Top | The Culinate Interview

Dickson Despommier

(article, James Berry)

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p(blue). So far, vertical farming (VF) has raised far more hoopla than actual crops. Theoretically, farming inside a building instead of across the ground has a number of benefits. Maximizing space in a world where arable land is dwindling fast due to population growth, unsustainable agricultural methods, and global warming? Check. Minimizing water waste via hydroponic and aquaponic methods? Check. 

p(blue). But saving vast amounts of energy and their associated costs? Not so much, once you’ve factored in the cost of building vertical farms and paying for all the necessary artificial light, climate control, and electrical systems.

p(blue). Hence the skepticism with which critics approach both the concept (see: recent coverage in the Economist and Der Spiegel) and its most notable proponent, Columbia University's Dickson Despommier, who literally wrote the book on VF (The Vertical Farm). 

p(blue). That Despommier's response to his critics is so straightforward and unsensational is perhaps why it gets lost in the shuffle. In light of the food-security crises we face, he says, the naysayers are simply missing the point. The future will be radically different whether we like it or not, but maintaining the dystopian status quo will ultimately cost us far more dearly than working toward an arguable utopia.

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What are your projections for making VF a reality on a large scale?
If I could answer that question, I’d be a rich man. How possible is it to predict anything — what’s going to happen to the stock market, whether we’re going to get 20 inches of rain? I’m really not the futurist I’m billed as; I’m totally grounded in microbiology. 

A couple of years ago I would have said I don’t really know, because there are no specific examples; no one had a clue as to how to start. Well, that’s not quite true. There’s an integration of systems you have to get to work right; that’s been done.

Systems such as?
The systems I’m referring to are the ones related to managing water — hydroponics, aquaponics. Managing to make sure that plants don’t become contaminated with outside pathogens. Managing the energy system to balance the right amount of lighting against the cost of energy. Managing the nutrients in the hydroponic feeding system to ensure that all the plants get the same amount. That’s been worked out for a single layer, but we need to make sure that it works when you start stacking \[plants in tiers\]. 

One thing that has to be carefully considered is how workers interact with the plants, \[which may mean\] you’ve got computerized systems to worry about. For the comfort of workers, another concern is the ambient temperature and humidity. 

You also have to keep the humidity low, because that allows you to recover the water pumped out through the leaves, and that’s what makes the process so efficient. If it gets too high, you get a lot of fungi growing on the machinery. Then you’ve got waste management. 

The portion of most plants that you eat is miniscule; what are you going to do with the rest? When you throw it out, you’re really wasting potential recoverable energy. There are solutions, but they have to be worked on to ensure that they would be economically feasible. The question becomes, how good an idea is VF?

In the past six years, Korea has decided vertical farming isn’t just a good idea; this is what we need to be doing. They’ve built a three-story prototype connected to a seed vault. It’s enormous; it’s amazing what technologically gifted and funded people can do. They’re going to answer questions like, "How many people can we feed? What are our technical problems — overcoming contamination, loss of electrical power?"

Another country that’s really glommed on to this in a big way is Holland. England’s doing it, too. Literate, engaged, worried, and action-driven countries are where the lead for this is going to come from, I think, in the next 10 to 15 years.

It seems as though we’re employing high tech in a relatively simple process, but I’ve killed legions of houseplants in my time and I know that they’re not that easy to maintain. Whether you think global warming exists or whether we’re responsible for it is irrelevant. Right now in Missouri, we’re going to have to trash an entire year’s worth of sorghum, wheat, sugar beets, cotton — I could go on. Any time you get flooding, you lose a year’s worth of crops. I don’t have to do a thing to convince people this is the right way to go, because weather’s going to do it for me.

Which models do you consider most viable? The designs on your website, like the pyramid, look pretty sci-fi. What if we go smaller, like the mobile, modular units being created by Colorado’s Infinite Harvest? How do they fit into your vision?
Smaller, free-standing buildings are probably not the future of \[day-to-day\] VF, but I think that modular units would be great for intercepting emergency situations — natural disasters or war. When people are forced to live somewhere that they can’t grow food, these can be up and running quickly.

I’ll be frank: we did the pyramid as a tongue-in-cheek exercise for a conference in Dubai. It was eye candy, but it totally caught their attention. The most practical example I can point to is in Holland. It’s called PlantLab and it’s underground; I call it upside-down VF. They use grow light only; they claim that by excluding daylight and adding their own LEDs, they’re inhibiting the disadvantageous wavelengths of sun, getting only the stimulatory waves, and getting two to three times the growth rate. 

