A Techno-Agrarian Manifesto

Is vertical farming the future of American agriculture?

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, recently retired from Columbia University’s School of Public Health, 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.”

Like many purveyors of urban agriculture, Despommier thinks we should be producing our food closer to where we eat it. Don’t expect to find him reconnecting with America’s agrarian past by shoveling the dung of Williamsburg hipsters onto heirloom kale in some vacant city lot though. Instead, Despommier 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, Despommier asserts, and in his estimation “that amount of additional arable land simply does not exist.”

Of course we could also deploy our arable land in a more efficient manner, planting crops for humans instead of livestock and ethanol, but Despommier has another solution in mind: Controlled indoor environment agriculture, verticalized and situated in the midst of our cities.

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 land currently devoted to agriculture, 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. At his website, architectural renderings submitted by fellow visionaries tend to show massive, futuristic structures, but in his book he describes plans for a prototype of more modest dimensions: It would be five stories tall, with a footprint equal to one-eighth of a city block. In ideal locations, he believes, sunlight could provide all the energy needed to grow crops and photovoltaics could power any necessary electrical equipment. Buildings would be constructed from aluminum framing and large panels of a lightweight, transparent plastic called ETFE. Pests and pathogens would be excluded via “filtered air supplies, secure locks, and workers who must change their clothes before entering.” Recycled municipal wastewater would irrigate the crops. Solid wastes and inedible plant matter could generate additional power if needed. “If New York’s 8 million citizens decided to pool their fecal resource and generate electricity by incinerating it, they could realize an astounding 900 million kilowatts of electricity per year,” he writes.

Alas, not everyone places such faith in the burning shit of Manhattan. While Despommier’s ideas have attracted substantial attention, they’ve also generated substantial skepticism. Can sunlight alone provide enough energy to grow plants on multiple floors, even if the building is highly transparent and situated and shaped to take maximum advantage of the sun’s progression across the sky? If LEDs or other forms of artificial lighting typically used in hydroponic operations are necessary, how much will this add to the cost? 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? Is it prudent to build vertical farms in the middle of the city, where even downmarket real estate goes for a premium compared to Kansas farmland, when food miles have relatively little impact on greenhouse gas emissions? Can vertical farm revenues match the costs of erecting a plastic skyscraper, or even cover the rent for commercial real estate in Manhattan?

Still, Despommier’s ideas have already inspired entrepreneurs around the globe. So far, those pursuing projects under the “vertical farm” rubric have yet to embark on any projects as wide in scope as Despommier has imagined. Instead, they’re setting up operations in urban warehouses or other already existing buildings. Their verticality tends to be limited to stacked hydroponic trays, not multiple floors. They’re using artificial light sources, not just the sun.

In Surrey, British Columbia, a company called TerraSphere is running a facility that has started selling spinach and lettuce to a local chain of natural food stores called Choices Market. In England, a British zoo is using equipment supplied by a company called Valcent to produce greens for its animals. 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. On all four stories, the 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 generated by The Plant to power its heat and power systems. Its old-school industrial brick façade may lack the stunning sci-fi pop of some vertical farm designs, but inside an innovative new approach to food production is taking root.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • johnl||

    What is a Watt per year of electricity?

  • ||

    Consuming 1watt continuously for 1year. Watts do not encompass time, it's an instantaneous measurement.

  • ||

    One watt continuously for a year is about 8 3/4 kilowatthours (kwh), for each of which your local electric company charges about 10 1/2 cents, or about $0.92. Since, as Wylie noted, watts do not encompass time, it's a little hard to say what the author is trying to claim.
    900 Million kilowatts (900 Gigawatts) seems pretty optimistic - by comparison, the largest nuclear reactors in the US generate about 1100 Megawatts (1.1 gigawatt).
    Does he intend to say that New Yorker's fecal output is almost 3 times the combined output of all the nuclear reactors in the world (372 Gigawatt)?

