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Vertical farms

By Sudhirendar Sharma

A new book by Dickson Despommier posits the farm of the future as a vertical farm over 30 floors in any city centre. Powered by renewable energies a vertical farm could meet the food needs of 50,000 people, consume 70-95% less water, restrict the use of harmful agro-chemicals and ward off weather-related crop failures

In his new book, Dickson Despommier argues that our future food needs can best be met by vertical farms, or ‘farmscrapers’, which are both environment friendly and economically sustainable. A city, he believes, can now choose to become a functional urban equivalent of a natural ecosystem by employing high-tech versions of waste-to-energy strategies, food production, and water-recovery systems -- all under one roof

The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century
by Dickson Despommier
Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press
New York. Pages: 303. Price: US$ 25

Agriculture has never been as fragile as it is today: climatically vulnerable and ecologically unsustainable. But it is only in the last few years that over 15,000 years of settled agriculture has been rendered insufficient and unsustainable. John Steinbeck’s depiction of the worst-case farm scenario, in The Grapes of Wrath, is seemingly coming to life, bringing the agricultural revolution to a close.

With no foreseeable let-up in world population for the next four decades at least, the goals of maintaining a productive environment and harvesting additional foodgrain may seem mutually exclusive. India is already importing more farm produce than ever before; China has lost parts of its 2010 harvest to erratic weather; and following droughts, half-a-million children are reportedly at risk of dying from starvation in Niger. The signs are ominous.

The largest setback on the farm front is possibly yet to come. Agriculture in its present form may not be able to feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050. Even if the world manages to come up with enough chemical nutrients to produce additional crops, there may not be enough freshwater supplies to irrigate new farmlands.

The compelling question is: Will technological advancements overturn this doom-and-gloom scenario?

Technological advancements in the 21st century could indeed make such troubles history. Efforts by individual farmers have the potential to spur a third Green Revolution. A Florida farmer wiped out by Hurricane Andrew re-invested in a greenhouse and replaced some 30 acres of outdoor farmland with a single acre of greenhouse-grown strawberries using hydro-stackers, allowing multiple layers of hydroponically grown crops in a unit area.

Such initiatives have led Dr Dickson Despommier, a public health microbiologist at New York’s Columbia University, to formulate the concept of ‘indoor’ farming. The consequent shift from nature-dependent agriculture to computer-controlled farming will cut external risks to a minimum and allow for secure, year-round production. The idea is to squeeze a whole ecosystem into one building for high production on a low resource base.

In his recently published book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, Despommier argues that with recent advances in the sustainable use of resources, a city can now choose to become a functional urban equivalent of a natural ecosystem by employing high-tech versions of waste-to-energy strategies, food production, and water-recovery systems -- all under one roof.

In fact, the Seattle-based Weber Thompson Architects has designed a multi-storey farm complete with hydroponic grow areas, grey water remediation, research facilities, retail space, and living quarters. Once built, such high-tech, water- and energy-efficient skyscrapers will occupy less than an acre of land and provide many acres of grain, vegetables and fruit. With several such designs on the cards, vertical farming could soon become a reality.

There are reasons for farming to go vertical. First, arable land the size of Brazil required to grow food to feed 1.6 billion extra mouths in the next four decades may not be available. Second, irrigating additional acres is unlikely as 70% of our freshwater has already been consumed. Third, frequent crop failure due to climate change is proving a setback to farming in many regions of the world.

A lot might have changed since Steinbeck’s classic novel was published in 1939, but the tragedies of that period have returned to haunt the farmer. Rising input costs, skewed trade barriers, erratic weather patterns, export-driven monoculture, and increasing farmer suicides have forced experts to conclude that today’s agricultural practices may not meet the needs of a growing population.

But a vertical farm with 30 floors the size of a Manhattan block in any city centre would ease the pressure on farms. Powered by geothermic, solar, biomass, or wind energy, such vertical farms could meet the entire food needs of 50,000 people. In addition to year-round crop production, a ‘farmscraper’ would consume 70-95% less water, purify grey water to drinking water, restrict the use of harmful agro-chemicals and ward off weather-related crop failures.  

Despommier agrees that any first edition of an invention will cost a lot, like any one of our modern conveniences -- the hybrid car, plasma screen, or mobile phone. But the tangible and non-tangible gains from a vertical farm employing large-scale hydroponics and aeroponics (nutrient liquid and mist) should offset the initial costs -- sustained crop production without further damage to the environment and eco-restoration of freed farmlands are important spin-offs.

Constructed as a network of facilities, a typical vertical farm includes a building for growing food; a separate control centre for monitoring the overall running of the facility; a nursery for selecting and germinating seeds, quality-control laboratory to monitor food safety, document the nutritional status of each crop and monitor plant diseases; a facility for the vertical farm workforce, a green market; and, eventually, an eco-education centre for the general public.

In the last six years, Despommier has worked with over 100 research students to combine futuristic architecture with futuristic agriculture. Interestingly, some six universities in the US, Europe, South Africa and Australia are currently researching the farming of the future. The research focuses on an urban agro-production system such that lettuce or tomato would no longer travel 2,000 miles to reach their final destination.

Despommier has travelled the world presenting the idea of a ‘vertical farm’ to government and companies to secure large-scale funding to construct 20 prototypes. “For high-tech, high-efficiency farming, I would ultimately pick countries like Chad, Mali, Malawi and other African countries where farming is not only failing but where farming due to climate effect is unlikely to occur in the next 20-40 years,” he says.

In Vertical Farm, the author makes a strong case for bio-mimicking nature in a closed system wherein all waste will be reprocessed into usable resources without further damaging the environment.

Vertical Farm is a completely original work, a journey into the settled agriculture of several centuries and ‘farming of the future’. It is a book of world-changing innovation worthy of becoming a classic.

Infochange News & Features, May 2011