Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Vertical Farm Project Update


Written by A Siegel

EcoGeek's recent coverage of An Off-Grid Vertical Farm for Downtown Seattle garnered some attention and generated discussion. But we should recognize that it is far from the first or only really interesting concept for going vertical in growing food in urban areas.

A Columbia University microbiologist, Dickson Despommier, advocates 30-story skyscrapers that would, each, be able to grow food for 50,000 people, taking up roughly one city block. From Plenty Magazine, The Farmer in the High-Rise

"It's not just a way of generating food," says Despommier. "It's a way of dealing with municipal waste, recycling water, and using methane digestion to help a city be sustainable."

While it is not happening, to me this concept is not "science fiction," but more an innovative concept waiting for the confluence of events that will make it into reality.

In 2001, the Dutch agriculture minister supported building a vertical farm in Rotterdam called Deltapark, in response to flooding farmland, livestock diseases such as swine fever, and growing agricultural pollution. Though the park hasn't been built, the idea of linking several industries together to reduce the environmental burden of agriculture has become increasingly popular, says Jan Broeze, the Wageningen University scientist who dreamed up Deltapark. "If you cluster various activities, like greenhouses, fish farming, and manure processing, then you create a sufficient scale for more sustainable food production," says Broeze, who is working with a group of farmers in Holland to link a chicken farm, a manure processing system, and greenhouses. "The idea is to use wastes from one industry to sustain another.

"What this discussion suggests, however, is potentially one of the serious obstacles before this project would go forward: stove-piping of costs and benefits need to be broken, with a holistic understanding (and accounting) so that payoffs can be fully understood and valued. Producing more food closer to consumers would help the nation reduce oil usage in the face of peak oil. Is there a financial valuing of this additional security that could go to the builder/operator? This type of production potentially would reduce traffic on streets and highways (fewer food delivery trucks from out-of-state). Could the builder/operator be credited with some of the savings on highway maintenance and reduced congestion on the roads? Being able to monetize these "external" costs and benefits would enhance the value of pursuing such projects. Some countries and societies are prepared, it seems, to pursue this system-of-system calculation, with not just the Dutch in active conversation with Despommier.

The Vertical Farm Project has received considerable press attention recently, with articles in Popular Science, US News and World Report, and a great piece in New York Magazine which begins:

Urban farming has always been a slightly quixotic endeavor. From the small animal farm that was perched on the roof of the Upper West Side's Ansonia apartment building in the early 1900s (fresh eggs delivered by bellhop!) to community gardens threatened by real-estate development, the dream of preserving a little of the country in the city is a utopian one. But nobody has ever dreamed as big as Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University, who believes that "vertical farm" skyscrapers could help fight global warming.

Imagine a cluster of 30-story towers on Governors Island or in Hudson Yards producing fruit, vegetables, and grains while also generating clean energy and purifying wastewater. Roughly 150 such buildings, Despommier estimates, could feed the entire city of New York for a year. Using current green building systems, a vertical farm could be self-sustaining and even produce a net output of clean water and energy.

150 buildings? Feed all of New York City? Perhaps, it is time to consider this seriously. Consider the physical footprint for this. And, well, consider the 3 billion additional people to be living on the planet by 2050.

By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

Could the Vertical Farm Project offer a real window on how not just to feed 9.2 billion people, but to feed them well while reducing everyone's "footprint" on the Earth?

The Vertical Farm Project is the home site for this concept and offers a very robust and sophisticated look at the opportunities and options for going vertical with food production. There is a lot of tremendously interesting material there, with serious looks at challenges and benefits.
If you are at all tempted by the discussion, the Vertical Farm Project site is recommended for a look.

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