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Vertical Farming: Coming to a City Near You?

October 30, 2012, 10:29 AM

Finally, we now have a viable proof-of-concept for the vertical farm idea that has excited environmentalists for more than a decade. Last week, Singapore opened the world's first-ever commercial-scale vertical farm, capable of producing 500 kilograms of vegetables every day. That farm, if it proves to be successful, could give much-needed momentum to similar types of vertical farm projects designed for densely-populated urban centers around the world - even in places in like New York City that we don't typically associate with food shortages.

Back in 1999, Columbia University’s Dickson Despommier proposed the idea of the “vertical farm” as an environmentally-friendly, economically-viable way for densely populated areas to feed themselves. Not only would the fruits and vegetables be healthier and fresher, but also these vertical farms would have a much smaller carbon footprint than the current system of importing vegetables into urban centers. From the beginning, New York City was to be one of the early test cases, and the powerful idea of the "skyscraper farm" began to take hold.

The value proposition of the vertical farm is relatively simple to grasp – it theoretically requires less energy and less space to raise vegetables and animals within a hermetically-sealed, artificial environment than it does within traditional farming environments. (Despommier likes to use the "Skyscraper as Spaceshop" metaphor) The challenge is getting enough light into the building, and ensuring that there's enough energy for all the plants and vegetables to grow. That’s what we’re about to find out in Singapore, which is using 120 aluminum towers, each approximately 30 feet in height, to grow a variety of vegetables that can then be sold at local supermarkets.

As might be imagined, the whole concept of the vertical farm has been somewhat quixotic from the outset. Despommier’s ideas actually derive from work done during the late 1980’s, back before global climate change became an everyday reality. Until now, the idea seemed too fantastic -- and too big -- to be true. In a recent interview with Big Think, Despommier casually tossed around concepts like the Third Green Revolution to illustrate just how revolutionary the whole vertical farm concept really is. Oh, and he suggested that the price tag for a commercial-scale vertical farm was to be on the order of $50 million to $60 million, meaning that you had to get some serious investors behind you and/or the presence of government economic development guarantees for vertical farms to work.

Singapore's Sky Green Farms project could change all that if it convinces people that vertical farms are, indeed, viable. For now, it appears as though prices of “vertical farm” vegetables are higher than “horizontal farm” vegetables in Singapore – which sounds a lot like the current divide here in the States between “organic” produce and “pesticide” produce. Singapore is looking to the future, however, with the aim of ultimately becoming less “food dependent” on other nations. Currently, the tiny island-nation only supplies 7% of its own food, which leaves it vulnerable to its trade partners. (For Singapore, being "food-independent" is the same as for America trying to become "energy-independent")

Going forward, then, the big wildcard could be mass-scale global urbanization. By 2030, experts predict that 80% of the world will live in urban areas, many of them densely populated cities with tens of millions of mouths to feed. Yet, the zeitgeist seems to be right for vertical farming: we already live in an era where rooftop gardens in cities are now trendy and where even the most casual shopper pays attention to how food gets from farm-to-table. The environmental case makes sense, now we need to show that the economic case makes sense as well. Who knows? Within the next decade, the newest tourist attraction in New York City might just be a massive new transparent skyscraper where people can stop and gape at all the vegetables and livestock being raised high above the canyons of lower Manhattan.


image: Sky Greens Farms


Vertical Farming: Coming to...

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