Meet Farming’s Future

Hamida Kinge interviews Columbia University’s Dickson Despommier, who says that “vertical farms” have the potential to feed the world’s growing population, provide food security and curb climate change from Manhattan to Mumbai.

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The way skeptics see it, Dickson Despommier has a lot of explaining to do: He’s got big plans for the future of farming. By 2050, the planet will have to feed three billion additional mouths, and traditional farms, which threaten food security by deforestation, the use of fossil fuels and ecosystem destruction, will not be able to hack it. Dr. Despommier, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University, believes the answer lies in the vertical farm, a glass-walled structure that can be designed as tall as a typical skyscraper, and can be located inside city bounds or around city limits.

It sounds quixotic at first, and Despommier readily admits that there is much he cannot answer until he secures funding to build a prototype. But he asserts that every process used in a vertical farm, from the agricultural to the mechanical, has been implemented in some capacity elsewhere, so there are no new mechanics or science involved. Still, vertical farms would be incredibly complex to build and operate, and consequently carry an enormous price tag, which is the main complaint of critics. The farms would also require accessory structures, like labs and seedling nurseries. Despommier intends the energy used by a vertical farm to be self-generating: Plant and waste-water solids would be incinerated to generate electricity. The host city’s gray water would be remediated and infused with nutrients to grow crops, a soil-less process called hydroponics. If the gray water plan works, it could save a city like New York – which dumps a billion gallons of remediated gray water into the Hudson each day – a lot of water and, consequently, a lot of money.

Furthermore, vertical farms would require plenty of staff—which would mean plenty of jobs, grins Despommier. He is fairly confident that, if a few vertical farms are successful, the government will begin to provide tax incentives to encourage their construction. Several cities and countries have expressed interest, including New York City, Shanghai, Masdar City (a zero-carbon solar city under construction in Abu Dhabi) and the country of Jordan. And Despommier believes it’s an especially good sign when a Nobel Prize winner likes your work: At last year’s World Science Forum, his concept won the praise of Steven Chu, the new head of the Energy Department. And anyway, Despommier wonders, with the stakes high for the future of food, is there really an alternative for the future of farming?

Next American City spoke with Despommier at his Columbia University office about what vertical farms would mean for cities and for the globe.

A rendering of a vertical farm.

A New York Times article last year suggested that investments in vertical farms in areas of prime real estate would not be likely because other businesses would yield more of a profit. What’s your take on that?

Despommier: I don’t think you’d have a problem convincing developers that this would be a good idea because [vertical farms] would generate money, jobs, and become tourist attractions, I think. But for the most part, I don’t think you’d put [a vertical farm] on 5th avenue and 42nd street.

We took this idea to [an environmental justice] group called WE ACT. Five of our students had [to determine] what would happen if you placed a vertical farm inside Harlem. They showed [WE ACT] some of these designs and said, “We’re thinking about vertical farming inside the city.” And they asked, “What’s a vertical farm?” so that sat down and told them. And WE ACT said, “We’ll show you a place. Put it right here.” That’s how positive they were about it. Even [Manhattan Borough President] Scott Stringer, and Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, who is his deputy mayor for the borough, both have really strong feelings about wanting this to happen inside Manhattan. Where? I don’t know. But I can identify some other places. What about Floyd Bennett air force base? That’s 25 square miles of property that is unused. What about Governor’s Island? I would [also] like this retrofitted into schools, hospitals, senior citizens facilities, on the tops of apartment houses, maybe three of four stories.

If those real estate costs are high, and if the vertical farm employs several people, how would you keep food costs low?

There is no packaging in the vertical farm, so you can eliminate that cost. There’s no storage – [produce is] sold fresh daily. What you don’t sell, you recycle through the energy recapturing system because you don’t want it to rot. You could probably sell [leftovers] to value-added food processing. There’s no shipping. There’s no pesticides or herbicides or fertilizers used so there’s none of those costs. There’s no extra costs added for loss of crops due to weather and crop failures. And you get more than one crop per year because you’re continuously farming inside, so all of these things tend to lower the cost.

One design for a vertical farm.

Give me an example of a country that is interested – one where it seems promising that they might fund a prototype.

One of the requests we have that we think will actually result in an initiative is from the country of Jordan. I’ve had an inquiry from two separate [US AID representatives from Jordan]. They want me to come visit Jordan to explore the possibility of working with Hyatt hotels to produce vertical farm-like settings inside the hotel so that they’re carbon neutral. You can integrate food production into the hotel as well as energy recapture and all these other things, because, remember, it’s a desert. You’ve got wonderful sun. You don’t have any water, but if you drill down deep enough you’ll have water too. So we can accomplish a lot. If you’re constrained by New York City building codes or something like that, you might not be able to do this. If you go to Jordan they will give you an open invitation to try whatever you like.

