Gallery: BOOK REVIEW: The Vertical Farm by Dick Despommier

Although there are no existing vertical farms, Despommier says that we have all the technology we need to create them -- we are just lacking in funding.
Although there are no existing vertical farms, Despommier says that we have all the technology we need to create them -- we are just lacking in funding.

The Vertical Farm is an expanded edition of Despommier’s earlier essay on vertical farming, which explains the many advantages of vertical farming. As Despommier rallies, vertical farms could enable every country in the world, regardless of climate or agricultural land, to be able to grow food in an efficient and sustainable manner. They could also save energy, reduce toxins, save water, provide new employment opportunities, restore ecosystems, and much more.

Granted, very few vertical farms have actually been built — there are a few small trial projects that utilize hydroponic growing techniques. Vertical farming is still largely theoretical, however Despommier makes the case that all the technology needed is available and at hand – it’s just there’s no funding for it yet. As Despommier says, “Every new idea will cost a lot to create, witness the cell phone and plasma screen TV, but as more of them become constructed, their cost will go down.”

Interestingly back during the summer, there were rumors going around that Dr. Despommier was working in collaboration with Weber Thompson on a vertical farm in Newark, NJ. As to the rumors, Despommier says they are just that — and that there are no plans for a vertical farm in New Jersey at this time.

In Despommier’s vision, vertical farming is a completely sustainable process where water is recycled and filtered, crops are organically raised, and no GMOs ever set foot within the door. Plant failure and diseases will be minimized by making the farms into “P2″-like facilities (which is a level of biosafety), in order to minimize infectious diseases and more unwanted pathogens. In addition, because vertical farms can be located anywhere, their proximity to urban centers could drastically reduce food miles and provide green collar jobs in agriculture.

Concerns about vertical farming include the transfer of farming into a factory, which would further mechanize and automate our food production. But Despommier believes that farming has been a blight on the natural landscape for 12,000 years, and that by producing food in vertical farms, “it will allow us for the first time to feed everyone on earth and still return land to its original ecological function.” For Despommier, the traditional agricultural system is a complete failure all over the world, as the system has not been able to efficiently produce enough food for the global population and because it operates at such a large cost to our environment. He believes that vertical farming will allow us to balance our food system with the rest of nature.

+ The Vertical Farm

Lead Images © Marlene Bloom and Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press


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  1. Juliana Arthuso December 13, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Agreed with the fella that said: “Rooftop farming is much more simple. You can grow stuff in simple containers with no real modifications to the roof other than making it strong enough to support all the weight. Anyone can grow stuff in a flower pot on their porch or balcony or backyard”.

    We should encourage people to plant their own things, instead of building this extremally expensive pyramid that will waster energy and resources. This is just Architect BS. They want something that looks new and futuristic, but they don’t see the solution right under our nose. Urban Agriculture. People working together. That’s all it takes.

  2. Hyltje Doede Zondervan March 21, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    I grew up and worked on a farm in Canada till i was 21 years of age. I have lived and worked in cities and refugee camps as an Aid Worker and really believe these Tower Farms could work! I love the concept! GO Dick!

  3. afilip August 5, 2011 at 12:33 am

    I think this is a great concept! Despommier needs to think smaller first though to get this idea “off the ground”.
    There should be experiments to see if retrofitted empty warehouses or buildings around urban areas can serve a better purpose then building a whole new center.
    These buildings need to include solar panels & green roofs with rain collection to offset energy & water costs. If these buildings are spread out around the cities, they could collect local food waste to turn into compost, and use trunks that run on biodiesel grown at the farm! I bet you this wouldn’t be a problem if some system was set up that if people (like restaurants) supply their food waste, they will get returns with the food being grown.

  4. lazyreader August 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    If you have to account for your costs consider building a highrise building in a large city.

    A similar proposal by Ken Yeang proposes that instead of hermetically sealed mass produced agriculture that plant life should be cultivated within open air, mixed-use skyscrapers for climate control and consumption (i.e. a personal or communal planting space as per the needs of the individual). Which may work because as we all know Privatization works better. Even if you try to grow food in a highrise you still need lots of fertilizer. To supplement they would compost the material food waste that’s inedible. Still you would require lots of compost beyond capacity to replenish it. The people that ate the food to begin with can compost but what if residents decide to keep it for themselves. Similarly, if the power needs of the vertical farm are met by fossil fuels, the environmental effect may be a net loss since you have to power every floor with lights, sensors, pumps and other devices. Even scientist and anti-global warming activist George Monbiot calculated that the cost of providing enough supplementary light to grow the grain for a single loaf would be almost 10 dollars.

    Rooftop farming on the other hand is much more simple. You can grow stuff in simple containers with no real modifications to the roof other than making it strong enough to support all the weight. Anyone can grow stuff in a flower pot on their porch or balcony or backyard. It’s simple and can be done even in climates that may not permit those types of fruit/vegetables using free sunlight and little money.

  5. lazyreader June 1, 2011 at 11:19 am

    How can Despommier be a foremost expert on vertical farms? Unless of course he actually has working models or prototypes. How can he even be called an expert if he’s never built one before? I wager he’s never even bothered to determine whether it’s financially feasible to build one.

  6. lazyreader May 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

    The vertical farm, which has been largely discredited by real scientists and economists as impractical, expensive, energy intensive and useless. A detailed cost analysis of start-up costs, operation costs, and revenue has not been done (they never bothered to do one). The extra cost of lighting, heating, and powering the vertical farm may negate any of the cost benefits received by the decrease in transportation expenses. The economic and environmental benefits of vertical farming rest partly on the concept of minimizing food miles, the distance that food travels from farm to consumers. Transportation is only a minor contributor to the economic and environmental costs of supplying food to urban populations. Food Miles are, at best, a marketing fad. The initial building costs will be easily over $100 million for a highrise in major cities like New York, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Madrid, or London. For instance, in North America, corn farmers currently gross approximately $1000 per hectare. It is difficult to imagine a few hectares of vertical farm, with its enormous expenses, profiting from growing corn, or any other staple crop. It would be like using a Rolls Royce as a tractor. As the normal amount of light, which is over 90 percent utilized by field crops, is being split between 30 or so floors, ten to forty watts per square foot of supplemental light will be required to illuminate the interior of large towers. According to Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University, believes that the huge power demands of vertical farming would be too expensive and uncompetitive with traditional farms using only natural light which is essentially free. Regular greenhouse produce is known to create more greenhouse gases than field produce largely due to higher energy use/kg of produce. With vertical farms requiring much greater energy/kg of produce, mainly through increased lighting, than regular greenhouses, the amount of pollution created will be much higher than that from field produce.

  7. Ruth Kirchmann May 19, 2011 at 6:06 am

    Personally I think all those example images look more like buildings than actual vertical farms. A lot of waste of space and unnecessary structure!!!! If this is the future of farming – I’m scared!

  8. Holcim Awards December 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Great ideas. The projects should be submitted to the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction.

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