One Idea to Help the Planet

POLINA BOGOLOMOVA
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON

Imagine a vibrant city with its roads, multi-flat buildings and endless traffic. Now imagine a farm: fruits, vegetables, grains and other sundry edible goodies. Two completely different worlds, right? What if I told you a farm could be perfectly incorporated into a city jungle without taking up much space and without exposing foodstuffs to urban pollutants? What if I told you such a farm could produce up to two tons of food daily? Such farms not only exist, but are also rapidly spreading to urban areas around the world. These so-called Vertical Farms are an exciting solution to the world’s constantly worsening urban food-dependency problem.

Architects Rem Koolhaas, John Hix, and Ken Yeang, as well as the writer James Sholto Douglas gave birth to this idea at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, for the next several decades little attention was paid to it as vertical farming was considered inappropriately expensive, unproductive, and unnecessary. Only in 1999, drawing upon substantial research on Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) at Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and on Urban Agriculture at Columbia University, Dickson Despommier, professor of Public Health at Columbia University, revitalized public attention to vertical farming. The legend claims this forward-looking and widely criticized scientist was inspired by Judi Barrett’s famous children’s book, Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House. However, it took almost a decade longer for the idea to become a successful practice.

Despommier used mass media to explain that in a world affected by global warming and rapid population growth, we would not be able to provide food for all without rampant deforestation and pollution. He insisted that farming up and creating a controlled, self-sufficient, and efficient ecosystem within cities was the most productive way to reduce urban food vulnerability.

Despommier not only advocated for these, but he has also created multiple vertical farm designs. A vertical farm is generally a multi-storied variation of a greenhouse, where plants are grown on multi-leveled beds of soil or tanks of water. These beds or tanks are constantly supplied with clean water, nutrients, light and air through a system of pipes and ventilators. Such a system allows for efficient use of water, soil, and nutrients, while also enabling multiple harvest seasons with a low carbon footprint and fewer fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, vertical farming is suitable for aquaponics systems, in which edible water organisms are raised together with the plants. In aquaponics systems, plants are grown on top of the water tanks where the fish live. The fish provide nutrients for the plants, which in turn clean the water. Both plants and fish can be consumed or sold on the market. Similar systems have already been used in the Controlled Environment Agriculture facilities at the University of Arizona, Cornell University and the North Pole. However, those facilities never implied a multi-story building and farm skyscrapers similar to those Despommier and his students envisioned.

Until Oct. 2008, many doubted Despommier’s vision of vertical farms, citing the tremendous energy requirements, especially for light and recycling, as its downfall. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, emphasized that to provide the energy necessary to grow foodstuffs in a vertical farm at a reasonable cost, the facility would have to rely on power plants that emit tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Such reliance could offset vertical farming’s environmental benefits. Additionally, sceptics argue the food from vertical farms would be uncompetitive in the market due to the farms’ high startup costs.

Such arguments, however, failed to stop Despommier. By 2008, he realized places like India, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates were more likely to invest in the idea of vertical farming simply because they face more complex food security issues than the United States. Additionally, new sources of energy, such as wind and solar, presented viable alternatives to traditional power plants. As electricity prices from renewable energy sources were going down, the idea of vertical farming became more realistic and attractive to investors.

The first commercially viable vertical farm was built in Singapore, a country which imports up to 90 percent of its food and has very limited land resources to sustain a productive and sufficient agricultural sector. Called Go-Gro, this vertical farm is using moving belts to rotate plant beds, which distributes natural light evenly and reduces the need for artificial lighting. The farm recycles all water and nutrients it uses and grows its plants without fertilizers and pesticides. It is able to supply one ton of certified organic foodstuffs daily, and has a footprint equivalent of only 60 square feet, which is roughly the size of a standard bathroom. The farm’s produce has been a tremendous success among local consumers, despite its higher price.

Singapore’s success inspired Saudi Arabia to construct the first vertical farm in the Middle East. This farm uses condensed moisture extracted from the air to supply plants with water. The country hopes to sustain these vertical farms by using solar and wind power. Finally, in 2011 Chicago launched what is now the U.S.’  largest vertical farming company, FarmHere.

Vertical farming, once a novel idea, is slowly becoming a worldwide movement. If more vertical farms—farms that use renewable energy, recycle water and the organic waste they produce, eliminate pesticides and fertilizers and enable consumers to buy locally—are built across the world, we might be able to preserve this planet a little longer. Who knows: maybe one day we will live in houses that are small ecosystems themselves, which have the potential to supply all of our needs without waste or pollution. Here we go: another idea.