Vertical Farming: It’s Coming to Save the Day, But Will It?

Posted by on Jun 29, 2014 in Gardening | Comments


Experts estimate that by the year 2050 our world will be populated by 9 billion people. That’s 9 billion hungry mouths to feed. How will we do it? The agricultural system as it stands isn’t capable of supporting that many people. Something needs to change, and Dr. Dickson Despommier seems to have the answer: vertical farming.

Vertical Farm

Photos via FarmedHere, one of the largest vertical farms in the U.S.

What is vertical farming anyway?

Despommier is an award-winning professor of microbiology at Columbia University and is the touted father and inventor of vertical farming. His proposal is to move the farms to the cities, where 80% of the future population will reside. He explains that food can be grown in skyscrapers using a combination of hydroponics and LED lighting to feed the crops from start to finish. This method of farming will be completely organic, 100% local and so efficient that it can feed every human on Earth, with some food to spare.

How it works

Vertical farming is more than producing food indoors in an urban landscape. It’s a proposed answer to the pending food crisis our world is facing. Despommier describes vertical farming as a system “in which a wide variety of produce is harvested in quantity enough to sustain even the largest of cities without significantly relying on resources beyond the city limits.”

In theory, these farms would be entirely self-sufficient, taking energy from the sun and wind, as well as composting spent plants to produce energy. Used water would even be recycled back into the system, saving more water for personal use. This system would not only grow crops year-round, but also raise livestock, such as poultry and pigs, to meet the needs of the growing urban population.

Another huge factor: The vertical farms would take up considerably less space than traditional farms, as one acre of vertical farm can grow the equivalent of 4-6 acres on a traditional farm. Despommier says, “one vertical farm with an architectural footprint of one square city block and rising up to 30 stories (approximately 3 million square feet) could provide enough nutrition (2,000 calories/day/person) to comfortably accommodate the needs of 10,000 people.” With that type of efficiency, feeding an entire city of people with vertical farms is very possible.

plants growing under grow light

Advantages of vertical farming

  • Totally organic: The closed and controlled environment means there would be no insects, weeds or fungus to combat with chemicals. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers would be a thing of the past.
  • The system is closed and protected. There’s no risk of losing crops to insect infestations, fungus, bacteria, weeds, drought, floods, snap freezes or natural disasters.
  • No more GMOs. When crop loss due to weather and insects is taken out of the question, so are Genetically Modified Organisms. There’s no need to use special plants genetically modified to withstand a problem that doesn’t exist.
  • Practically any type of vegetation can be grown year-round, so produce would be in season all the time.
  • If the wrinkles in cost are ironed out, it will bring down the cost of fresh produce, making organic, fresh food affordable for any budget.
  • Vertical farms would use 70% less water than traditional farming.
  • The food would be 100% local.
  • Smaller carbon footprint: Unlike traditional farms, vertical farms wouldn’t need fuel-guzzling heavy farm machinery or transportation by truck, ship or plane, which will cut down on pollution.
  • There would be no need to transport food great distances, decreasing the amount of food spoilage in transit.
  • Increase in jobs within the city.
  • More efficient: less energy and space used to grow more crops.
  • No toxic water runoff polluting waterways.
  • Less land used, 1 acre in vertical farming = 4-6 acres of land.

Basil growing under grow lights

Disadvantages of vertical farming

  • Cost of production:  A skyscraper-sized vertical farm would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and equip for agricultural needs.
  • Cost of maintenance: Urban property is much more costly than rural property, and the cost to run thousands of LED lights, keep the temperature perfectly ambient and supply water to plants will outweigh the cost to run a traditional farm unless they can find a way to make the energy renewable and self-sustaining.
  • Pollination problems: Insects pollinate 75% of the world’s crops. In an insect-free environment, pollination would have to be done by employees, which is very labor-intensive and would drive up the cost of the resulting produce.
  • Processing problems: Vertical farming doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the vegetation produced there will still need to be processed. Fruits like tomatoes will need to be transported to another facility to be processed into things like ketchup, sauce and juice. If cost of production is already high, sending the crops to another facility for processing will drive it up even more.
  • Dependence on technology: Loss of power to the facility for even a day could be catastrophic to production. The plants are reliant on the perfect temperature, air quality and lights that the artificial environment supplies, and if it were to be cut off, those crops could die.
  • Furthermore, the inner workings of these farms will be controlled by cell phones, laptops and tablets, which depend on working networks. If the technology needed to run these structures were to fail, the farm would be at stake.
  • Putting traditional farmers out of work: Due to the use of technology for plant needs, vertical farms need far fewer employees traditional farms need. Their efficiency and location within the city, where the customers live, would put a lot of farmers out of work.
  • Currently not an all-encompassing system. Not every aspect of farming makes sense to do indoors in urban areas. Such as growing big crops like grains and raising large livestock.

While the advantages are impressive, the disadvantages raise some serious questions.

Although it’s in the plan to include livestock in vertical farms, there’s still the question of ethics. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should? Should animals be raised indoors in an artificial environment, cut off from their natural life? Where do we distinguish between an urban vertical farm that’s efficient and planet-saving, and an inhumane and unnatural factory farm?

And would the invention of vertical farming have a devastating effect on farming families and rural communities? Can vertical farms be the leaders in renewable energy and self-sufficiency on a scale that hasn’t been implemented before? It all lies in the execution, and those questions will come to light as these farmscrapers come to fruition.

The idea of vertical farming is still just that, an idea. While it has been implemented on a small scale in many cities, it will still take years before the wrinkles get ironed out and it can be tried out on a large scale. As it stands, vertical farming would solve many of the world’s problems, but it brings up many questions that beg to be answered. It looks as if only time well tell if vertical farming is the epic answer to our pressing food supply needs.

What do you think of the idea of vertical farming? Can it save this starving planet?