Vertical Farming

vertical farm by darran oxley

Vertical farming is a concept that argues that it is economically and environmentally viable to cultivate plant or animal life within skyscrapers, or on vertically inclined surfaces.

The idea of a vertical farm has existed at least since the early 1950s and built precedents are well documented by John Hix in his canonical text ‘The Glass House.’

Irrespective of their origins, there are three classifications debated by contemporary scholars: 1) The phrase was coined by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915: ”Vertical Farming,’ to coin a name, is the keynote of a new agriculture that has come to stay, for inexpensive explosives enable the farmer to farm deeper, to go down to increase area, and to secure larger crops. Instead of spreading out over more land he concentrates on less land and becomes an intensive rather than an extensive agriculturist, and soon learns that it is more profitable to double the depth of his fertile land than to double the area of his holdings, and he learns that his best aid and servant in this work is a good explosive. Peace congresses demand that swords be turned into pruning hooks. The farmer is busy turning explosives from war to agriculture, from death dealing to life giving work.’

2) The second category of vertical farming falls under the concepts proposed and built by architect Ken Yeang developed at least ten years before American ecologist Dr. Dickson Despommier (who developed his own model). Yeang proposes that instead of hermetically sealed mass produced agriculture, plant life should be cultivated within open air, mixed-use skyscrapers for climate control and consumption (i.e. a personal or communal planting space as per the needs of the individual). This version of vertical farming is based upon personal or community use rather than the wholesale production and distribution plant and animal life that aspires to feed an entire city.

3) The third category vertical farming was made by Despommier, who argues that vertical farming is legitimate due to environmental reasons. He claims that the cultivation of plant and animal life within skyscrapers will produce less embedded energy and toxicity than plant and animal life produced on natural landscapes. He moreover claims that natural landscapes are too toxic for natural, agricultural production, despite the ecological and environmental costs of extracting materials to build skyscrapers for the simple purpose of agricultural production.

Vertical farming according to Despommier thus discounts the value of natural landscape in exchange for the idea of ‘skyscraper as spaceship.’ Plant and animal life are mass produced within hermetically sealed, artificial environments that have little to do with the outside world. In this sense, they could be built anywhere regardless of the context. This is not advantageous to energy consumption as the internal environment must be maintained to sustain life within the skyscraper.

Despommier’s concept of ‘The Vertical Farm’ emerged in 1999 at Columbia University. It promotes the mass cultivation of plant and animal life for commercial purposes in skyscrapers. Using advanced greenhouse technology such as hydroponics and aeroponics, the skyscrapers could theoretically produce fish, poultry, fruit and vegetables. While the concept of stacked agricultural production is not new, scholars claim that a commercial high-rise farm such as ‘The Vertical Farm’ has never been built, yet extensive photographic documentation and several historical books on the subject suggest that research on the subject was not diligently pursued. New sources indicate that a tower hydroponicum existed in Armenia prior to 1951.

Proponents argue that, by allowing traditional outdoor farms to revert to a natural state and reducing the energy costs needed to transport foods to consumers, vertical farms could significantly alleviate climate change produced by excess atmospheric carbon. Critics have noted that the costs of the additional energy needed for artificial lighting, heating and other vertical farming operations would outweigh the benefit of the building’s close proximity to the areas of consumption.

Other architectural proposals that provide the seeds for the Vertical Farm project include Le Corbusier’s ‘Immeubles-Villas’ (1922) and SITE’s Highrise of homes (1972), a near revival of the 1909 Life Magazine Theorem. In fact, built examples of tower hydroponicums are quite well documented by John Hix. Images of the vertical farms at the School of Gardeners in Langenlois, Austria, and the glass tower at the Vienna International Horticulture Exhibition (1964) clearly show that vertical farms exhausted more than 40 years prior to contemporary discourse on the subject. Although architectural precedents remain valuable, the technological precedents that make vertical farming possible can be traced back to horticultural history through the development of greenhouse and hydroponic technology. Early building types or Hydroponicums where developed, integrating hydroponic technology into building systems. These horticultural building systems evolved from greenhouse technology, and paved the way for the modern concept of the vertical farm. The British Interplanetary Society developed a hydroponicum for lunar conditions and other building prototypes where developed during the early days of space exploration. During this era of expansion and experimentation, the first Tower Hydroponic Units where developed in Armenia.

Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University in New York City, developed the idea of vertical farming in 1999 with graduate students in a medical ecology class. He had originally challenged his class to feed the population of Manhattan (About 2,000,000 people) using 13 acres of usable rooftop gardens. The class calculated that, by using rooftop gardening methods, only 2 percent would be fed. Unsatisfied with the results, Despommier made an off-the-cuff suggestion of growing plants indoors, vertically. The idea sparked the students’ interests and gained major momentum. By 2001 the first outline of a vertical farm was introduced and today scientists, architects, and investors worldwide are working together to make the concept of vertical farming a reality.

In an interview with ‘Miller-McCune.com,’ Despommier described how vertical farms would function: ‘Each floor will have its own watering and nutrient monitoring systems. There will be sensors for every single plant that tracks how much and what kinds of nutrients the plant has absorbed. You’ll even have systems to monitor plant diseases by employing DNA chip technologies that detect the presence of plant pathogens by simply sampling the air and using snippets from various viral and bacterial infections. It’s very easy to do. Moreover, a gas chromatograph will tell us when to pick the plant by analyzing which flavenoids the produce contains. These flavonoids are what gives the food the flavors you’re so fond of, particularly for more aromatic produce like tomatoes and peppers. These are all right-off-the-shelf technologies. The ability to construct a vertical farm exists now. We don’t have to make anything new.’

Several potential advantages of vertical farming have been discussed by Despommier. Many of these benefits are obtained from scaling up hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. Vertical farms, if designed properly, may eliminate the need to create additional farmland and help create a cleaner environment. Unlike traditional farming in non-tropical areas, indoor farming can produce crops year-round. All-season farming multiplies the productivity of the farmed surface by a factor of 4 to 6 depending on the crop. With some crops, such as strawberries, the factor may be as high as 30. Furthermore, as the crops would be sold in the same infrastructures in which they are grown, they will not need to be transported between production and sale, resulting in less spoilage, infestation, and energy required than conventional farming encounters. Research has shown that 30% of harvested crops are wasted due to spoilage and infestation, though this number is much lower in developed nations.

Despommier suggests that, if dwarf versions of certain crops are used (e.g. dwarf wheat developed by NASA, which is smaller in size but richer in nutrients), year-round crops, and ‘stacker’ plant holders are accounted for, a 30-story building with a base of a building block (5 acres) would yield a yearly crop analogous to that of 2,400 acres of traditional farming.

Crops grown in traditional outdoor farming suffer from the often suboptimal, and sometimes extreme, nature of geological and meteorological events such as undesirable temperatures or rainfall amounts, monsoons, hailstorms, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, and severe droughts. The protection of crops from weather is increasingly important as global climate change occurs. Because Vertical Farming provides a controlled environment, the productivity of vertical farms would be mostly independent of weather and protected from extreme weather events. Although the controlled environment of vertical farming negates most of these factors, earthquakes and tornadoes still pose threats to the proposed infrastructure, although this again depends on the location of the vertical farms.

The controlled growing environment reduces the need for pesticides, namely herbicides and fungicides. Advocates claim that producing organic crops in vertical farms is practical and the most likely production and marketing strategy.

Withdrawing human activity from large areas of the Earth’s land surface may be necessary to slow and eventually halt the current anthropogenic mass extinction of land animals. Traditional agriculture is highly disruptive to wild animal populations that live in and around farmland and some argue it becomes unethical when there is a viable alternative.

Traditional farming is a hazardous occupation with particular risks that often take their toll on the health of human laborers. Such risks include: exposure to infectious diseases such as malaria and schistosomes, exposure to toxic chemicals commonly used as pesticides and fungicides, confrontations with dangerous wildlife such as poisonous snakes, and the severe injuries that can occur when using large industrial farming equipment. Whereas the traditional farming environment inevitably contains these risks (particularly in the farming practice known as ‘slash and burn’), vertical farming – because the environment is strictly controlled and predictable – reduces some of these dangers. Currently, the American food system makes fast, unhealthy food cheap while fresh produce is less available and more expensive, encouraging poor eating habits. These poor eating habits lead to health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

It is unlikely that traditional farms will become obsolete, as there are many crops that are not suited for vertical farming, and the production costs are currently far lower.

