the food you ate grew right next to you in a matter of 10 days in a high-rise tower with no need for real sunlight or soil beneath its roots?

The DragonFly Project: A Utopian Vertical Farm (Image Courtesy)

The simple trick of fitting anything huge in a confined space by stacking up is an old concept. From the endlessly folded intestines in our body, the boxes in our storage closets to cities today with booming populations and a serious space crunch. The world is quick to master the concept of dealing with a lack of space. Big cities in particular with their skyscrapers, packed office blocks and apartment-style housing in high-rise buildings learnt to build upward long ago to fit their people and their demands. As if the number of people isn’t enough of a concern, it is predicted that using current technologies it would take an additional 10⁹ hectares or cultivating an area roughly the size of Brazil in addition to existing arable land to feed the brave new world of 9 billion people. With no such availability of additional land the most logical next prediction is utter social chaos. Emeritus Professor of Microbiology & Ecology at Columbia University, a futurist and a central figure in what could be a worldwide revolution, Dr. Dickson Despommier has a better idea in mind. He thought up and popularized the idea of vertical farming- a simple and elegant way to grow food sustainably within cities.

An Introduction to Vertical Farming

Growing crops in vertical farms in the heart of cities is a great way to deal with issues typically associated with urban agriculture such as run-off polluting urban ecosystems, contaminated soil in busy metropolises or excessive energy usage due to artificial heating and irrigation systems. The Economist explains that “the idea is that skyscrapers filled with floor upon floor of orchards and fields, producing crops all year round, will sprout in cities across the world,” not only will this cut down carbon emissions associated with long-distance transportation dramatically but will also avoid the loss in quality, texture, taste and smell that is associated with travel.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, the father of vertical farming, says “the way to deal with food production and distribution issues today is to grow as much locally as possible.” More and more people are moving to the cities. Why can’t the farms be moved with them? Of course local farming alone can’t match the kind of food quantity and quality that is demanded by the 8 million people living in New York City alone. Despommier suggests “democratization,” a term that he explains refers to alternative methods of farming such as vertical farming that often implement hydroponics, water mist, LED lighting in order to “grow food in a controlled environment with minimal use of pesticides and no risk of weather inconsistencies, soil contamination and erosion.”

An example of a hydroponic system with a closed water line (Image Courtesy)
Types of Hydroponics; Aeroponics is frequently used method wherein Plants are suspended in the air while nutrient solution is sprayed or misted over the roots of the plant (Image Courtesy)

He excitedly expressed that the inspiration for his ideas in vertical farming came from his students in a Medical Ecology class at Columbia University. They would often discuss issues in medical ecology and environmental health sciences in class but his students felt discouraged and depressed. they challenged him to come up with an uplifting project to add more life into the class. Cutting to the chase, he asked them to study food networks and figure out how to feed the population of Manhattan sustainably. It took him ten years from then to take their ideas of rooftop gardening “inside the building.” He had looked them in the eyes and said “Why not? I will take all your good ideas and make them better!” A study they conducted together showed that if all rooftop gardens in New York grew only rice, hardly 2% of the population would be fed. Add abandoned warehouses and apartments, the number goes up to 12%. Add abandoned runways to the equation and you have enough food to feed 30–50% of the city with a wide variety of food items such as root vegetables, green beans, zucchini and more. If 80–90 30-storey buildings were turned into vertical farms, there would be enough food to serve 1200 calories per person per day per annum in Manhattan. Clearly, hope lies in creativity and innovation in the field of sustainable urban agriculture.

An excellent example of a successfully working vertical farm in New York is AeroFarms where “data science meets horticulture,” as claimed on their website. AeroFarms was built on a brownfield site, atop 500 warehouses that later turned into a club, which now exist in the form of an incredible exemplar of alternative agriculture. The CEO of AeroFarms, David Rosenberg was quoted by NPR saying that “the plants (they grow) have people catering to their every need. They really get a white-glove lifestyle experience.” Out of the leafy vegetables they grow, his personal favorites include Ruby Streak, a mustard green crop and watercress leaves. Rosenberg takes pride in the controlled light, temperature and nutrition these plants are subjected to. However, the quest for supplying fresh produce to people right where they are does not end for AeroFarms here. The company aims to learn from their present set up and apply their knowledge to the location of a former steel mill, a 70,000 square-foot location valued at $39 million. Rosenberg ambitiously but beautifully expresses that Aerofarms was not built to build just one farm or a farm for the rich but to change the way food is sourced for humanity as a whole.

Diagram depicting AeroFarms’ aeroponic indoor growing technology (Image Courtesy)

It is not overambitious to believe that vertical farming can serve as a great way to slowly replace mass production of food and curtail the interminable global food network. Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer and founder of New York Sun Works, along with his colleagues operated a floating hydroponic greenhouse in Manhattan called the Science Barge. In an attempt to investigate what could be done to grow food in the heart of a city with minimal-resource consumption and maximum-resource efficiency, the barge used one-tenth as much water as a field farm would. There was no agricultural run-off, use of synthetic pesticides and 20 times more food was grown than a comparable field. But Caplow identified one problem: the need for artificial lighting in any bigger an indoor farm. He was quoted in The Economist saying, “For a skyscraper-sized hydroponic farm, generating enough electricity using solar panels for illumination purposes is clearly impractical. Vertical Farming will only work if it makes use of natural light.”

Plants growing under LED lighting with roots bathed in nutrient-rich mist at AeroFarms (Image courtesy)

Conversely, proponents of vertical farming that use LED bulbs to maintain a controlled environment see lesser charm in natural sources of heat and light. Ivan Harbor, a Designer for Roger Stirk Harbor & Partners designed a multi-storey skyfarm in London where a glass building would be built with maximal surface area exposed to natural sunlight and stacked green-houses would grow plants with direct exposure to water mist and natural heat & light. Even though crops growing in a glasshouse such as this will get natural sunlight sporadically during the day, it is not nearly enough. A global leader of planning and sustainable development at a British Engineering Firm-Arup, Peter Head stresses the importance of consistency and control of light in order to get “uniform production of very high-quality food” in conversation with an Economist journalist. In response to issues of exorbitant expenditure on maintaining a controlled environment with artificial heating and light, Despommier concludes that “The LED industry has diversified and the prices of bulbs have gotten significantly lower over time due to an increase in competition.” He believes that the cost of brown-field sites being adopted into indoor farms, how sound the building is and issues concerning labor and taxes are more important issues worthy of attention. He also goes on to explain that getting the attention of New York City government would be a huge plus to the field but due to a lack of apparent promise for mass food production presently, unfortunately, urban agriculture initiatives are flying too low to be on their radar screens.

The advantages of vertical farming are not just limited to short-term goals such as a quick cut in green house gas emissions or an immediate betterment of food security. It holds long-term promise. “A seed that takes 30–40 days to be grown out in the soil in natural conditions can be grown in 10–12 days inside. This talk is of 30–40 harvests annually as opposed to the typical 2–3 out in the field,” expresses a representative of AeroFarms in an interview with BBC World News. What is this, if not a game changer? In his essay, Despommier explains that one anticipated long-term benefit of indoor farming would be a gradual “repair” of many of world’s damaged ecosystems through a “systematic abandonment of farmland.” Regrowth of hardwood forests in temperate and tropical zones can indeed play a significant role in “carbon sequestration” and possibly help reverse trends in global climate change. Benefits of vertical farming seem endless from better health, new job opportunities to lesser abandoned real estate, fresher air and supply of safe drinking water. The trend of harming the environment to benefit personally cannot continue any further. The environment needs to be repaired. It seems that it is time to grow up, quite literally and metaphorically.

A case for vertical farming