  • Realist||

    "Does he intend to say that New Yorker's fecal output is almost 3 times the combined output of all the nuclear reactors in the world (372 Gigawatt)?" Without a doubt. If someone would squeeze their heads it would be ten times that!

  • Captian Buzz||

    One Watt is one Newton-Meter per Second. The unit for power encompasses force, distance and time. 900 million kilowatts of electricity per year is nonsense. I'll pretend they meant kilowatt-hours per year.

  • Captian Buzzy||

    900 million kilowatt-hours per year would be about the output of a one square-mile solar photo-voltaic plant. That building is going to need a nuclear power plant in the basement to run the lights and pumps.

  • johnl||

    Except that it was in quotes, taken from Despommier's book. So we are talking about NM/S^2.

  • Matrix||

    If it works without government subsidies, I'm all for it. Farmers keep using up good land for people to use and producing stuff that kids hate to eat... damn brussel sprouts!

  • ||

    I don't know about farming, as such, but this certainly seems like the way to make algae production realistic.

  • Mr Whipple||

    It's been tried. I've studied many different systems, and even invented my own. The problem is with the algae, itself. The high oil content algae have very thin cell walls. Any type of enclosed system requires circulation for light absorption and CO2/O2 exchange. The circulation destroys the algae. Even simple, CO2 bubble columns have too much loss.

    The open pond, racetrack systems are prone to contamination, and are too susceptible to temperature changes.

    I'm convinced that the only viable solution is a genetically engineered strain of algae.

    I still think my invention has a chance of working. I use large, shallow trays, stacked (like a baker's rack), and mix them with electro-mechanical vibrations. Sunlight is supplied by a system of parabolic mirrors and lenses. The primary mirrors track the sun across the sky. The trays themselves are open, in a greenhouse, so the gas exchange is natural. It is also climate controlled.

  • ||

    mix them with electro-mechanical vibrations

    Loudspeakers?

  • anonymous||

    Because farming isn't stupid enough already? That's right, farming is stupid.

  • anonymous||

    Hunting and gathering FTW!

  • ||

    Fuckin Farming, how do they work?!

  • Rich||

    Is vertical farming the future of American agriculture?

    Nope -- terrorist target.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Yeah. Certain to be attacked by the hot-air balloon jihad. (As soon as the wind is right.)

  • ||

    Not gonna happen. Way too expensive, compared to the alternative.

  • ||

    RCD: You're right. I ran the numbers on the capital costs for a number of proposals and they all came out way too high. Maybe some new tech will come along, but right now it's a niche endeavor at best.

  • ||

    By how big a margin are vertical farms more expensive than regular farms? I'm generally curious. It seems to me that the costs of conventional farming are going to increase dramatically in the future, meanwhile the costs of vertical, hydroponic farming are bound to fall. It seems to me that people will go to great lengths to not starve to death, and when conventional farming is maxed out, people will gladly pay 2 to 3 times as much for food if it means not going hungry.

  • Name Nomad||

    People will also go to alternate crops that can use un- or underutilized areas. For example: cattails (genus typha) have the most starch per acre of any crop in the world, yet no one (that I know of at least) commercially farms them in ponds, river banks, etc.

  • ||

    I guess that there are too many factors to come up with an exact number, but I wonder what the biggest cost is.

    Some people might argue that real estate is the biggest cost, but it seems to me that there should be cheap enough real estate relatively close to major cities. Sure, it will never be cost effective to build a vertical farm in the center of Manhattan, but there is cheap land that isn't that far away from NYC. While this may not please the super locavores, surely they will be happier than they are with the current distances.

  • Name Nomad||

    If transportation costs became ridiculous (say gas prices skyrocketed), I could see this possibly overcoming the high cost of real estate in cities. Without that or some sort of technological breakthrough that severely throws off the current equilibrium, it's pretty silly.