That brings us to the main criticism of VF: namely, that the sheer amount of artificial light required means that VF won’t really save energy and therefore won’t reduce carbon emissions or costs.
The people who say that don’t really know the facts. The U.S. uses 20 percent of its fossil fuels to grow its food. Assume $3 a gallon; how much are we burning for conventional agriculture annually? On a vertical farm, you don’t have to worry about transportation or all these power-driven machines. 

It doesn’t do any good to say energy is expensive; everybody knows that. These buildings aren’t energy-neutral any more than any others are; the hope I have is to offset some of the costs. Look at the cost of flat-screen TVs and how it’s gone down since their introduction to the market. It’s all about demand and industrial response. Sure, the cost of the first VF will be astronomical. But the next one will be half that, the next one a quarter, the next an eighth. These prototypes will figure it all out themselves, but even if they use the exact same amount of energy as we use to grow outdoors, the biggest advantage is you don’t need the land anymore.

So you’re saying that urban agriculture is less a matter of energy reduction per se than of land restoration? Can you elaborate?
If you add up all the land that is currently being farmed in terms of acres, it’s the size of the continent of South America. That’s how much we have currently taken away from natural processes and put in to farmland. 

The biggest thing we’re worried about is cutting down trees. When you do that, you take away nature’s ability to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That creates heat, and that’s what’s causing climate change. Trees are our best friends, so the more we have, the better off we’ll be. 

Take the problem of California. We’re talking about agricultural runoff. In the southern half of California, everybody has to irrigate. \[Lacking a river system,\] there’s nowhere for that water to go. It goes down in the ground, where it’s contaminated by fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. If the gifted people at UC Davis can’t solve this problem, than nobody can; they can’t change this process. The fruit-and-vegetable industry is going to be out of business in another 50 years. That’s going to happen. And California will lose $30 billion worth of farmland. 

In my book I wrote a whole chapter about the present farming situation. We export 80 percent of the stuff we grow. Soybeans, corn, and wheat comprise 60 percent of the GDP for agriculture that doesn’t relate to livestock, due to these government subsidies that are pushing budgets that allow us to say, “Screw it, we can get our food from some other place, then support an industry that’s already failing.” Farmers that are out of work traditionally move to the city. You’re getting urbanization no matter what, so farmers could continue their practice in cities. 

Meanwhile, before there were farms, there was something else. There’s a film called '"The that goes to a great length to exclude anything modern. It’s a miracle when you see that movie, with all these hardwood forests. What if it looked like that again, and you could still have your food? If you were to convert Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa back to forest, pay those farmers to grow trees instead of corn and soybeans, and allow the world to return to some balance, you could suck up 4 percent of the earth’s carbon dioxide. 

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It’s enough to reverse climate change. And the farmers would be multibillionaires. When you put it in terms like that, people understand — an example of what it would mean to individuals to have climate change reversed while putting money in their pockets.

Another example is Holland. They’ve always had a problem with their water table, because most of the country is below sea level. Saltwater kills plants, but they’ve reached the point where their system of dikes and aquifers doesn’t work anymore. With water levels rising, there’s a country that needs and wants VF. Another 20 years from now, 50 percent of their crops will come from VF.

It’s much harder to react to change than to control the present. The industries that will be hurt the most don’t want to control it, because they’ll lose their edge. But they’ll have to, because the governments that get involved in this will be facilitating it throughout the world.

Still, bold visions are going to have to be realized for this to work, no? Such as the development of renewable-energy technologies?
There’s solar power, there’s geothermal and tidal and wind power. We have a huge amount of wind power that we have yet to fully harness. We import 20 to 30 percent of our oil; simply by setting up wind farms in the Midwest, we’d offset those imports and save $700 billion a year.

But not every country has a surplus of those natural resources, so for my money, the best energy-recovery systems involve waste management. Plasma arc gassification, where you heat something up so hot that it vaporizes — that exists already. Japan is about to go big-time in using that to replace its nuclear power plants. Whatever you put in the presence of that arc is going to be incinerated. It takes a lot of energy to hold things together; when they come apart, you release that energy, and you can recapture it to make steam. Half of it is used to make the machine work, and the other half can be used for your purposes. With a small gassification device in each VF, we can make use of the inedible parts of plants.

Look at our landfills. We’re running out of places to maintain them. If you could think of those as coal-mine equivalents and simply incinerate their contents, that’s one source of energy that’s totally untapped. And another is our own waste. We spend millions getting rid of human waste when we could recycle it. 

We didn’t think nuclear energy was going to go anywhere either. Today, France gets about 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

p(bio). Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based food writer; her portfolio and blog, Denveater, can be found at her website.

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