Vertical farms could exploit methane digesters to generate a small portion of its own electrical needs. Methane digesters could be built on site to transform the organic waste generated at the farm into biogas which is generally composed of 65% methane along with other gasses. This biogas could then be burned to generate electricity for the greenhouse.

Despommier argues that the technology to construct vertical farms currently exists. He also states that the system can be profitable and effective. Developers and local governments have expressed serious interest in establishing a vertical farm including: Incheon (South Korea), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), and Dongtan (China), New York City, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Surrey, B.C., Toronto, Paris, Bangalore, Dubai, Shanghai and Beijing. The Illinois Institute of Technology is now crafting a detailed plan for Chicago. It is suggested that prototype versions of vertical farms should be created first, possibly at large universities interested in the research of vertical farms, in order to prevent failures such as the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona.

Opponents question the potential profitability of vertical farming. A detailed cost analysis of start-up costs, operation costs, and revenue has not been done. The extra cost of lighting, heating, and powering the vertical farm may negate any of the cost benefits received by the decrease in transportation expenses. The economic and environmental benefits of vertical farming rest partly on the concept of minimizing food miles, the distance that food travels from farm to consumer. However, a recent analysis suggests that transportation is only a minor contributor to the economic and environmental costs of supplying food to urban populations. The author of the report, University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers, concluded that ‘food miles are, at best, a marketing fad.’

During the growing season, the sun shines on a vertical surface at an extreme angle such that much less light is available to crops than when they are planted on flat land. Therefore, supplemental light, would be required in order to obtain economically viable yields. Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University, believes that the power demands of vertical farming will uncompetitive with traditional farms using only free natural light. The scientist and climate change activist George Monbiot calculated that the cost of providing enough supplementary light to grow the grain for a single loaf would be almost $10.

As ‘The Vertical Farm’ proposes a controlled environment, heating and cooling costs will be at least as costly as any other tower. But there also remains the issue of complicated, if not more expensive, plumbing and elevator systems to distribute food and water throughout. To address this problem, The Plant in Chicago is building an anaerobic digester into the building. This will allow the farm to operate off the energy grid. Moreover, the anaerobic digester will be recycling waste from nearby businesses that would otherwise go into landfills.

Regular greenhouse produce is known to create more greenhouse gases than field produce, largely due to higher energy use per kilogram of produce. With vertical farms requiring much greater energy per kilogram of produce, mainly through increased lighting, than regular greenhouses, the amount of pollution created will be much higher than that from field produce.

As plants acquire nearly all their carbon from the atmosphere, greenhouse growers commonly supplement CO2 levels to 3-4 times the rate normally found in the atmosphere. This increase in CO2, which has been shown to increase photosynthesis rates by 50%, contributes to the higher yields expected in vertical farming. It is not uncommon to find greenhouses burning fossil fuels purely for this purpose, as other CO2 sources, such as furnaces, contain pollutants like sulphur dioxide and ethylene which significantly damage plants. This means a vertical farm will require a CO2 source, most likely from combustion, even if the rest of the farm is powered by ‘green’ energy. Also, through necessary ventilation, much CO2 will be leaked into the city’s atmosphere.

Greenhouse growers commonly exploit photoperiodism in plants to control whether the plants are in a vegetative or reproductive stage. As part of this control, growers will have the lights on past sunset and before sunrise or periodically throughout the night. Single story greenhouses are already a nuisance to neighbours because of light pollution, a 30 story vertical farm in a densely populated area will surely face problems because of its light pollution.

Hydroponics greenhouses regularly change the water, meaning there is a large quantity of water containing fertilizers and pesticides that must be disposed of. While solutions are currently being worked on, the most common method of simply spreading the mixture over a sufficient area of neighboring farmland or wetlands would be more difficult for an urban vertical farm.

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