As I write this post in central Illinois, I’d be hard-pressed to associate farming with anything other than flatland. Acres and acres of industrial monoculture stretch as far as sight allows, 12.2 million of corn and 9.4 million of soybean in the state alone. It is difficult to imagine feeding a burgeoning world population, projected to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050, through any other means but increasing these rural, single-crop expanses. Some thinkers, however, envision a future where crops are grown up, not out, in a technique known as vertical farming.
The idea was first developed by Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University. As he explains in his book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” the central concept is simple: instead of continuing to convert natural ecosystems into farmland, a practice that can lead to environmental pollution and may contribute to climate change, humanity should “[g]row most of our food crops within specially constructed buildings located inside the city limits using methods that do not require soil.” In these structures, crops would enjoy the advantages of human-controlled conditions, avoiding the dangers of drought, disease, and pests, and could also be produced year-round instead of seasonally. Growing food where demand is highest would also greatly reduce the most harmful “hidden cost” of agriculture, the vast amount of edible material lost due to spoilage during harvest and transport.
Although the gorgeous structures of green and glass envisioned in architectural sketches haven’t yet become reality, a number of more modest vertical farms have made the leap from theory into practice. In Suwon, South Korea, a three-story vertical farm is testing highly-controlled techniques for lettuce production, while in Manchester, England, the Alpha Farm project is turning a derelict office building into an agricultural hotbed. Chicago seems to be the center of the movement in America, with the FarmedHere greenhouse producing large-scale quantities of basil for Whole Foods and other retailers and The Plant creating an ambitious aquaponics setup where agricultural waste becomes food for edible tilapia fish.
These proofs-of-concept have been promising, but a huge gap remains between vertical farming as a novelty and as the world’s primary agricultural technique. The most troubling technical issue has been the provision of adequate light to the plants. In a traditional system, the sun obviously does all the work, but when crops are grown inside, energy must be constantly supplied to the building. Some of this cost can be offset by using “pinkhouse” technology, where LED lights are used that emit only the specific frequencies used by plants in photosynthesis. From an economic standpoint, the start-up costs of a vertical farm are the largest barrier to entry; one estimate of a project in Toronto, Canada approached $110 million. In light of Despommier’s vision, where vertical farms help relieve the environmental problems of and ease urban expansion in developing nations, this capital-intense figure seems out of reach. Even in the industrialized world, the cost of buildings in urban centers may prove too much for farming to fund profitably. If nothing else, the concept of the vertical farm has given producers an alternative to consider, and it remains to be seen how far the idea will develop.