November 23, 2009

Could ‘Vertical Farming’ Work?

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future

chris_jacobs_darkDickson Despommier brought his idea for vertical urban farms to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Friday, and his audience of more than 100 people responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism.

Despommier is director of the Vertical Farm Project and a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He believes the combination of increasing human population and the increasing crop failures seen on much of our cropland necessitates new ways of producing food. He proposes vertical indoor farms that grow hydroponically, use local wastewater and solid waste (as fertilizer), and market to local urban customers as one way to address the growing demand for food.

“Do we need to invent anything to make this happen? The answer is no,” Despommier said. “I think the solutions are out there. We just have to piece them together in the proper way.”

In a Scientific American article this month, Despommier writes: “A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less subsequent spoilage.”

jan282004_dickson_despomier_0343_forblogThe architectural designs featured on the Vertical Farm Project’s Web site are all skyscraper-sized, but Despommier said that ultimately the vertical farm will have to be brought down to a more human scale to become widespread. He jokingly described the designs for high-rise farms as “edifice complexes of some architecture students.” However, he does believe the idea needs a large-scale pilot project to draw sufficient attention to it.

According to Despommier, the benefits of vertical farms include: lack of farm runoff, year-round production, no crop loss due to severe weather, 70 percent less water use than traditional farming, and no use of fossil fuels or pesticides. By moving some farming into the city, he says it will also allow some damaged ecosystems to be restored.

Skepticism about the idea included concerns about the energy use required for lighting in the buildings, the possibility that it would prop up a culture of consumption, and possible nutrient deficiencies in foods produced hydroponically. On the last point, Despommier said the nutrient content of plants can be identified and replicated in a hydroponic system.

During his presentation, Despommier said he has “no objection to growing chickens, fish, mollusks indoors. If there’s a demand for it, why not do it?” Later, when the problems with concentrated animal farming were brought up, he said “I’m not interested in that aspect [animal production] first. I’m interested in the plant aspect.”


  1. I think the skeptics of JHU were right in asking about more affordable and scalable sizes for vertical farms. It seems like an exceptional idea and worthy of attention (especially from the energy efficiency industry). Who is interested in pursuing it on a scalable size in existing buildings in Baltimore, instead of these architecturally expensive, newly constructed skyscrapers Despommier references? I am!

  2. Another issue I see with this is the feed for the farming. Local waste-water and solid waste could intervene with the idea that the risk of disease would be lowered, because the decomposition of particular waste’s cause disease that can be harmful, and the waste-water could have any amount of chemicals or toxins that can be taken in by the plants and left in the produce that we would then eat. If the water were to be treated, the cost would then rise even more for the project. Change is nice, but this is not a change that we need.

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