Dr. Despommier, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Of course not! I know Columbia University is in a contentious struggle with some Manhattan residents over its plans to expand, but vertical farming is completely separate from that.
Broad adoption, to answer your question, will require broad support by city governments and a national effort to level the farming playing field. It will be hard for us to compete with a heavily subsidized ($300 billion Farm Bill) farming industry even though our proposal is a much better option for the long run.
Everybody brings up the notion of the cost of land, and they’re right to do so. As we value it now, land in Iowa is much cheaper than land in Times Square, and so Iowa is where we put out lowest-paying tenants: food crops. But if you factor in the long-term global benefit of letting the American Midwest revert to how it looked before humans started farming on it–by and large, it was covered in thriving hardwood forests–then a different sort of picture emerges. This is a picture that includes the belief–which is widely accepted already–that trees are man’s best friend. We’re cutting down rainforests and frontier forests at an impressive rate all in the name of making room to grow food crops–or even worse, crops for biofuels. Instead, we should be planting trees to aid us in the fight against global warming. But the incentives are all screwed up right now, and so that’s why we have a bunch of people thinking it makes sense to cut down trees to make room for corn or soybeans.
It still probably doesn’t make sense to put a vertical farm in Times Square, but it probably does make sense to build one for Floyd Bennett Field, a defunct Air Force Base now used as an NYPD helipad and occasional concert venue. But it’s a huge plot of essentially unused land smack dab in New York City, where eight million people reside. Why don’t we try this there? Why don’t we incorporate food production into population hubs?
Again, the answer is about the economics. Right off the bat, you have to realize that $300 billion of taxpayer money goes to ensuring we have access to cheap food. But it’s been widely documented that there are huge externalities that normal economic models don’t account for. For example, diabetes and obesity have been convincingly linked to increases in consumption of processed foods high in high fructose corn syrup. And then taxpayers foot the uptick in hospital bills, so they’re told they’re saving on one end, but really they end up paying more than they would if we’d just leave government subsidies out of food.
Unfortunately, we’re very slow to see the true cost of cheap food. But that’s someone else’s specialty, really. Me, all I’m saying, is, Hey, look at all the amazing food production technologies that exist today that are alternatives to traditional agriculture. We have the know-how to build a system that generates energy (see Great Northern Hydroponics), cleanses wastewater (see John Todd Ecological Design), and reliably produces massive amounts of healthy food year-round (see Eurofresh Farms), so why not give it a shot?
For most of us in America–though not all–this whole “hunger problem” is totally invisible. That’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing. If the current food system works for you, that’s great. Unfortunately, there are a billion people in this world who feel desperately different about it, and that’s who I want to help. Einstein has that famous quote about insanity being doing something over and over and expecting different results. Well, right now it would be insane to expect to solve global hunger trying only what we’ve tried already. We need something new. To me, the area that holds the greatest promise is urban agriculture in general, and vertical farming as the pinnacle of a vision I have for a better world.
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