November 23, 2009
Dickson 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.”
The 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.”