    On the other hand, maybe an urban farmer could get a hold of some rent-controlled properties!

  • Michael Ejercito||

    If transportation costs became ridiculous (say gas prices skyrocketed), I could see this possibly overcoming the high cost of real estate in cities. Without that or some sort of technological breakthrough that severely throws off the current equilibrium, it's pretty silly.


    Some people may choose to grow crops as a hobby, and whatever crops they sell in farmers' markets would act as a discount towards the costs.

    Kind of like rich people growing bananas in Alaska as a hobby.

  • 8||

    Pests and pathogens would be excluded via “filtered air supplies, secure locks, and workers who must change their clothes before entering

    hilarious.

  • ||

    I think "locks" in that context refers to something more like an airlock rather than a pad- or keyhole-lock. I'm not getting the joke.

  • Carl||

    brilliant! i see federal jobs galore out of this line.

  • ||

    Solve all the other energy problems FIRST.

  • ||

    As if we needed more evidence that opium gives you strange dreams.

  • cynical||

    "Hydroponics... use 70 to 95 percent less water than conventional farming does."

    Does this count as irony?

  • Todd Fletcher||

    "Despommier conceived of vertical farms in 1999"

    No he didn't, I saw an illustration of exactly this in an early 70s National Geographic, only they had cows in their skyscrapers. It was ridiculous then, and it's ridiculous now.

  • Matt||

    Also Will Allen has been working/developing this concept since 1993, http://www.growingpower.org/our_history.htm

  • Matt||

    Missed a part of that. It's also not ridiculous.

  • Mr Whipple||

    Here's one in operation:

    http://www.valcent.net/s/HDVGS.asp?ReportID=266563

  • ||

    Hydroponically raised produce is equal in every way to naturally earth grown produce except.....it tastes like shit on recycled paper. On a par with commercially raised eggs.

    As my grandfather used to say, an egg is simply cowshit and rooster cum. Subtract either and it ain't an egg.

    But then he said that about Tony too.

  • skr||

    bullshit. plants don't care where their nutrients come from.

  • matt||

    Plants also "don't care" how they taste.

  • ||

    True, but if your nutrient mix doesn't include EVERYTHING that the plant would incorporate from a patch of dirt, then it's entirely possible that it would taste different.

  • ||

    A point which KathyK beat me to just a few posts down. *tiny shaken fist*

  • ||

    So it is less likely to taste like dirt?

  • ||

    [bullshit. plants don't care where their nutrients come from]

    You probably tread on cement exclusively. Should you ever meet a farm produced egg or garden produced tomato, snag them. Wander down to your 24 hour food mart, bypass the bean sprouts and secure an egg and what passes for a tomato. The egg will have been shat by a hen tht never touched the earth, rather lived her entire dreadful life in a wire cage,m inside, responding to a reostat that produced 3-4 dawns per day, and burned her out in a matter of months. The tomato was probably produced in a water garden, picked weeks early, ripened during transit, slices like a cantalope and is firm as a football.
    Prepare and eat both. The egg yolk, colored orange unlike any egg you've ever seen, , will sit up high in the pan, taste great and will jump start your cholesterol level 90 points/egg.
    The 'mater will be so juicy it will be hard to cut in thin slices, not pithy like you think a tomato should be, and taste infinitely better, unlike it's bland cousin.
    It's fortunate that you don't fully realize the downside to your urban quality of life. You'd really be pissed.

  • ||

    I'm sorry, but I've tasted farm fresh food and store food, and I can't tell the difference. Personally, I want to see blind taste tests.

  • ||

    That rotgut shit you've been drinking has smoked your buds. I can do nothing for you.

  • Jerad Weiner||

    A Chicago Vertical Farming effort
    http://www.plantchicago.com/

  • T||

    Futurists are obsessed with cramming everything into one building. Arcologies are a neat concept to play with in fiction and as a thought experiment, but functionally retarded in reality. Hell, planned cities don't work as witnessed by the failures of Chandrigah and Brasilia. How is cramming a city or a farm into one building gonna make it work better?

