According to the Vertical Farm Project, by the year 2050 the earth’s human population will have increased by around 3 billion, and 80% will reside in urban centers. The project estimates 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than the area of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. Though at its core, the project asks; “How are we to avoid this impending disaster”?
The man behind this project, Dr. Dickson Despommier, believes the answer is simple – farm vertically.
Former Columbia professor Dr. Despommier (and expert in microbiology and public health in environmental health sciences), is widely considered the “father” of Vertical Farming. And he has travelled the world advising governments and advocating for solutions to environmental problems.
I spoke to him from his home in New Jersey. The interview was scheduled to run for around 30 minutes, however we spoke for over an hour and a half. The text below is an edited version of this conversation. His enthusiasm and drive is infectious, and in an already overcrowded, overheating world, what he had to say seems to make a lot of sense.
Read about The Virtues of Vertical Farming (URBNFUTR).
For those who have never heard of the concept, can you please briefly explain the main premise of vertical farming?
Very simply it’s hightech hydroponic greenhouses stacked on top of one another that grow food within an urban landscape.
There’s been growing interest in vertical farming since around 2008, increasing with the release of your book, “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century”, in 2010. What has changed over the last few years?
When the hardcover version of The Vertical Farm was published there were no vertical farms. Now they exist in Japan, in Sweden, in England, in South Korea and in the US. Most are still in the project phase. They are proofs of concept.
A few weeks ago Plantagon began construction on a 17 story structure in Linköping, Sweden. The three story plant in Chicago used to be a beef meatpacking facility. The one in Japan (www.Nuvege.com) is advertising radiation-free food. So basically in a very short time we now have these Vertical Farms going up around the world.
See another video on Plantagon’s development here.
What is the most important reason in your opinion for rethinking the way we view agriculture and sustainability, and why is vertical farming the best solution?
Around 85-95% of crops grown indoors survive. This is because you can control everything inside; you can control the temperature and are not dependent on the weather, climate or other external factors. I asked a farmer I spoke with how many crop harvests had been successful, and he counted – just three out of 20! With statistics like that it just seems more and more impractical to grow everything outside.
Around 85-95% of crops grown indoors survive. Tweet Share
Farmers love farming; they want to produce food for people to consume. The farmers I’ve spoken to, and I’ve spoken to a lot of them, are interested in vertical farming, because they can continue to do this, and also be working indoors. And by moving these crops indoors, we no longer require soil. You tell farmers they don’t need soil to grow crops and their faces look like you’ve told them the secret to life.
Well, I’m very surprised by that too…
But you don’t need soil. If you needed soil then why don’t we run out of soil? Why don’t you need to get new soil every time you plant crops?
You need water and nutrients. But not the soil. [Moving indoors] would allow farmlands to turn back into whatever they were, whatever ecosystem they were before, which is usually hardwood forest. This re-growth of the forests would eventually reduce the carbon dioxide in the air. And as we’ve seen in Costa Rica, regeneration of rainforests can happen so quickly – it’s really a case to watch for how quickly you can give back the land.
And of course by using taller buildings to accommodate, this lowers our ecological footprint, and our impact on the planet.
Josh Tickell, director of Fields of Fuel says that “Vertical farms will be remembered as one of the preeminent breakthroughs of the early 21st century”, – do you agree?
I once opened a fortune cookie that had the following saying inside: “Nothing is impossible to a willing heart”.
I kept that on the side of my desk for the whole time that I taught at Columbia. As long as you believe strongly in something, then you’ll continue to work on it. And that is what I guess the definition of passion is. You have a belief in something.
When I first coined the term vertical farm, I was struck by the fact that a) I actually said those two words together for the first time, I didn’t see anybody else using those terms together, and b) how good it felt. I’m stunned that this idea should have actually materialized out of a classroom activity [at Columbia University] which was an act of desperation on my part to mollify the students because they’d worked very hard on a project that didn’t work, and I wanted them to know that it had hope. They wanted rooftop gardening to feed New York – and that’s not going to do it. So I said, just move it indoors and let’s see what happens. And that’s how it came about.
It’s given me huge amounts of joy and satisfaction knowing that this is something I did. I’m responsible for this thing and it’s actually happening. It just doesn’t seem possible, but there it is.
You’ve traveled widely sharing your expertise on solutions to environmental problems with governments around the world. Which city or country do you think is most suited to vertical farms and becoming, in your words, “self-reliant”?
The place that I visited that is in desperate need of this is the Middle East, because of the desertification of a lot of those countries. In many places they don’t get any rain at all and they don’t have any soil. Therefore they don’t grow any green vegetables, unless there’s very scant water around like in Jordan. So this technology really needs to go over there; they can afford to do it and they need to do it. So that’s one place that I would love to see vertical farming established forever. Other places include those that are technologically gifted. It’s already in Korea, I know it’s going to spread in Japan, I’d love to see it in Iceland.
They have tons of geothermal energy so they can afford to grow plants using grow lights that won’t cost them a cent. And they can grow them all year long in as big a building as they like, and they can have fresh produce that they need, that they don’t have, because they have six months of darkness over there. And the same is true in Sweden and I’m sure that’s why it’s happened there, and in Norway and Holland and Denmark and England. So I think that those countries will adapt to this very nicely.
You’ve been called a “futurist” – what does that term mean to you?
Well I’m very flattered to be called a futurist; a visionary is also another one that often gets used. But I think as scientists we are all futurists because we are trying to invent the future. So therefore the impetus of the natural world is what I appreciate most. But I also love living so close to such an amazing place like New York City. So ultimately I have to judge my futurist activities based on what I would like my future to be. I’m flattered to be called a futurist or a visionary but it’s motivated by very simple self-satisfying things and that is to allow me to continue to enjoy nature. So that’s basically why I do this.
What are the next steps in the Virtual Farming movement?
I would like to see the vertical farm become the centerpiece for something I call the eco-city. Now I know that word has been tossed around a lot by people – but without fully understanding what an eco-system is. You can’t be an ecosystem without producing your own food.
You can’t be an ecosystem without producing your own food. Tweet Share
So if you wanted to imitate the best features of the natural world, that is the ecosystem that evolved on this planet for the last 4.9 billion years, and use the city as a technological equivalent to an ecosystem, then the first thing it has to do is make its own food.
And there’s only one way to do that and that’s through urban agriculture in all of its varieties. That is gardens and big buildings with food inside and three story versions and empty lots that are used in the summer – all of this has validity towards making a city more independent of its food supply from the outside. And the closer it gets to supplying its basic needs from within, the closer it can evolve towards being a self-contained unit. And self-contained units are functioning ecosystems.
So I guess that aspect of being a futurist is perhaps the most encouraging because if people accuse me of being a futurist, that means that there will be a future. So let there be a future. And let it be a lot better than the one we would have looked at 20 years ago. I would like to know that the future’s going to be brighter than the past.
What is your message to people who read this interview and want to act and do something to help the vertical farming cause?
To people who just want to join this movement and get involved, I’d say find a group in your local area that’s growing food in an urban setting, it doesn’t matter whether it’s indoors or outdoors, and just join in. Just want to do it with them and learn all you can about it and do it for the right reasons. Do it because you want safe, reliable, mobile food. And don’t give up. It’s discouraging sometimes because of all these roadblocks that are put in the way of us. But don’t give up. Nothing’s impossible to a willing heart. If you think it’s the right thing to do just keep doing it.
Check out this excellent video of Dr. Despommier talking about this issue on Big Think in 2009.