Look to the Sky for an Answer

by Amy Kochanowsky, staff editor A new solution to feeding the world’s burgeoning urban population in a sustainable way may be the introduction of vertical farms. A vertical farm is essentially a skyscraper that largely makes use of hydroponic techniques to support crops. Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor and main force behind the movement, touts the benefits in his recent book, the Vertical Farm.

Planting food in a central urban area can minimize the amount of land that needs to be converted to farmland. It can also reduce food transportation costs and associated emissions. Vertical farms limit water, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use, thereby eliminating agricultural runoff. In addition to these primary benefits Dr. Despommier mentions, there are other important implications of vertical farming.

Vertical farms can help bring people closer to their food in a literal and figurative sense. As people have moved from rural to urban areas and our society has become less agrarian-based, people lack an understanding of where their food comes from.  The ability to watch food grow and observe agricultural techniques used in the vertical farm can generate curiosity and encourage people to understand the source of their food.

Vertical farms can also solve another persistent problem in urban areas: food deserts. The term “food desert” describes an area where food is not available, not healthy, or not affordable to the people living there.  Cities – and poor neighborhoods in particular – are littered with convenience stores and fast food restaurants with high prices and low quality.  These areas tend to have relatively few full-service grocery stores or fresh produce markets.  Developing vertical farms in these residential neighborhoods can help to eliminate food deserts.

I applaud Despommier’s vision of a more sustainable future and his ability to inspire innovation. However, this concept is still in a nascent stage and there are many details to be worked out before any designs could be successfully implemented. In addition to designing the technical details of the optimal building structure, the biggest question left unanswered is who pays? While Despommier seems overly optimistic about the success of vertical farms, he also admits that there are financial issues with his plan.

Amid budget shortfalls in every level of government, a cost of $20-30 million per farm makes this project prohibitively expensive to replicate throughout the country.  There is no hint that such a farm will be profitable, so the private sector has little motivation to invest. A combination of government grants or subsidies and pure philanthropy will be necessary to pilot the vertical farm concept.

Thanks to this type of innovative thinking, our cities will undoubtedly be greener in the future. It may be in the form of large vertical farms in every city, or made by adapting portions of vertical farm concept and, for example, developing more rooftop gardens. This idea has certainly captured the imagination of many Americans.

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