  • cynical||

    It makes sense if your plan is to eventually build such a building underground to survive thermonuclear war, or put it on another planet.

    But, like trains, it's mainly just a way to rigidly order and engineer all human decisions in order to eliminate the "inefficiency" of human initiative and autonomy, regardless of the imposition on everyone who isn't a Planner.

  • ||

    Futurists are obsessed with cramming everything everyone into one building.

  • robc||

    Not retarded if you plan on building an interstellar spacecraft. An arcology is a nice first draft.

  • Carl||

    Agenda 21???

  • matt||

    Why don't we domesticate and milk whales?

  • skr||

    There is an easy way to combat fungus gnats and that is with very hot water. That's right. Hot water. Just water the plants with hot water and all the gnats and eggs die. Stupid pot growers. Now spider mites on the other hand are a PITA.

  • Kathy Kinsley||

    Harvard, you've got some good points. Though I have had some hydroponically raised veggies that were good (although I'd say the LACK of shit is one of the problems - to me they just taste like recycled paper - nothing).

    The problem with them is twofold.
    (1) They tend to use veggy varieties that are 'market friendly' - in short, they don't bruise easily, ship well, last a while (and are bred for all that) and have no taste.
    2) Hydroponic fertilizers (unless you go into some real expensive alternatives) don't contain many trace elements that contribute to taste.

    The egg problem goes with #2 on the hydroponics - and have you ever compared range-fed beef? (Same thing.)

    But the populace seems to be happy with cardboard veggies and eggs - and tasteless beef. So, why not?

    Also (not responding to Harvard), I looked at a bunch of those high-tech ideas. I think they might want to get a farmer to design them, rather than an architect. Most of them wouldn't ever get enough light on the lower floors to grow anything but mushrooms. (Without extra lighting.)

    Pyramid has possibilites - as does the one situated in the middle of water. The others are hopeless. Unless you really do want to grow mushrooms or fungus. Or are willing to situate your "urban farm" smack dab in the middle of Kansas plains.

  • ||

    Actually Kate, I have more than a little experience with tasteless beef. I raise Highland cattle and oten get the yuppie request for "grass fed beef", which I will gladly provide. It is my revenge on the liberal.
    I charge the moron much more for an animal that requires no finishing, that tastes like shit, and is tougher than a whale bone in the lesser cuts. Some even come back, extrolling the virtues of eating the shit, and order another raised the same.
    Fuck 'em, if they want venison, I give 'em venison.

  • Cyto||

    That being said, I highly recommend the bison ribeye at Ted's Montana Grill. Get it done medium rare to rare and you are in for a real treat. Much leaner than a beef ribeye, but still plenty of marbling for flavor. Yummy and tender. And fairly reasonable at about $25.

    Don't go for any of the other cuts. The filet is... well, not that great. The burgers are very tasty though.

  • ||

    Bison, bah. Check out the propaganda on Highland beef. The oldest known breed of cattle, noted for their majestic horns and long shaggy coat they boast less fat and are lower in cholesterol by 20% than bison, and tastes far better. Queen Elizabeth does not travel from Britain without a supply of Highland beef for her consumption.
    Dunno wtf that means necessarily but if it's good enough for an English dowager it's good enough for you.

  • S||

    Jersey banned imports of bulls on the island in the 1770's over 100 years before the Highland cattle registry was established.

    The Scottish Highland is a beautiful breed however and they sure are tasty.

  • IceTrey||

    The sunlight problem can be solved by fiber optics.

  • Kathy Kinsley||

    Yeah - and mirrors...

  • Kathy Kinsley||

    P.S. But all either will do is redirect unused sunlight. And there's not going to be much of that.

  • IceTrey||

    Uh, no. You have solar collectors/concentrators and you pipe the light wherever you want it.

