The Vertical Farm: Does It Make Sense? (Book Review)

vertical farm cover image

Dr. Dickson Despommier's concept of the vertical farm has spawned a flood of interesting architectural ideas that have filled pages of TreeHugger, and now fill the new book "The Vertical Farm." The concept has been controversial, to say the least; I had hoped that a book about it might help resolve the controversy by making a solid case for the vertical farm that expands on Despommier's original essay on the topic.

Alas, it does not.

The basic concept of the vertical farm revolves around creating a closed loop, where food is produced in the sealed vertical farm, gray water is purified through condensing transpired water, energy is produced by burning the waste in plasma arc incinerators, everything is used and the only thing that leaves the building is the food itself. "Waste will be replaced with the recovery of unrealized energy."

Despommier wonders why we have learned how to take care of ourselves and protect ourselves from the vagaries of the weather, but for some reason we still leave our plants carelessly outside. "For the majority, we humans are protected against the elements, yet we subject our food-bearing plants to the rigors of the great outdoors and can do no more than hope for a good weather year."

vertical farm o2

Fix Our Horizontal Farms Before We Go Vertical

The vertical farm will change all that, creating perfect growing conditions and wasting nothing. The advantages:

  • Year round production

  • no weather related crop failures

  • no agricultural runoff

  • allowance for ecosystem restoration

  • no use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers

  • use of 70-95 % less water

  • greatly reduced food miles

  • more control of food safety and security

  • new employment opportunities

  • purification of grey water to drinking water

  • animal feed from postharvest plant material

Despommier calls outdoor farming "an open-ended no-holds barred battle to the death between the crops we plant and those things that would consume them before they reach our plate." He would solve this by growing plants the way Intel grows semiconductors:

Designing double-lock entry doorways will allow for an additional level of protection against insects and microbes. Requiring all personnel to change into sterilized, disposable safety uniforms, shoe and hair coverings, and to shower before changing clothes, will minimize the risk of crop loss due to "hitchhikers" on items such as shoes.

Oh, and all the employees will be tested regularly to ensure they are not carrying anything.

vertical farm dragonfly

New York City's Dragonfly A Locavore Wet Dream

The book is written in a breezy style, full of colloquialisms that made me wince. (aeroponic farming is defined as hydroponic farming after you "kick it up a notch". A chapter on incineration is titled "burn, baby burn!")

Nowhere in the entire book do you get a convincing picture of how this thing actually would work. Do you really get enough energy out of burning the waste from the plants and our human waste to run this thing? How much energy does it take to run the cooling required to condense the transpired water to create a clean water supply? There are no answers, he never does the math. More space is devoted to the 50's style technocratic political organization, how "the founder committee should be co-chaired by the governor and the president of the most respected and productive university in the state", than is devoted to the actual science of the vertical farm.

But ultimately the idea only makes sense if you think of farming as a no-holds battle to the death and when you think of soil as nothing more than an mechanism to hold a plant up. Sami has written that "there are more organisms in one teaspoon of soil than there have ever been humans on this planet." Others are trying to build biodynamic, organic, regenerative, or ecological farming communities, where food is grown naturally and is actually good for the soil instead of destroying it. It is a much more attractive and probably better tasting future of food.

In the end, Dr. Despommier does not make the case for the Vertical Farm; if anything, he has dumbed down his original essay and added nothing but cringe-worthy titles and some lovely pictures. I am not persuaded.

More at the Vertical Farm

More on Vertical Farming:
Vertical (Diagonal?) Farm from Work AC in NYC
Harvest Green: Vertical Farm by Romses Architects wins Competition
BioOctanic Tower: Vertical Farm Grows Biofuel for Gas Stations
Futurama Farming in New York
Vertical Farm in Dubai Uses Seawater
Vertical Farming - The Future of Agriculture?

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