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The Vertical Farm: A Chat with Dickson D. Despommier, Ph.D.

Image Credit: Aprilli Design Studio/Newsweek

By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will live in urban centers and that number will have increased by about 3 billion people in the interim – a big challenge and opportunity to feed. One emergent model is indoor farming, aka, vertical farming.

Columbia professor Dickson D. Despommier, Ph.D., (now emeritus) at Columbia University Medical School authored “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” published in 2010, and is credited with mainstreaming the term vertical farming.

At its most basic, the process refers to growing crops in vertically stacked beds in a controlled environment, without natural light or soil as Despommier describes here:

Sustainable Brands spoke with Despommier about the adoption of this model today.

“The idea has not been in the public domain for more than ten years,” he said. “It requires a heavy investment and creativity to invent the methods and to create social buy-in. It’s been quite rapid depending on how you define it. The idea smoldered in Japan for ten years and then Fukushima occurred and countries went ballistic as the people of Japan were not buying food grown there thinking it was contaminated.

“An indoor food industry was a solution and the Japanese government supported it. Indoor farming spread in the country and Toshiba and Panasonic were enlisted by the government of Japan to become leaders in indoor farming. These two giants had some downsizing in their own factories due to competition in other sectors that affected their ability to keep pace with the growth of electronics industry. Warehouses not being used were converted to indoor growing systems. Japan has embraced indoor/vertical farming.

“Singapore lacks land but is rich. They want to control food safety and sovereignty. Before urban farming there were no options. Panasonic has large indoor farms in Singapore and six others are being built to fulfill expanding demand.

“Taiwan has 50 vertical farms. They have little land to farm on a mountainous island with a tropical climate. Korea built and experimental farm in 2010 and the Mayor of Seoul announced in the last six months that every building can accommodate an addition for vertical farming. There are 30 million people in Seoul now and they’re importing foods but want to be in control.

“Here in the US, farmers in the Midwest have a winter problem and can’t deliver fresh greens as easily – fresh greens as in picked today – so what arrives is three weeks old and 40% is thrown out from refrigerators as it rots.

“There are 30 or so indoor farms centered around Chicago in abandoned warehouses – many no higher than a single story, single greenhouses – but they must be higher than one story to qualify as vertical farms. Companies like Sears, Kmart and Walmart who have such buildings can get tax breaks to repurpose them for farming but these stories don’t make the radar screen of the public, they don’t usually make the headlines.”

Despommier and his students figured out that a space like Floyd Bennett Field, former airport-turned-park on Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, could provide enough vegetables and rice to feed every person living in New York City in the year 2050 – along with medicinal plants, and herbs and spices for five different traditional cuisines.

SB asked is this an extensible model?

“Every situation for establishing an indoor farm is predicated on supply and demand,” Despommier said. “Most cities in the US north of the Mason Dixon - the weather division – are going to run out of fresh green vegetables in winter.

“It’s amazing how important they are to restaurants and even fast-food chains as accoutrements – it’s a huge output that needs a reliable source and from that perspective, every city has space but a different set of priorities. You have to be clever in dealing with real estate agents etc.”

“Empty warehouses are a prime target for the establishment – every Mayor has relics from industrial movements and habits developed by Kmart and Costco and Sears. Corporations overextended. Starbucks has gigantic warehouses out of reach of a city for property taxes, several thousand sq. feet, intergowing vegetables like tomatoes and green beans. They’re not hard to grow but you need demand.”

Since your book was published, what changes do you perceive in consumer and business attitudes towards sustainable agriculture?

“There’s been a gradual transition from the Currie and Ives view of farming of the 1910’s and 20’s and then the 30’s drought trashed the Midwest, followed by WWII – and then, as depicted in the “Grapes of Wrath,” a favorite book, what happened next was a generation displaced by climate change who moved to CA. How ironic that CA is in its seventh year of drought and even the weather coming isn’t going to help as it’s coming in the wrong place to solve the problem. The problem continues.

“Moving to dairy farms, out of CA’s total $70 billion agricultural initiative, half is dairy farming. Dairy farmers in Europe are growing food for cattle indoors. No bales of hay, real cow food, and they grow it on demand, enough to raise 300 head of dairy cattle on oats barley grain from plants that stand just six inches tall with a tangled root system – crops in trays – which is then inverted and the root system falls out and that cattle feed is the Häagen-Dazs or Jerry Garcia flavor for them, they love it.  You don’t need a lot of room and continuous growth for six weeks yields enough for 300 head of cattle.”

Despommier is hopeful we’ll get it right before we’ve exhausted the planet’s patience and resources but cautions, “humans are born with capacity to creativity and environmental destruction. We do it creatively, use our creativity in ways that damage the planet. Eventually the reality that what we’re doing with environmental encroachment will sink in.”

Today in the U.S., there are vertical farms in Seattle, Detroit, Houston, Brooklyn, Queens and near Chicago.

AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey is one of the largest with a main crop of

baby salad greens, “vast armies of little watercresses, arugulas, and kales waiting to be harvested and sold. For more than a year, all the company’s commercial greens came from this vertical farm.”

“It’s still hovering at lever of industrial radar screens,” said Despommier, “but it’s a big industry waiting to happen – and the grow-light industry is huge, all that equipment, but it needs to be cobbled together.”

The building now leased by AeroFarms used to be Grammer, Dempsey & Hudson headquarters in 1929 when in an average year, the steel-supply company shipped about twenty thousand tons of steel. When the vertical farm there today is in full operation, soon, they expect to ship more than a thousand tons of greens each year.


Sheila Shayon, President of Third Eye Media, is a senior media executive with twenty five plus years in television and new media including expertise in programming, production, broadband, start-up models, creative and branding strategies, digital content and social networking. 

[Read more about Sheila Shayon]