  • juris imprudent||

    medical ecologist envisions a utopian future

    Those six words saved me the time and trouble of clicking the link.

  • KingTaco||

    I heard this guy on NPR, and can't believe he's a media 'it' guy.

    The idea of giant, indoor greenhouses isn't remotely original. Hell, every 70's sci-fi flix featured one.

    The actual output of Despommier is purely *aesthetic*. You'll find gleaming illustration after illustration of towering magic farms. What you won't find is any practical/scientific break-through or methodology that bring this stuff to life. That stuff is the actual hard part, though not as fun as getting adoration from the elite-set over pretty post-modern drawings of apples twelve stories in the sky. It's all show-pony media bait.

  • ||

    "...envisions a utopian future where plastic skyscrapers rise out of “squalid urban blight” to produce bumper crops of high-tech veggies..."

    So, let's brainstorm a bit. High-rise agriculture in Detroit. Big federal ag subsidies for the owners, no jobs for any Detroiters - assuming there would be any who are trainable and who might be motivated to show up on time more than once, all jobs going to folks from other places and they will reside where? hmmm .... sounds like a dystopian sf novel of the near future to me.

  • sevo||

    Ike|11.17.10 @ 9:06PM|#
    "...envisions a utopian future where plastic skyscrapers rise out of “squalid urban blight” to produce bumper crops of high-tech veggies..."

    Which "squalid urban blight" was caused by whackos proposing Utopian schemes like, oh, Despommier.
    But not to worry, the next statist with a plan will propose how to correct Despommier's "squalid urban blight" with a brand new Utopia.

  • prolefeed||

    The problem is that these high-rise farms are a lot more expensive than just planting stuff in dirt in inexpensive locales. So, until population pressures drive up the price of farmland across the globe, this idea won't make economic sense and won't happen on all but the smallest scales for super high value produce.

  • Realist||

    Vertical farming is a solution to a non problem.

  • sevo||

    Realist|11.17.10 @ 9:27PM|#
    "Vertical farming is a solution to a non problem."
    Close. It's a non-solution to a non-problem.

  • Seer||

    Why does the vertical farms have to be tested in the city? Why not build a test building of two or three floors right on the farm? Seems to me that mirco-rise farm could be profitable to a family farm or co-op farm for growing two or three cash crops. They would have need less land and sell some lots off to fund the contruction. The cash crop would not be conventional produce but high-margin such as heirloom tomatos. A small scale experiment would prove if it's workable. If profitable, the farms could then scale it up bit by bit as the details are ironed out. Then, if successful, the concept can move to the exburb as a 5-stories farms or higher. The exburbs then can become the new food exporters to the cities, thanks to nearby trains and highways.

  • alan||

    I haven't read all the comments to see if this point was made, but eventually all of those Potemkin skyscrapers in China will need to be used for something, and this is as good an idea as any.

  • Quiet Desperation||

    "...envisions a utopian future...

    Uh oh.

  • ||

    I think one thing people are missing though is how badly water is underpriced in most areas. If you start charging market prices for water, then these thigs start looking a lot more attarctive.

    You wouldn't put it right down town, but near the city would still work. Cheap land, less travel distance. save a shit ton of water.

  • ||

    Potheads would be masters at this futuristic form of agriculture. I know several who are able to grow their weed in the weirdest places.

  • Joakim Paz||

    EVERYTHING OK, sounds good...BUT WE HAVE TO THINK GLOBAL not american...

  • Greg Vaughan||

    Here's an article I wrote on Despommier's ideas, called "The Ruse of Vertical Farming":

    http://agrarianideas.blogspot......rming.html

  • قبلة الوداع||

    THANK U

  • julietwoods||

    hydroponic gardening systems are so cool. My aunt has one, and it makes me want to get one when I have my own home so bad! I say if your worried about any of this crap, grow your own food and quit making a fuss.

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