On Food: Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, on skyscrapers filled with vegetables
With Thanksgiving approaching, we’re turning an eye to the question of food – specifically how it moves from the soil to the grocery bag, in New York and Africa alike. We’ll be featuring creative ideas in food production and delivery, presenting stories on topics like urban farming, childhood obesity and world hunger. We’ll also be looking at the life-sustaining aspect of eating that has little to do with nutrition – sitting down together and breaking bread.
Dickson Despommier is a leading proponent of “vertical farming” — the idea of constructing hydroponic farms in urban skyscrapers as a solution to green deserts and the predicted food crunch in the next generation. Despommier thinks vertical farming will allow us to grow locally and safely without taking over more of the earth’s arable land. For someone who helped develop a revolutionary ecological idea, he has an unlikely background: molecular parasitology research. “I’ve spent all my life looking down through a microscope and I now turn that around and look through a telescope,” he says. Here, Dowser talks with Despommier about his new book, The Vertical Farm, and how farming into the sky could reshape our cities.
Dowser: Why are vertical farms relevant at this particular point in time?
Despommier: An outdoor farmer can control nothing and an indoor farmer can control everything. There are simply fewer risks. Over the last ten years there have been a number of disease outbreaks associated with food. My specialty is microbiology and parasitology, so I’m very aware of what you can catch by eating food and drinking water. These diseases remind people today that they don’t know where their food comes from. If we can supply clean food and water to populations we could forget about drugs, forget about vaccines – we could solve about half the world’s problems by reconstructing the way we conduct farming.
Tell me about the path that led you to the idea of the vertical farm.
The vertical farm began as a teaching exercise for a medical ecology class in 1999. I was talking a lot of doom and gloom. When you damage nature there is usually some health risk associated. Eventually students rebelled and said, ‘We’d really like to see if there’s something positive we can do.’ They decided to study rooftop gardening and figured out that we could grow enough rice outdoors on rooftops to feed 2.5% of Manhattan. They were disappointed. So, I told them to look at abandoned spaces, and indoor spaces. Each year after that students in that class worked on expanding this project. The next year students figured out that we would need a forty-story farm the size of a New York City block to feed 50,000 people with crops grown indoors. That meant it would take 150 vertical farms to feed all of Manhattan.
When did you start to take this idea seriously and why?
Frankly I wanted to teach something else, but my students kept coming back to me about this idea, and so it seemed like I had to work on it! About five years after we started pursuing this idea, it became apparent that we could actually attempt it. We got a website up with all the reports from the students, had other students from other universities send in their ideas, and architects sent us their plans for virtual farms.
What connection do you see between disease outbreaks and the way we conduct farming today?
One connection is the use of human feces as fertilizer. When we use human feces as fertilizer, we’re really playing into the hands of the parasites. Farming hydroponically and indoors gives us a way to never again have to use human feces as a way to grow food. Outdoors, when you spread fertilizer, you’re hoping a small portion is taken up by the plants because the rest of it is total waste. It rains and fertilizer washes into local lakes and renders them unusable for other things, like drinking.
How do vertical farms fit into the history of urban agriculture?
There’s a broad spectrum of urban agriculture beginning with the least technical part, which is people starting a garden in an abandoned empty lot. Hydroponic farming has been around for much of this history, and even has roots in WWII when it was used to feed troops because of the unreliability of supply ships. Today you can find urban food movements in every large city. Greenmarkets and farmers’ markets [are] used heavily by more and more people who want to know their food sources. Vertical farms are the next step in people wanting to know about their food, see it being grown, and assure that it is safe.
What distinguishes this idea from other answers to green deserts, and why do you think it is the most useful?
When you’re using city lots for urban farming you don’t know the history of the lot, and contamination is a huge issue. Michelle Obama herself ran into this problem with lead in the back yard of the White House! A vertical farm doesn’t have this issue, and has quality control built right in.
Would the vertical farm eliminate the need for other concepts for urban farming?
The vertical farm idea has been embraced by many dirt farmers – they don’t feel threatened. Rather, they think, ‘If there was another way to farm I would do it,’ because there are so many issues they face with dirt farming. We won’t be putting them out of business – climate change is the biggest cause for farm failures, and we’ll be giving them a way to farm outside of that.
Do you find there is any resistance to the idea of plants not being grown in soil?
When I have that issue raised I always challenge people to defend the position that farming itself is natural. We’ve been a species for 200,000 years and we didn’t farm for all but 10,000 of them – that’s only 5% of the life of the human species that has been occupied with raising enough food to feed us. When you look at the environmental damage that farming has caused you see that it can’t continue like this.
To accept the idea of vertical farms, what does society need to learn that it doesn’t currently understand?
We need a few demonstration projects that will clearly tell the world, ‘This is where your food can come from.’ The earliest that could happen is a year from now. We’re already in conference with countries and cities who want to do this, including Qatar, Jordan, and Singapore. Vertical farming is particularly appealing to areas that don’t trust outsiders with their food supply but don’t currently have a way to supply all their own food themselves.
We also need to dispel the mythology that hydroponically-grown food is not nutritious, doesn’t taste good and is not natural. Half the food you eat in wintertime is raised indoors in hothouses, and most of hydroponic farming is hothouse farming. The technology has advanced so much that it is just not realistic anymore to say that a hothouse tomato isn’t as good.
One of the main concerns people have raised with your ideas is the cost of vertical farming and its development. How do you respond to these concerns?
The same issues have been raised with regard to any new invention. People wonder, who will own, operate and benefit from these farms? Will this just be for the rich or high-end restaurants? Will the common person get excluded because they can’t afford it? The very first of everything ends up in the hands of the rich, like the automobile, but it eventually trickled down and became available to everybody.
One important way to make vertical farming a project by and for the public is to have the public bear the initial cost via federal funding. Our food is artificially cheap because we use fossil fuels to farm, which is also under-priced, to make it affordable for people in this country to eat. The same concessions have to be made for indoor farming.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Chris Jacobs