University of Toronto Is Planning a Net-Zero Vertical Farm

©. University of Toronto Press Release

Sprouting up in what used to be horizontal farmland, this is wrong on so many levels.

The University of Toronto and Centennial College, at their Scarborough campuses, have announced the EaRTH District:

EaRTH, which stands for Environmental and Related Technologies Hub, will be a knowledge and training centre at U of T Scarborough focused on the development of clean technologies. Among the partnership’s plans: apply innovative technologies to food production in an urban setting through the development of Canada’s first net-zero vertical farm....The proposed vertical farm, a state-of-the-art building, will create training and research opportunities in a variety of fields, including waste management, clean energy, sustainable building design, water conservation and urban agriculture, among others.

TreeHugger has been dining on vertical farms for a while, and I find them to be an amusing diversion. They make some sense in Singapore, where they have a lot of people and not much land.

Kennedy and Lawrence, Toronto

Toronto Archives/Public Domain

Scarborough, on the other hand, is now in Toronto, but not that long ago was mostly farmland. I looked for a photo of it around the campus but all I could find was this one, far closer to downtown. Today it is mostly sprawl development poorly served by transit. Adam Stein once noted about a proposed vertical farm in Manhattan:

Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There's a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that's what New Jersey is for.

And that is what Scarborough used to be for, and what the Greenbelt, a few miles north of the Scarborough Campus containing 4,782 farms, does now.

The Greenbelt preserves some of the most productive agricultural lands in Canada, providing fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, beef, pork, and poultry products and grapes for prize-winning wines. Specialty farms in the Greenbelt produce everything from sheep and lambs, mushrooms, maple syrup, and horticultural goods (flowers and plants).

The greenbelt is under constant threat from developers, and may well be opened up by Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario. The giant parking lot to the right of vertical farm building in the rendering (far bigger than the vertical farm) is necessary because Doug Ford and his late brother Rob killed the light rail transit plan that would have been built by now, taking thousands of cars off the road and off that giant highway shown behind the building in the top photo.

vertical farm from above

© University of Toronto

Professor Bernie Kraatz, vice-principal research at U of T Scarborough, says in the press release:

The vertical farm will become a key resource in assisting communities across Canada in tackling issues related to food, water, air, energy, waste, and advanced design and integrative systems. These are all key areas in understanding how to create resilient communities in the face of climate change.

A vertical farm in Scarborough, surrounded by parking and backed up by Highway 401, is exactly the opposite; it is a monument to failure – a failure to get people out of cars, a failure to preserve farmland, a failure to prioritize what needs to be done to deal with the problems of with water, energy, waste, and carbon. It is the opposite of resilient, needing pumps and batteries and serious loads of high-tech equipment, not to mention the fact that everyone working there probably has to drive.

There are other issues. There are the upfront carbon emissions of the building itself, and – since it is going to be Net Zero – to make the acres of solar panels needed to convert sunlight into electricity to make the artificial sunlight. (I am assuming that there is more to the vertical farm than the planted decks shown in the rendering, because if that is all there is, then it is not technically a vertical farm at all, it is a rooftop garden.)

Lufa Farms

© Lufa Farms

There are probably a million acres of rooftop in Scarborough that could be turned into urban farms under glass, like Lufa Farms in Montreal. There are probably another million acres of parking lot that could be farmed if everybody didn't have to drive. If you want to grow stuff inside, there are probably thousands of square feet of existing warehouses in Scarborough that could be converted much more cheaply and efficiently, like AeroFarms in New Jersey.

And of course, just to the north, there is the Greenbelt. That's the biggest problem with the vertical farm fantasy; it is a diversion from the real battle to preserve our horizontal farms. That's why I have noted before that vertical farms are wrong on so many levels.

If the University of Toronto and Centennial College want to teach people how to build resilient communities, they would be saving and utilizing what we have, instead of jumping on a bandwagon that everybody got off a decade ago.


I have asked the University for more information about the architects, etc. but they have not responded. More on vertical farms below, but I also recommend Ruben Anderson in the wonderfully titled Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound?

I was going to point to a great article by Philip Proefrock and Hank Green in EcoGeek, but it apparently is no more, so I quote them here. The economics are a bit better with LED bulbs and net-zero electricity, but it is still relevant:

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. And as much as I hate to burst bubbles, the main claim to the efficiency of vertical farms (the elimination of transportation costs) is not valid.