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Urban Farmers

September 3, 2009


In a recent post entitled New Approach to Food Security Applauded, I discussed how leaders from the G8 countries are supporting a new approach to agriculture aimed at strengthening local food production in developing countries. In that post, I quoted Norman E. Borlaug, a professor at Texas A&M University who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world food supply. He wrote: “Consider that current agricultural productivity took 10,000 years to attain the production of roughly six billion gross tons of food per year. Today, nearly seven billion people consume that stockpile almost in its entirety every year. Factor in growing prosperity and nearly three billion new mouths by 2050, and you quickly see how the crudest calculations suggest that within the next four decades the world’s farmers will have to double production.” [“Farmers Can Feed the World,” Wall Street Journal, 30 July 2009].


New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof worries that the need to increase food production has caused the agricultural sector to “lose its soul” [“Food for the Soul,” 22 August 2009]. He writes, “I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul.” Kristof reflects on his own childhood on a farm and longs for those bygone days. Such reminiscences he writes makes him “wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms, which also offer decent and varied lives for the animals themselves. … In contrast, a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cages, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food — a calorie factory, without any soul.” Borlaug doesn’t come down quite as harshly as Kristof on the agricultural industry. He counters:


Some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only local organic food. People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the world’s hungry — 25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.”


Kristof is forced to admit that “industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “American agriculture policy and subsidies have favored industrialization and consolidation, but there are signs that the Obama administration Agriculture Department under Secretary Tom Vilsack is becoming more friendly to small producers. I hope that’s right.”


Both Kristof and Borlaug understand one simple truth — people must eat. Dickson D. Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, claims that differences about the future of agricultural, like those expressed by Kristof and Borlaug, may become moot. He claims that “if climate change and population growth progress at their current pace, in roughly 50 years farming as we know it will no longer exist’ [“A Farm on Every Floor,” New York Times, 23 August 2009]. Since there are now more people living in urban than rural areas around the globe, Despommier believes that farms should also move to the city. “There is a solution that is surprisingly within reach,” he writes. “Move most farming into cities, and grow crops in tall, specially constructed buildings. It’s called vertical farming.” Moving crops indoors would remove them from the ravages of disasters like drought and flooding. Despommier continues:


The floods and droughts that have come with climate change are wreaking havoc on traditional farmland. Three recent floods (in 1993, 2007 and 2008) cost the United States billions of dollars in lost crops, with even more devastating losses in topsoil. Changes in rain patterns and temperature could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the end of the century. What’s more, population increases will soon cause our farmers to run out of land. The amount of arable land per person decreased from about an acre in 1970 to roughly half an acre in 2000 and is projected to decline to about a third of an acre by 2050, according to the United Nations. With billions more people on the way, before we know it the traditional soil-based farming model developed over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option. Irrigation now claims some 70 percent of the fresh water that we use. After applying this water to crops, the excess agricultural runoff, contaminated with silt, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, is unfit for reuse. The developed world must find new agricultural approaches before the world’s hungriest come knocking on its door for a glass of clean water and a plate of disease-free rice and beans.”


His ideas for high-rise farms take advantage of both hydroponic and aeroponic technologies.


Both methods are soil-free. Hydroponics allows us to grow plants in a water-and-nutrient solution, while aeroponics grows them in a nutrient-laden mist. These methods use far less water than conventional cultivation techniques, in some cases as much as 90 percent less. Now apply the vertical farm concept to countries that are water-challenged — the Middle East readily comes to mind — and suddenly things look less hopeless. For this reason the world’s very first vertical farm may be established there, although the idea has garnered considerable interest from architects and governments all over the world.”


Despommier admits that he is not merely promoting an academic idea. He’s started a business that builds vertical farms and he certainly wants that business to succeed. It was academic arguments, however, that led him to believe that vertical farming was commercially viable.


