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I am a microbiologist/ecologist by training, and for 27 years I conducted laboratory-based research on molecular aspects of intracellular parasitism funded by NIH. I also teach courses in the medical[…]

Dickson Despommier on how vertical farming can help us meet the challenges of feeding a growing global population.

 Dickson DespommierAs of this moment WHO and the population counsel estimate that about 50 percent of us live in cities. And the other half, of course, lives somewhere else. The other thing we can learn from NASA of all places is how much land those seven billion people, half urban, half rural, actually need to produce their food every year. And it turns out to be a size of South America. So the size of South America in land mass is used just to grow our crops that we plant and harvest. I’m not talking about the herbivores like the cows and the goats and the sheep.

So when you think about how much food is consumed by cities, let’s say half, it takes half of the size of South America just to produce it. Now if the human population continues to increase, which we expect it will – so over the next 40 years you might have three billion more people to feed. And you look around for the land where that’s gonna come from in terms of traditional farms and you don’t find it. It isn’t there. So the biggest problem facing us as a global species is where will the food for the next three billion people come from? So it could from someplace other than a traditional farm and the question is, could vertical farming solve that problem. So by vertical farming and a vertical farm I mean any building that grows food inside of it or in which you grow food which is taller than a single story.

There are many examples of vertical farms out there which are not traditionally thought of as towering gardens of Eden so to speak as the images on Google might suggest from some of the planners and designers that have submitted their own visions of what they think a vertical farm should look like. Most of those would satisfy the cover of any science fiction magazine I could think of and attract a lot of attention and get people to ask, well, what is that building and what is it doing?  But we’re not pretty close to seeing those yet. I think those are gonna be expensive and they’re gonna take a lot of rethinking with regards to urban planning. But we don’t have to do that in order to have vertical farms already.

There’s a vertical farm in Singapore. It’s a brand new building. It looks like a greenhouse from the outside, but it’s four stories tall. But it’s a clever design. It uses traditional growing systems though. It uses soil based potted plants on a series of conveyor belts which migrates the plants by gravity – some kind of a grandfather clock like apparatus which actually moves this conveyor belt of plants near the windows maybe once or twice an hour so that every plant gets the same amount of sunlight during the day at least. Because it rains every day there’s certainly no shortage of water for these plants either, and [they] use traditional fertilizer. And the guy has moved from a 2,000 square foot operation to a 20,000 square foot operation.

There’s a vertical farm that’s been on the drawing board for a long time now. I’d say five years which is in the final planning stages and about to dig a hole to make room for the foundation in Sweden. It’s called Plantagon and Plantagon Corporation is a combination of private investors and the Onondaga Indians of northern New York State. Hence the name Plantagon. And it’s a very altruistic group of people. They want to show the world how to farm in another way so that indeed these 340,000 square miles of hardwood forest can start to be given back to nature and to perform the job that they were originally selected for. And so I think they should have their farm – it’s about a 14 story building that they’re planning. It’s a mixed use building because it’s got offices on one side and a growing system across the entire façade of the building on the other side of the building. So imagine yourself sitting at a conference of some sort at 10:30 in the morning. It’s about time to go out and pick lunch.

So everybody gets up from the table when the meeting is over. They have their trays. They have their little bowls and they go and they go up and down an elevator and they select tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchinis and all kinds of green vegetables. And they come back and they sit at the commissary and have lunch. Sounds like a fanciful science fiction like scene, but you can already do that at Pasona02 in Tokyo. Pasona02 is a very interesting building. It was built in 2010. It is nine stories tall and each floor has a different set of edible plants growing in it. And it’s not a building dedicated just to growing food. In fact, the people inside are human resource oriented. They help companies design retirement plans and benefit plans for hiring and stuff like that. But indeed when they want to go to lunch they don’t have to leave the building. In fact, they can even go down to the first floor and pick rice and bring it upstairs, winnow it, the grains are then given to the chef. The chef then boils it up and makes then a rice dish with the vegetables that they’ve already picked.

For that kind of an operation you can’t get better than that. I’m not at all privy to the energetics of how much energy it costs for that building to operate. But I do know that the employees are extremely happy. So vertical farming, I think, arising from an idea in 1999 in a classroom that I taught to see where it’s come in the last let’s say 12 or 14 years has been remarkable. I would say remarkable.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton