Worried about feeding the world? It’s time to bring vertical farming to our cities, says Lucy Davis.
By 2050, the number of people residing on the planet is expected to exceed nine billion, which represents a population increase of more than 30 percent in just over four decades. Increasingly, people will turn their backs on rural living and flock to our urban centres, and it is predicted that by 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, a jump of 20 percent from its current level.
Columbia University professor of Environmental Science, Dickson Despommier therefore believes that cities need to become more self-sufficient, and he has proposed to bring farming to the city in an upright fashion, a concept he calls vertical farming. Office blocks and residential towers would nestle against ‘farm scrapers’ that would bear fruit and vegetables grown using greenhouse methods.
The scientist estimates that one 18-storey tower could feed 50,000 people – although his solution doesn’t come cheap, as it is estimated that a vertical farm would cost at least US$200 million to build.
The advantages to such a project are numerous, including the continuous production of food (no seasons to worry about), no weather-related crop failures, and the reduction of pollution created by farm machinery and transporting food. In addition, the controlled environment of what is essentially a multi-storey greenhouse prevents the need for pesticides.
A number of international architects have already interpreted Despommier’s lofty agricultural dreams, and their striking designs are a world away from the muddy pastures and battered outhouses that we have come to associate with farming. French-based SOA Architects has created the Living Tower, a transparent structure powered by wind turbines, while Chris Jacobs, the creative director of United Future in Los Angeles, has unveiled plans for a structure modelled after the Capitol Records building that draws its energy from a rotating solar panel.
While the project may have architectural advocates from all over the world, it is not without its critics. One of its most vocal opponents is Bruce Bugbee, professor of Crop Psysiology at Utah State University, who says that the solution to feeding the world’s burgeoning population is rather to manage farmland in a more cost-effective manner – although Despommier counters that by saying, “land is disappearing faster than it can be repaired due to wind and flood erosion”. Bugbee, however, also points out that huge sums would be needed to power such farm scrapers, as they would rely heavily on electricity.
While many countries have expressed an interest in vertical farming, including Germany, the US and South Korea, the opportunity to realise such dreams seems mere pie in the sky at the moment. Even Despommier admits that, “negotiations are still in the preliminary stages”. But if he has his way, vertical farms will soon grace every city skyline in the world, climbing as high as 30 storeys.
If nothing else, vertical farms provide food for thought, and Despommier is confident he can win the approval of the world’s various governments. “When their crops fail due to floods, droughts, insect pests and war, they will come around.”