There is a rising consumer demand for locally grown vegetables and fruits, as well as intense urban-farming activity in cities throughout the United States. Vertical farms would not only revolutionize and improve urban life but also revitalize land that was damaged by traditional farming. For every indoor acre farmed, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state (mostly hardwood forest). Abandoned farms do this free of charge, with no human help required. A vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem, in which waste was recycled and the water used in hydroponics and aeroponics was recaptured by dehumidification and used over and over again. The technologies needed to create a vertical farm are currently being used in controlled-environment agriculture facilities but have not been integrated into a seamless source of food production in urban high-rise buildings. Such buildings, by the way, are not the only structures that could house vertical farms. Farms of various dimensions and crop yields could be built into a variety of urban settings — from schools, restaurants and hospitals to the upper floors of apartment complexes. By supplying a continuous quantity of fresh vegetables and fruits to city dwellers, these farms would help combat health problems, like Type II diabetes and obesity, that arise in part from the lack of quality produce in our diet. The list of benefits is long.”


Feeding people, of course, is the biggest reason that Despommier promotes vertical farming; but he believes that environmental benefits from the practice are also significant.


Vertical farms would produce crops year-round that contain no agro-chemicals. Fish and poultry could also be raised indoors. The farms would greatly reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions, since they would eliminate the need for heavy farm machinery and trucks that deliver food from farm to fork. (Wouldn’t it be great if everything on your plate came from around the corner, rather than from hundreds to thousands of miles away?) Vertical farming could finally put an end to agricultural runoff, a major source of water pollution. Crops would never again be destroyed by floods or droughts. New employment opportunities for vertical farm managers and workers would abound, and abandoned city properties would become productive once again. Vertical farms would also make cities more pleasant places to live. The structures themselves would be things of beauty and grace. In order to allow plants to capture passive sunlight, walls and ceilings would be completely transparent. So from a distance, it would look as if there were gardens suspended in space. City dwellers would also be able to breathe easier — quite literally. Vertical farms would bring a great concentration of plants into cities. These plants would absorb carbon dioxide produced by automobile emissions and give off oxygen in return.”


Vertical farms certainly don’t conjure up any of the wistful images discussed by Kristof; but they do address many of his concerns. I suspect Professor Borlaug would also approve of vertical farms; although he might question how the world’s many poor people are going to afford to build the infrastructure needed to support vertical farming. Despommier does address the money issue:


Most of the financing should come from private sources, including groups controlling venture-capital funds. The real money would flow once entrepreneurs and clean-tech investors realize how much profit there is to be made in urban farming. Imagine a farm in which crop production is not limited by seasons or adverse weather events. Sales could be made in advance because crop-production levels could be guaranteed, thanks to the predictable nature of indoor agriculture. An actual indoor farm developed at Cornell University growing hydroponic lettuce was able to produce as many as 68 heads per square foot per year. At a retail price in New York of up to $2.50 a head for hydroponic lettuce, you can easily do the math and project profitability for other similar crops.”


Clearly, vertical farms are more likely to be built in developed states than in developing ones. I never underestimate the cleverness of entrepreneurs, however, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see vertical farms rising in developing countries. Countries in Africa that suffer through cyclical periods of drought and famine could certainly benefit from the technologies discussed by Despommier. Vertical farms would not only provide better food security but much needed jobs for farmers who now struggle to scrape a living from poor land. You might well ask, “If vertical farming is such a good idea, why isn’t it being done?” Despommier addresses that question as well.


When people ask me why the world still does not have a single vertical farm, I just raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders. Perhaps people just need to see proof that farms can grow several stories high. As soon as the first city takes that leap of faith, the world’s first vertical farm could be less than a year away from coming to the aid of a hungry, thirsty world. Not a moment too soon.”


As I noted in the post mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the world, no matter how technologically sophisticated it becomes, will always be trapped in an agrarian age because we all need to eat. Vertical farms, however, may well prove to be the nexus between the agrarian age and the information age.

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