Vertical farming in cities: savior or pipe dream?

This sketch shows the concept of the urban vertical farm, which recycles water and grown plants using hydroponics. Photo courtesy The New York Times.
This sketch shows the concept of the urban vertical farm, which recycles water and grows crops using hydroponics. Photo courtesy The New York Times.

An utterly intriguing op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times proposes a bizarre solution to the problems with our current–purportedly unsustainable–agriculture system. Instead of converting wild lands to agriculture and destroying natural habitat, we should instead look up to the skies. The idea is called vertical farming.

Dickson Despommier, a professor in the Environmental Health Sciences department at Columbia University suggests that we should take farms into cities. Build several-story-tall glass buildings and grow crops on each floor in a soil-free environment, using hydroponic technology. Shipping costs would plummet, water would be saved at a rate of up to 90 percent of traditional farming and we could allow thousands of acres of U.S. farmland to return to their natural wooded state.

Sound crazy? Right now these ideas are just theoretical. But Despommier makes his case that vertical farms may not just be a crazy last resort, but one that’s intrinsically more sustainable and economical than traditional farming. His list of pro’s for vertical farming:

1.       Crops could be grown year-round, since they’re grown indoors. They’d be protected from natural disasters like floods or droughts.

2.       Greenhouse gas emissions would decrease because these farms don’t need machines like tractors or combines, and converting farms to woods would sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.

3.       Water would be saved (above) and polluted agricultural runoff would be eliminated, since these crops wouldn’t need herbicides or pesticides.

4.       Cities would benefit from the aesthetics of the buildings and the functions of the plants themselves, which would cool the concrete jungle and absorb carbon dioxide. The vertical farms would also create jobs (but of course, they would put traditional farmers out of work).

Despommier doesn’t mention how these crops would be harvested. Would people need to get in there and harvest by hand? How would they be transporter out of these buildings? The sketch shown here suggests a tower without a lot of space for human access.

This fascinating idea seems like a potential addition to our current toolbox of farming techniques, but the idea that it will replace traditional farming seems farfetched. It will be interesting to see who (if anyone) steps forward to invest in this technology in the coming years.

Read the full article here.


Author: Christine Buckley

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