Last week TechCrunch launched my TC-1 on Bowery Farming. What started as an article about a generously funded New York startup has turned into an exploration of an emerging field with a rich and fascinating history. I sought to answer some big questions about the efficiency, profitability and sustainability of vertical farming. I would be lying if I told you that I came out the other side with satisfactory answers – no doubt all of the above will be clear over time.
I have however had the opportunity to speak to several fascinating people with a myriad of perspectives on all of the above. One of the people I kept coming back to was Dickson Despommier, widely regarded as the godfather of vertical farming. It was in his classes at Columbia University that many fundamental concepts around vertical agriculture were developed over several years.
His 2010 book, “The Vertical Farm,” has also proven to be a seminal text for many. Last year it marked the book’s 10th anniversary with a new edition that offers an afterword reflecting much of what happened in the intervening decade. “In 2010, when this book was first published, there were no vertical farms,” Despommier writes in a new chapter. “As of this writing, there are so many vertical trusses that I’m not sure how many there are.”
The author certainly has something to celebrate. There are now hundreds of vertical farms across the world. Startups and governments are exploring technology amid concerns about climate change, overpopulation and overfishing. As I noted in my recent review, the book is not an instruction manual, but rather a utopian text exploring what could be with sufficient funding, technology, and monitoring. This is the story Despommier wants to tell, and frankly, it’s hard to blame him. In a world mired in endlessly depressing floods of news, it’s nice to have the occasional bit of utopian idealism, however realistic it may or may not be.
It seemed appropriate to end the review by talking to Despommier and revisiting some of the ideas and idealism of the book. While the book was right in the abstract, “The Vertical Farm” missed some of the finer details about the precise appearance and action of these farms.
“I had a good photo of myself, sort of kneeling on the road with my camera and I took a photo of the Apple Store on 59th Street and Central Park West,” Despommier explains. “I thought that was what the vertical farm would look like. He just has to look that way. And it is quite the opposite. It’s just what you want to do is keep the sunlight out because it contains wavelengths of light that actually inhibit plant furrows. And who knew that until you started using LED lights, and you could adjust and then you could see red and blue, a little bit of green. And you throw it together and leave out all the other spectra visible. And now you have made it much more efficient and the plants are growing twice as fast.
The model we’ve seen so far is more like a factory than a greenhouse. Large windowless buildings that once served as distribution centers now house farms, powered by LED technologies, rather than the sun – the world’s largest source of renewable energy. Energy consumption remains one of the biggest question marks around this technology. Proponents insist this is a clear positive for the environment over more traditional farming methods. For my part, I am convinced that the jury is still not there, even if it seems plausible that emerging technologies can make things happen. For his part, Despommier indicates that technologies such as photovoltaics, water harvesting and cross-laminated timber construction are keys to achieving these goals.
“We want the city to become a mutualist symbiote,” says Despommier. “It’s a fancy term because it helps the countryside survive by not taking advantage of it. Today, for example, where I am, it is raining. Each building should have a rain harvesting system integrated into the roofing system. And they should have a storage system. And they should use this water for heating and cooling as well as for bathing and drinking and even part of the vertical farm. “
However, for his vision to truly materialize, innovation will need to follow a capitalism-driven startup model. Governments will need to play a more aggressive role in realizing these technologies in order to minimize the inevitable impact of man-made climate change.
“The United States Department of Agriculture has already organized five or six regional meetings on [vertical farming], “he said.” I attended two of those meetings in Washington, DC, and very high level people were present at that meeting. You had the right to say what you thought, you could say what you. wanted, you could poop the idea, or you could brag about it way beyond its potential. And we had these two sides of the story spoken at the same time. You can now find on the USDA site a section devoted to indoor agriculture.