Advocates of ‘vertical farming’ say growing crops in urban high-rises will eventually be both greener and cheaper
The seeds of an agricultural revolution are taking root in cities around the world—a movement that boosters say will change the way that urbanites get their produce and solve some of the world’s biggest environmental problems along the way.
It’s called vertical farming, and it’s based on one simple principle: Instead of trucking food from farms into cities, grow it as close to home as possible—in urban greenhouses that stretch upward instead of sprawling outward.
The idea is flowering in many forms. There’s the 12-story triangular building going up in Sweden, where plants will travel on tracks from the top floor to the bottom to take advantage of sunlight and make harvesting easier. Then there’s the onetime meatpacking plant in Chicago where vegetables are grown on floating rafts, nourished by waste from nearby fish tanks. And the farms dotted across the U.S. that hang their crops in the air, spraying the roots with nutrients, so they don’t have to bring in soil or water tanks for the plants.
However vertical farming is implemented, advocates say the immediate benefits will be easy to see. There won’t be as many delivery trucks guzzling fuel and belching out exhaust, and city dwellers will get easier access to fresh, healthy food.
Looking further, proponents say vertical farming could bring even bigger and more sweeping changes. Farming indoors could reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, which pollute the environment in agricultural runoff. Preserving or reclaiming more natural ecosystems like forests could help slow climate change. And the more food we produce indoors, the less susceptible we are to environmental crises that disrupt crops and send prices skyrocketing, like the drought that devastated this year’s U.S. corn crop.
Dickson Despommier, a microbiology professor at Columbia University who developed the idea of vertical farming with students in 1999, thinks vertical farming will become more and more attractive as climate change drives up the cost of conventional farming and technological advances make greenhouse farming cheaper. In fact, he hopes the world will be able to produce half of its food in vertical farms in 50 years.
Then “a significant portion of farmland could be abandoned,” he says. “Ecosystem functions would rapidly improve, and the rate of global warming would slow down.”
An Idea on the Rise
A host of vertical farms are up and running in the U.S. and overseas, and others are under construction. Some are backed by nonprofits aiming to promote environmental causes or local job creation. Others will be for-profit ventures meant to meet demand for local produce. And some, like one in South Korea, are being funded by governments looking for ways to boost domestic food security.