The Vertical Farm

I’ve been hearing about the vertical farm concept from Dickson Despommier for years – as a faculty colleague of his here at Columbia University Medical Center, and more recently as co-host of TWiV and TWiP. I could not help but be enthusiastic as the idea grew from a seed, to seeing Dickson jetting around the globe trying to build the first prototype. Now that the eponymous book is out, does it stand up to the hype?

The Vertical Farm begins with a brief history of agriculture: how humans learned how to grow their food, slowly developing the technology to eke more and more from the earth. We learn about how machinery, petroleum, and fertilizer have impacted farming. But more importantly, Dr. Despommier reveals how farming, while growing more efficient, has slowly destroyed earth’s ecology. The burning of forests to provide farm lands and the resulting increase in global carbon dioxide, and the agricultural runoff that has lead to destruction of coral reefs, to name just two. Along the way we learn just how destructive big cities can be – New York City alone discards 1 billion gallons a day of grey water. These were the most compelling parts of the book, where I learned how good and bad growing food has been.

Next, Dr. Despommier turns to his solution to these problems and more – the vertical farm. He is clearly excited about how growing crops in skyscrapers, with aeroponic technology and extensive recycling, will solve many of the world’s environmental problems as they relate to agriculture. No longer will we have to discard so much precious water; land can be allowed to return to hardwood forests, decreasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; and perhaps the coral reefs can rebound as we stop dumping fertilizers into the oceans. ┬áThese all seem reasonable scenarios. But will they work?

No one knows – not even Dr. Despommier, the consummate optimist, because a vertical farm has not yet been built. The last parts of the book, which deal with the specifics of the vertical farm, are singularly unsatisfying, because there are no details. As Dr. Despommier admits, this is because he is not an architect or engineer. We would like to know exactly how these farms of the future will be built, and their yields and energy costs, but that information cannot yet be provided. I understand all the reasons why – but perhaps Dr. Despommier should have engaged some experts to provide more details. As a result the latter half of the book is unsatisfying because you just can’t wrap your mind around exactly what these farms will be like.

In the end, The Vertical Farm is a dream by a particularly good dreamer. Whether or not those dreams will come true – Dr. Despommier certainly believes they will – is anyone’s guess. I’m rooting for Dickson and the solution to earth’s future food needs, but we’ll know the answer only when a vertical farm – or two – have been built.

Please accept my apologies for this brief foray away from virology – vrr