Fast Company

Vertical Farms, a Tower of B.S.

Urban farming might be ridiculous--but ridiculousness has its uses.

vertical farm

Between 2008 to 2009, it seemed like every architecture proposal you saw was a vertical farm, or at least had a tuft of greenery somewhere on the facade. And in the meantime, Disckson Despommier, a Columbia professor and the idea's most prominent evangelist, seemed to pop up everywhere--from The New York Times to the Colbert Report. The appeal, aside from sheer gee-whiz factor, would be that you can farm more efficiently while eliminating transport costs.

We're overdue for a backlash. The basic argument being that we farm outside of cities, because its economical. It can't be economical to farm in cities--otherwise we'd already be doing it. QED.

As Philip Proefrock and Hank Green argue on EcoGeek:

A farmer can expect his land to be worth roughly $1 per square foot ... if it's good, fertile land. The owner of a skyscraper, on the other hand, can expect to pay more than 200 times that per square foot of his building. And that's just the cost of construction. Factor in the costs of electricity to pump water throughout the thing and keep the plants bathed in artificial sunlight all day, and you've got an inefficient mess.
Just looking at those numbers, you need two things to happen in order for vertical farms to make sense. You need the price of food to increase 100 fold over today's prices, and you need the productivity of vertical farms to increase 100 fold over traditional farms. Neither of those things will ever happen.

Treehugger has been quick to rebut this, saying basically: Sure vertical farms are pie in the sky. They were meant simply to inspire new solutions, and they already have:

I think Philip and Hank are taking themselves and the concept of vertical farms a little too seriously. There are square miles of horizontal farming on rooftops and gardens to be done in Brooklyn and even Manhattan before we get into vertical farms. And when we do, it will probably be a more sophisticated hybrid

One such hybrid that they offer was a recent video by engineering giant Arup, which envisions a green city transformation:

Meanwhile, Green and Proefrock actually back off their apparent assertion, pointing out the huge mechanized, multi-story farming facilities, on the outskirts of cities, might in fact make sense.

But frankly, I wonder if the real impact of vertical farms might even be more mundane than that. For example, Coolhunting just posted this lovely little video of two women, Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray, who have figured out to a way to design DIY window farms:

Now, I'd argue that part of the reason why small projects like these capture our imagination is the very existence of far-out ideas like vertical farms. Those crazy concepts give imaginative scale to your daily life. And that, in itself, is valuable, because it connects something mundane with something grand--and that's good for motivating people to change.

Sure, maybe the concept of vertical farms is silly--but then again if you looked back at depictions of space in the 1950s, you'd see entire cities and civilizations. We never realized those--but we did get to space. Eventually, we really did start building space stations.

And that's how technology always advances: We get the grandest visions first, but eventually, we do see those same ideas, reworked on a scale that makes sense.

*Full disclosure: Last year I did a cover story on Dickson Despommier, in Popular Science, talking about what some of the enabling technologies might be. So maybe I'm a bit biased in favor.

[Read more at Treehugger and EcoGeek]

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • Valcent Bulletin

    Please add to your equation the multiplying effect of going vertical on each floor. Check out this system now operating and producing huge amounts of food for animals at a zoo in England: http://www.valcent.net

    This system multiplies your income equation by a factor of 5 for a 10ft ceiling. It also reduces water consumption by a factor of 10 thanks to mist and drip techniques. They were awarded as one of Time Magazines’ Top 50 Innovations of 2009 and Robert Kennedy Jr. just joined their advisory board.

    While you guys are arguing the math, we're actually proving it works and will have 6 more large scale projects to start early in the new year. Follow @ValcentProdInc on Twitter if you want to watch our progress.

  • Valcent Bulletin

    Please add to your equation the multiplying effect of going vertical on each floor. Check out this system now operating and producing huge amounts of food for animals at a zoo in England: http://www.valcent.net

    This system multiplies your income equation by a factor of 5 for a 10ft ceiling. It also reduces water consumption by a factor of 10 thanks to mist and drip techniques. They were awarded as one of Time Magazines’ Top 50 Innovations of 2009 and Robert Kennedy Jr. just joined their advisory board.

    While you guys are arguing the math (and badly at that) we're actually proving it works and will have 6 more large scale projects to start early in the new year. Follow @ValcentProdInc on Twitter if you want to watch our progress.

  • kim holder

    You've called b.s. based on a false argument, but you say that's a detail? You are supposed to be a journalist right?

    Getting the BASIC FACTS of the argument right is supposed to be the starting point. If you don't, you do more damage than good. Forest for the trees? Where is this big picture you've presented? A couple of things you saw on EcoGeek and Coolhunting? And you think that's so great, there is no need to think through the argument you based this whole article on?

    You screwed up. Take it like a man, and remember you are a professional with a serious responsibility to accurately inform the public.

  • Cliff Kuang

    Hey Kim---You're right about the math, but the point of our piece wasn't to evaluate the math. Getting into that debate would lose the forest for the trees, Blame EcoGeek.

  • kim holder

    For that matter, the whole economic evaluation is silly. You don't calculate the profitability of a business based on the cost of constructing the building it will be in. The question for vertical farms is how much revenue they will generate per square foot versus the costs of production. Skyscrapers often rent for something like $30 or $40 per square foot. If you really must make a direct comparison, that's the number to look at.

    So Ecogeek, Treehugger, and Fast Company all went over this and none of you saw the problem? The Economist must be pointing and laughing at you right now.

  • kim holder

    Um, at $200 per square foot, the price of food would need to go up 2x, and production 100x - not 100x price and 100x production. That would be 10000x. Math, people! It matters!