The Economist Speculates on the Future of Vertical Farming

A recent Economist article asks the question of vertical farming, “Does it really stack up?”  In theory, it’s a win-win-win concept for the environment, feeding growing urban populations locally, and increasing space for agriculture without more land use.  But the reality is that vertical farming is costly energy-wise due to the need for artificial lighting and insufficient space for renewable energy installations on skyscrapers.  While many designs exist, no large scale vertical farm has been built yet.  However, Will Allen’s Growing Power did receive approval this year from the Milwaukee city planning commission to build a five story greenhouse, perhaps marking a step toward the fruition of the first vertical farm.

A major argument for this concept is that not only will these vertical landscapes curb greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need for crop transport, but food spoiling – which comes along with the business-as-usual of hauling food over long distances — will cease to be a problem, as the food is both at the source and right at the hands of the consumer.  Most designs propose that plants be grown hydroponically, cancelling out soil erosion issues and significantly decreasing water usage in comparison with conventional farming techniques.  The standardized interior environment also allows for a year-round growing season. 

Due to the nature of a vertical farm being indoors, the nutrient content, temperature, humidity, air flow and lighting can all be regulated.  In this controlled setting, plants can be grown with little use of herbicides and pesticides, according to Columbia University’s Dickson Despommier, the so-called “father of vertical farms” and author of The Vertical Farm.  Hear Despommier discuss vertical farming in this video:

Artificial light poses a big obstacle for vertical farms becoming an economically viable food source.  Although such glass towers would provide some natural light to the plants, there would still be the need for artificial light.  Otherwise crop production would be uneven, with those crops closest to windows receiving more sunlight.  Peter Head, global leader of planning and sustainable development at the British engineering firm Arup explains to The Economist, “Light has to be very tightly controlled to get uniform production of very high-quality food.”  The price of powering artificial light is costly, weakening the case that vertical farms will be energy savers and curb emissions.  Head claims vertical farming proponents will need to figure out how to integrate renewable energy into the design in an affordable way in order for this idea to be feasible on a widespread scale.

Valcent Verticrop

In the meantime, companies are coming up with innovative compromises.  Valcent, a vertical farming firm, has created the VertiCrop system which guarantees plants take in even sunlight and air flow via hydroponic, vertically stacked trays on moving rails.  While they have a prototype, this system has only been designed for single story greenhouses where plants receive light from above as well from the sides and so may not be suitable for vertical farming.

Dr. Ted Caplow, environmental engineer and founder of New York Sun Works, advocates the “vertically integrated greenhouse,” a design that incorporates rotating crop production along the perimeters of buildings and offices within two sheets of glass.  This system provides enough natural light to the plants and performs as passive climate control. Head makes note that urban farming on building rooftops is a more immediate solution that utilizes space already available instead of starting from scratch.  The Economist concludes of this intermediary proposal, “it is much less glamorous than the grand vision of crops being produced in soaring green towers of glass. But, for the time being, this more down-to-earth approach is much more realistic than the sci-fi dream of fields in the sky.”

See what these four architects came up in this video with when asked by The Economist to explain their vertical farm designs:

Related 3P Posts:

Vertical Farms Realized:  Growing Power Launches 5 Story Expansion

Gardens Grow Up:  Are Vertical Landscapes the New Green Roofs?

Urban Green:  A City Green Thumb’s Best Friend

Lesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

5 responses

    1. This projects sounds good but the picture is pretty lame because the last place on earth where you’d want to put solar panels is above plants.
      Plants (leaves) are most efficient to convert solar light into food PLUS they absorb CO2 and generate oxygen in the process. Can your solar panel do that?

      Other buildings (where where humans live/work) would be good candidates for solar roofs.

      1. luckily all light doesn’t come straight down. in fact if you think about it there is only a short time during the middle of the day where the sun is coming straight down (and for some plants that sun can be too harsh).

  1. The environment can only be saved as quickly as the business world allows it to be through competition, development, design, and politics. The last comment really sums it up…You have to be optimistic.

  2. The issue of vertical farming comes down to appropriate scale. If you have grand designs then you will likely exclusively rely on GMO’s and hydroponics, energy intensive for sure. While as what growing power is up to I think is quite innovative comparatively.
    If you want a better analysis of vertical farming through the lense of permaculture principals please see this article I wrote “Vertical Farms Making History or Making Hype”.

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