Vertical Farming

15 Feb

Design for the Dragonfly Vertical Farm in NYC

I remember someone telling me once that if we put the entire population of the world into a space the size of Texas–and we could with the proper application of urban engineering–and used a small portion of land for farming purposes (and all became vegetarians), the rest of the world could be left very close to untouched, other than for perhaps scientific purposes or ecological recreation. Biodiversity would flourish and all our sustainability issues would disappear. Until, you know, a meteor hit us or the world went blind and the triffids escaped.

Now, apart from the obvious impracticalities of this system (i.e. good f*cking luck), this actually seemed like a pretty neat concept to me. It was original at least. And I’m a huge fan of leaving the earth to its own devices as I’m fairly convinced that the earth is a big girl and can take care of herself. It’s a pipe dream, however, and not sensitive to things like the volatile nature of an opposites-by-leaps-and-bounds cultural melting pot.

Yet it was the concept of thinking impractically that really got my mind moving.

And in that spirit, I give you Vertical Farming.

Now what exactly is vertical farming, you may ask–if you were too lazy to click the above link, that is. Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: farming that’s vertical. In a bid to reduce things like carbon emissions from transportation, the waste that inevitably occurs when shipping food long distances, and the cost that’s associated with both the former and latter, an idea has been put forth–build up. And a number of places have already jumped on the concept, Singapore and Toronto being two of the first. (You can check out a picture gallery of vertical farm designs and current “living walls” at Environmental Graffiti.)

From what I’ve been able to gather, Dr. Dickson Despommier appears to be the leading expert on the matter. His website, The Vertical Farm, has some great videos (although I’m including the main intro video in this post) and designs, as well as sort of one-sided “learn more” section and/but a pretty sweet blog. I actually seriously recommend subscribing to the blog. It’s super informative.

There are, of course, arguments against the system. The amount of energy needed to artificially light these structures for even plant production could potentially be astronomical. And this idea has never actually been put into practice–it’s all theoretical at the moment. The Economist has a very good article that neatly lays out the benefits and potential drawbacks, as well as introducing alternative concepts like VertiCrop.

Now, to me, both of these issues–lighting and practicality–are not really the main issues. Lighting, and I’m aware that I’m simplifying here, can probably be solved by a brainstorming session with some creative engineers and a couple of years. Practicality can be solved in a very practical way: Build it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know. Then fix the problems and try again. It’s called the scientific process. Obviously start small and move up, but the system is in place for solving this kind of problem.

The real problem, as I see it, is what we are going to do with that extra space. Now, in places that actually need this sort of technology–places like the UAE or Antarctica–this issue probably isn’t gong to be something that comes up. But when utilizing it in places that don’t necessarily need the technology, but want it–i.e. China or India–what are they planning to do with all that space they save? Because if you’ve got national parks on the way, or sustainable housing developments planned, then call me up a stripper ’cause we got ourselves a party.

But I feel safe in my assumption that those things probably aren’t going to be happening. China hasn’t exactly got the best track record for making environmentally responsible choices. I’m not saying they’re totally hopeless. A 10% reduction in plastic bag waste since 2008 is pretty damn remarkable. But this is the exception in China, not the norm. So if that extra space is going to end up being used for another Three Gorges Dam, then I’m not really seeing what the practical use is. Well, you know, other than feeding people.

I guess I feel that feeding a population that is ever increasing, and feeding them sustainably, is a great move for the survival of the human race’s reproduction race. It’s just maybe not such a great move for the survival of anything else. We’re treating a symptom with this technology, not the illness. It’s a very Western-minded approach to medicine. Oh, you’ve got a headache? Here are some painkillers! Of course you can keep drinking coffee and working ten hours and day and sleeping five or six hours a night and not having enough sex. We’ve got these magical pills for you so that not only will you not realize how big your problem is, you won’t even know you’ve got a problem.

The technology is great, and it’s an amazing step in the direction of truly living sustainably, but it’s the sidekick, the supplement, the start of the beginning of the preliminary idea. A step in the right direction, but not the whole trip.

What do you think about vertical farming?

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