the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

Vertical Farming: A Great Idea Goes Too Far

4 Comments

Taking factory farming to another level.

Taking factory farming to another level.

In my last blog post I explained my opposition to urban farming. To sum it up in less than 1300 words, our food distribution system is relatively efficient with the greatest inefficiencies existing in the last mile of transportation, industrial agriculture takes up too much land and in urban areas, that land is better used for dense urban development.

This vertical farm in Vancouver shows the increased efficiency of vertical farming. (Image from vancouverfoodster.com)

This vertical farm in Vancouver shows the increased efficiency of vertical farming.
(Image from vancouverfoodster.com)

Vertical farming has the potential to remove the need for large amounts of land, which would change one of the key points in my opposition against urban agriculture. So what do I think of vertical farming? Vertical farming is a troubled concept, a combination of innovative genius and maniacal stupidity. This duality results from the fact that vertical farming isn’t very well defined. The concept is great, but there are those who want to take the concept beyond the limits of reality.

The basic concept of vertical farming is growing vegetables in a series of planting trays that are stacked vertically. These plants can be grown in soil, hydroponically or in the case of the proposed vertical garden in Newark, aeroponically. The hydroponic and aeroponic growth method makes it possible to use much less water, pesticide and fertilizer. Many of the negative impacts of agriculture will be mitigated. Light can be provided by mechanically rotating trays in and out of the sunlight or provided with artificial grow lights. Hypothetically in a 10 foot tall space, it would be possible to grow 10 sets of crops (obviously not corn or wheat). In terms of land space, this is incredibly efficient. There will be certain costs that such a system has to account for, such as the vertical structure, that traditional agriculture does not require. At the same time, vertical farming isn’t going to require giant combines and harvesters. I don’t know how the economics of this plays out, but the concept is genius.

The problem with vertical farming is when it transforms from a way to get 10 sets of crops in 10 vertical feet to a way to get 500 sets of crops in 500 vertical feet. If stacking crops is good, stacking more is better, right? The problem here is that as these vertical farms get taller, the intensity of construction increases. With increased intensity comes increased costs.

And people think the cost of living in the city is expensive now. (Image from Vincent Callebaut Architectures)

And people think the cost of living in the city is expensive now.
(Image from Vincent Callebaut Architectures)

There is a certain type of architect that seems to revel in insanity. Particularly famous ones include Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and the bane of my travel into Manhattan, Santiago Calatrava. These architects design sculptures to themselves without thought of context or cost (particularly in the case of Calatrava). For them, the metaphor is more important than the human experience. This type of architect has latched on to the concept of vertical gardens and morphed them into the surreal. Proposals show giant skyscraper gardens that dwarf their neighborhoods and even some of the tallest buildings in the world. They present a radical departure from the modern urban experience that would move our civilization towards a green utopia. This vision is completely unrealistic. The costs of these projects will likely prevent their construction and certainly would make the crops more expensive than the average person can afford. We can make our agriculture more sustainable without resorting to 100 story vertical farms. Unfortunately the vision espoused by these architects has essentially overpowered the simple vision of crops stacked on top of each other.

In some ways, this isn’t all that surprising. Dickson Despommier, professor and author who runs The Vertical Farm has several videos where although he clarifies that tall structures are not necessary, he proceeds to show examples of towering farms. As with many things, it seems that images of reasonably scaled buildings don’t have the same visual impact of these more extreme proposals.

In the end, there is a very good future for vertical farming (ignoring the delusional designs). These farms have the potential to significantly decrease our use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water. The ability to reduce water usage is of significant importance for places like Arizona, New Mexico and California. Reductions in the use of fertilizer and any stormwater runoff might allow the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water to disappear. Decreased land use will allow land that is currently being used for farming to be converted back to natural uses. These are incredible advancements.

The small footprint required by vertical farming means that these facilities can be located within urban areas without significantly interrupting walkability. Given the transportation efficiencies that currently exist, I don’t see any need to locate vertical farms in cities. Though it can fit in urban areas, I still feel that the future of vertical farming is rural. However, these could be great complexes. Concentrations of vertical farms along the exurban fringe could not only provide the benefits mentioned earlier, but could also provide enough concentrated rural employment to allow many of the dying towns across our country to have a chance at revival.

I look forward to the growth of vertical farms, just keep reasonably scaled.

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4 thoughts on “Vertical Farming: A Great Idea Goes Too Far

  1. How are you so sure that vertical farming won’t one day become economically and environmentally competitive with “regular” farming, even after factoring the extra use of construction material and resources? And if vertical or urban farming helps improve food security and reduce food deserts in urban neighborhoods, isn’t that a victory in and of itself?

  2. The main question is how tall can it be built before no longer being economically feasible. I suspect low-rise vertical farming systems are viable. There may be some technological change in the future that allows for gigantic vertical farms, though I am doubtful about that.

    I really don’t think vertical farming is a solution to food deserts. It’s much better to deal with this by creating farmers markets (even if the farmer is from a vertical farm on the edges of town). This would not only allow for fresh food to get to the neighborhood, but would also serve as a public space around which the community can further develop.

  3. Thanks for bringing nuance to an otherwise widely accepted, trendy idea. I appreciate your notion that the concept of vertical farms , which I assume was developed in cities, can be most useful in a different context.

  4. Humans need calories, not just herbs.

    Plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight to calories. Or in the case of vertical farms, LED light to calories.

    To produce an acre’s worth of food from LED light takes AT LEAST as much energy as what’s in an acre of sunlight. Actually, it takes more, because electricity generators are never 100% efficient, and neither are LEDs.

    Since all of our energy resources ultimately come from the sun, I’d argue that normal agriculture is a more efficient way to capture the sun’s energy and turn it into food energy for us to eat.

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