Raise your hand if you've heard rumblings about so-called "Vertical Farms" recently. Keep your hands up if the name "Despommier" means anything to you. Now keep your hands up if you can tell me who invented modern hydroponics, and where.
The best big idea to come around since the Internet has been attracting fans all around the world. Governments and entrepreneurs think there is great potential in hydroponic food production in the urban environment, and I am here to address some questions that crop-up in the discussion.
(FYI: Dickson Despommier, Columbia Microbiology Professor, is the Godfather of Vertical Farming; William Frederick Gericke, in the early 1930’s, pioneered hydroponics at the University of California at Berkley.)
To introduce it, Vertical Farming is hydroponic food production in cities in multi-story greenhouses. Hydroponic greenhouses exist all over the world, but none have yet been placed in a city. No multi-story hydroponic greenhouses have been built, but some huge single-story ones has been built: the largest in the United States is Eurofresh Farms in Arizona. The Vertical Farm will incorporate present-day technologies into a brand new kind of building, one that will bring food, water and energy to every person on the planet.
How many people would it feed? That depends: what do you want to eat? You want tomatoes? The average American eats 20 pounds of tomatoes per year. Blush Tomatoes, a 50-acre hydroponic greenhouse in Australia, produces 27 million pounds of tomatoes per year; that's enough tomatoes for 1.3 million people per year. Nobody has ever stacked greenhouses on top of one another, so it’s hard to say exactly what production would be like in a Vertical Farm. But we can say unequivocally that hydroponic methods are more productive than soil growing: according to the expert on hydroponic growing, Gene Giacomelli, the minimum ratio is four to one. But it gets better: after inclement weather destroyed his crop, a Florida strawberry farmer replaced his 30 acre outdoor operation with a one acre indoor hydroponics operation—one acre inside yielded more than 30 acres outdoors. The most promising part of this: we can return huge tracts of abused land to its natural setting.
How much does is cost? How much did the first cell phone cost? Was it worth it? As with all innovations, there is a learning curve. The first of anything is expensive clunky, but eventually the cost is driven down and the end product is more perfect. This is exactly what will happen with Vertical Farms.
How do you get light inside? Parabolic mirrors. UC Davis has this down pat. Every Vertical Farms will be unique in appearance because every one will be constructed for the specific food needs and natural renewable energy resources of each locale. OLED lighting is a proven technique for growing food indoors and is also an option for Vertical Farming.
Would it be energy-intensive? It would capture all passive energy—solar, wind, geothermal, hydro—and use plasma arc gasification to turn human waste and unused plant parts into energy. The Vertical Farm would augment, not take away from, its city's energy grid. Great Northern Hydroponics, in Quebec, installed a cogeneration machine, which lowered their heating costs, boosted food production and now they sell electricity back to the Ontario Power Authority, reducing the province's reliance on fossil fuels. Win, win, win.
Hydroponic food tastes bad. Wrong. Consistently, hydroponic foods win Best Tasting awards. And why? Because you can control the flavanoid concentration, which is what makes fruit taste sweet. Plus, by reducing food miles (remember, Vertical Farms would be in and around cities), growers would no longer be incentivized to pick their produce prematurely and gas it with ethylene for ripening. Vine-ripened produce tastes the best.
Vertical Farms are unnatural. This is a common point we hear. It's laughable, really. Watch: HAHAHA! First of all, define "natural." If you think "natural" means anything along the lines of our current industrial-agricultural method, then you're simply ignoring facts: agriculture is the number one source of water pollution (EPA), the need for farmland results in rampant deforestation and ecosystem loss, agricultural methods today separate producer from consumer to the point where swaths of the population believe that food comes from the grocery store instead of the ground; the list goes on, and it's ugly. The only good thing to come out of the unnatural way we approach agriculture today is food. Furthermore, the way we produce food is antiquated. Essentially, we have been farming the same way for 12,000 years. The time has come to implement human technologies to satisfy human needs; let's keep producing the one good part about agriculture—food—and stop all the bad things. Unnatural? What's unnatural is governments letting millions of people starve when we have the technology to feed them.
Ultimately, pursuing Vertical Farms is a question of value and priority. The United States of America spent over $700 billion on “National Defense” efforts in 2008. To be over simplistic, what is more important to you, the reader: killing people or saving people? The planet’s future hangs in the balance.
(The best resources for Vertical Farm info are www.verticalfarm.com and www.verticalfarm.blogspot.com)