Farming the Sky
Farms in skyscrapers could help solve a looming global food crisis.
Issue: Aug 2009
Middle Eastern countries could benefit from pyramid farms (Design by Eric Ellingson & Dickson Despommier)
Imagine you live next door to a 30-storey building. You look in through the windows one day and instead of office desks, you see rows of corn and tomato plants. A trip up an elevator reveals floors with chicken, goose and duck runs. Other floors have tanks of shellfish and crustaceans.
We're talking about an entire building dedicated to farming.
Despommier dreams of making vertical farms a reality in cities
This futuristic scenario may well materialise before 2050, in 10 to 15 years. That is, if scientist Dick Despommier manages to convince enough people. The Columbia University professor says a piece of land the size of Brazil would be needed to grow enough food for the estimated three billion additions to Earth's population by that year. This amount of arable land just does not exist.
His solution: a "vertical farm", a 30-storey tower right in the middle of an urban landscape that could grow enough food to feed 50,000 people in the surrounding neighbourhood. Imagine such a Farmscraper in hot Dubai, crowded Hong Kong or busy downtown Manhattan.
The growing environment can be completely organic, and scientifically controlled. Floods, long droughts, hurricanes, and severe monsoons take their toll each year, destroying millions of tonnes of valuable crops. Despommier asks: "Don't our harvestable plants deserve the same level of comfort and protection that we now enjoy?"
The buildings can be built according to needs and available space, and will almost eliminate greenhouse gases, weather-caused crop failures, diseases from untreated biological wastes, and use no pesticides or herbicides.
There can be year-round crop production. One indoor acre is equivalent to four to six outdoor acres or more, depending on the crop.
Sheltered from inclement weather, food crops could thrive more easily
Vertical farms could greatly benefit countries in the Middle East, where some cities like Cairo have some of the highest population densities in the world. They also have some of the highest temperatures and the most acute water shortages.
Home to more than 17 million people, Cairo has one of the densest and fastest-growing populations in the world. The country's 75-million population live mainly on the banks of the Nile. This number is expected to grow to more than 120 million by 2050, straining resources to the breaking point.
UAE city states such as Dubai can benefit greatly from sky farms. Although they do not have such high population density as Egypt, they suffer from acute water shortages and temperatures that can soar beyond 45 C. Vertical farms will provide the food that today is almost entirely imported.
Television interviews with some New Yorkers highlighted people's resistance to eating plants grown in buildings and not in the countryside. On a Discovery News programme, a traditional farmer sang the praises of fresh air and sunshine.
You could imagine farmers all over singing the theme to the sitcom "Green Acres" with "Keep Manhattan just give me that countryside" as the climax.
However, weighed against transportation costs and the possible destruction of crops by bad weather, the case for the vertical farm is a strong one.
Visions of farmscrapers by French architectural firm SoA
Consider these advantages: Vertical farming returns farmland to nature, thus restoring ecosystems. It can add energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of plants and animals.
It dramatically reduces fossil fuel use by cutting out tractors, ploughs and shipping.
It can turn abandoned urban areas into food production centres. And on a larger scale, it can reduce the incidence of wars over natural resources, such as water and land for agriculture.
What's needed before millions of dollars are spent to construct or renovate an existing 30-storey building into a vertical farm, Despommier says, are prototypes just a few stories high. They should be built at leading agricultural universities and tinkered with until the concept is proven.
Despommier believes wind turbines atop green farms could provide enough energy to power the farms
While Despommier has won admirers around the world for his innovative thinking, sceptics still wonder how he's going to handle the problem of solar energy - bringing necessary light to the interior and lower floors of his agri-towers. His answer: artificial lighting from wind power.
The challenges also include finding and training indoor "farmers" who can operate what is likely to be a complex system. The technical problems aren't insurmountable - crops are being grown indoors at the South Pole, for example, albeit at great expense. And Dubai has an indoor snow-covered ski slope. If they can do that, they can build vertical farms.
All photos courtesy of The Vertical Farm Project (www.verticalfarm.com