With crowding, congestion and traffic already an issue for cities, and the trend of populations moving back to cities, how would trucks pick up massive amounts of produce inside a city?

Maybe they do at it night, or you restrict them to times. I think that by locating the farms at the periphery [of a city], you can alleviate the (traffic) problem.

But is it also possible to put them in dense areas inside the city?

If you’re talking about big commercial ventures like a 30-story building, that’s probably not going to be in the center of the city because getting enough light into the building would be a problem. But if you’re talking about integrating a vertical farm into a restaurant, a new restaurant or a new school or something else, then the answer is wherever you’d like one.

You support the systematic abandonment of the traditional farm. If that happens, every bit of the food they once produced would need to be replaced in a vertical farm, plus more because of population growth. What amount of acreage would one vertical farm replace for one traditional farm?

It’s an interesting statement you just made: “If we have to abandon our farms.” I hate to tell you this, but we’re already doing it. And they have to do it, not because of vertical farming but because farming is failing. The climate change issues now have determined that what you used to be able to grow, you can no longer grow. [Also], overuse of pesticides have worn out the soil and created terrible situations.

The food and agriculture organization for the World Health Organization has repeatedly said that if we could just put trees back to where they used to be, you could slow [climate change] down. So the answer to the question to the ratio of land indoors to outdoors — that would depend on the crop, but the number that I’ve been given from the world expert on indoor farming – his name is Gene Giacomelli [of the University of Arizona Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture] is that on average, for one acre of indoor land you save four to six acres of outdoor land. That was for tomatoes. For other crops you can make that ratio go way up. There was a guy who raised barley, which he used to feed his animals. So he decided to do it inside of a big shed. He saved 200 acres by just stacking them all up inside. Then he let (the outdoor land) go back to natural grasslands. And the government sent him a check for that because he was restoring the environment. And he still fed his animals. So when you present farmers with these options, they start to think, “I don’t have to raise corn to raise money, I can raise trees to raise money. I’ll become a carbon farmer.” I don’t want to put [traditional] farmers out of business. I just want them to grow something else.

A vertical farm rendering showing the different crops that can be grown.

Let’s talk about the science side of food security. How will indoor farms reproduce the natural processes of cross-fertilization that keep species strong and biologically diverse?

If you make seed banks…[you ensure] the ability to maintain [hybrid vigor]. In other words, you don’t get stuck with inbred strains of plants because they become highly susceptible to diseases. So [the vertical farm would have] some buildings that would grow crops just for seeds. Outside I think it’s more difficult because you can get big losses due to weather events and to pests and this sort of thing. Indoors you can control all of that. [Keeping diseases out] is an easy thing to do because we know how to do it with people. It’s how you treat people in the ICU of a hospital so I want to treat my plants the same way. It adds an expense to the building, but it’s worth it, because outside, you lose 50% of what you grow before it gets to the market.

Moving to the developing world: Your website says the vertical farm could be the answer to hunger in poor countries. How would the food be affordable to people who might survive on just a few dollars a week, if that?

It depends on the altruistic nature and stability of the country. So, for example, in India, the middle class gains about 25 million people per year. So what do you do about somebody who makes two dollars a day? How do you feed them with the concept of a vertical farm? And the answer is you don’t. I can’t use this as an example and I don’t pretend to do that. What I want to happen is: Prototypes will eventually lead to versions of the vertical farm and the people who can afford them first are the same people who can afford [a cell phone]. I can take you to India – everybody has one! How can you afford that? And the answer is: Because you know what it does and it connects the entire country, without the need for infrastructure.

So would philanthropists who have an interest in a developing country’s population be the primary investors in the vertical farms in those countries?

[Yes]. I know an organization in Duluth, Minnesota. A Nigerian physician has organized Nigerian physicians in this country and wants to go back to Nigeria and build a large school/hospital complex with a vertical farm. I haven’t heard from him in a while but what I suggested to him was to organize the Nigerians in this country – and Hakeem Olajuwan was one of those people. That’s a very wealthy person with deep interests in Nigeria (etc, etc). But a country’s [successful immigrants] can do a great deal of good.

Clearly the world’s rising population plays a role in our myriad environmental crises. How many people is too many for the planet, and if there is an amount, how to keep the population below that number?

That’s a loaded question! As long as they have all the essentials – clean water, safe food, clothing, shelter. There is no upper limit as long as we can ensure these things. Joel Cohen is a world expert on population and he refuses to address that question and so do I.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

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