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The Only Way Is Up

An interview with Dr Dickson Despommier, Columbia University

Published March 2013

Vertical farming: a really crazy solution to global climate change, forest encroachment and all kinds of other human-made problems? The concept’s greatest champion, Dr Dickson Despommier from Columbia University, talked to the Knowledge Centre, during his appearance at TEDx Warwick 2013, about the rationale behind his vision for the future of food production.

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Vertical farm planArizona and Antarctica do not have much in common. Take the temperature. It’s in the high 20s (degrees centigrade) in Phoenix during late March compared to the minus 20s experienced by those leaving Scott Base during the same period. There’s a strong connection though and one beyond a shared first letter. Sitting at a computer at the University of Arizona is a team of scientists monitoring a greenhouse (called the South Pole Food Growth Chamber) which is located at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. The experiment is exploring the viability of growing plants in extreme conditions whilst allowing a monitoring team to remain behind. The potential is there to use this setup to feed astronauts with fresh vegetables whilst they’re on a mission but there could be large benefits for those of us remaining on terra firma. If the monitoring systems were to be used in vertical farming, for example.

Skyscraper farms

Professor Dickson Despommier is an advocate for vertical farming. His work on the subject takes the concept of a high tech greenhouse and expands it - vertically. Imagine The Shard or 30 St Mary’s Axe (aka The Gherkin) turned over to agricultural production.

Science fiction? Trials for vertical farms are already underway in several major cities around the globe so it might not be too far off to find yourself picking your own courgettes on the eighth floor of an inner-city skyscraper. And if the recent designs being looked at in China are anything to go by, vertical farms could be iconic additions to the skyline. Monitoring allows the vertical famer to manage the farm in an efficient manner – reducing waste and, in the ideal form, minimising the cost (and impact) of food production.

It sounds ideal and possibly too good to be true. Vertical farming has had its detractors; not least among them was George Monbiot who described the concept as 'towering lunacy' in a 2010 article.

In 2010, the idea was still very much conceptual. Now there are several vertical farms across the globe, ranging from a couple of storeys high in converted warehouses to an 18-storey-high project in Texas. It’s still early days and most of these pilot sites are experiments aiming to ascertain if vertical farms are a commercially viable idea. But, considering that Despommier only started developing this concept for vertical farming less than 15 years ago, it’s good progress.

From small acorns...

“I’d like to emphasise the fact that this idea arose in a classroom,” he says. “In 1999, there were seven students and myself. Over the next nine years, the class size grew from seven to around 35, which is the most we can fit in the room. We divided off into groups to answer questions; ‘Is this a crazy idea? Or is this okay?’ It’s not a crazy idea? Okay, how do you do it? What kind of crops can you grow inside of a building for instance and how tall can you make that building and how much engineering does it require and do you use grow lights and hydroponics or do you use traditional farming methods? All those questions arose during those ten years.”

And a decade on?

“There are now vertical farms…Today we have vertical farms in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Sweden, the United States and Canada. With many more to come.”

Despommier recognises there will be problems with the model but that in the early days of putting the idea into motion, the criteria for success won’t be how quickly we can move from traditional farming to the vertical form.

“The success rate is measured in terms of banks giving loans for commercially viable farms,” he explains. “They don’t give out money trivially and people don’t ask for the money trivially because it’s hard to pay it back if you don’t have a good idea.”

And a number of governments and organisations do consider vertical farming to be a good idea – and not just for growing food.

The sky's the limit

“There are many other plants which you can grow indoors which have nothing to do with food. For instance, you can grow biofuel plants. Outdoors there are seasons for these things. Indoors there are no seasons. The [vertical farm] I visited in Texas was a very high tech building sponsored by DARPA, which is the research arm of the United States Army. And this facility produces virus particles, not the virus, just the virus particle, because the particle is the thing your immune system sees when they inject you with a vaccine.”

With the cost of setting up a commercial vertical farm being, Despommier estimates, millions of US dollars, governments may be the early adopters. The South Korean government has already started, having set up a three-storey vertical farm in Suwon.

“They’re trying to jump start this technology,” he says. “In order to do that, they’ve got to convince everybody it’s a good idea. If the government does it everybody agrees it’s a good idea, especially in Korea.”

With a number of nations following suit and asking architects from across the globe to design iconic pieces of farming architecture for their cities, what is stopping this from being taken up everywhere?

“Nothing!” he says. “In the past I would say money or inertia or non-acceptance of the idea but it is happening all around the world now. Japan, Korea, Singapore; I’m sure China’s working hard on this also. I’ve spoken in India and I know they’re very excited about this idea.”

Is vertical farming the answer?

Dickson Despommier has high hopes for the concept but is vertical farming the answer to an array of environmental problems as claimed? Professor Brian Thomas, Deputy Head, School of Life Sciences, Warwick, offers his thoughts:

“The big problem with vertical farming is light. All agriculture is based on harvesting sunlight. As soon as you have multiple layers you either need sophisticated light piping or artificial illumination. The Japanese have plant factories for high value horticultural crops but the idea that you can do large scale food production is highly dubious. Where does the energy for the light come from and how is it affordable? I would need to see rigorous energy balance and economic analyses before I was convinced. We need to be cautious that the argument for vertical farming isn't based solely on hype.”

  • Dr Dickson Despommier spoke to the Knowledge Centre during his visit to the UK to speak at TEDxWarwick 2013, held at the University of Warwick. You can listen to the full interview in the above podcast.
  • For more information on the University of Warwick’s work on food security, visit our Food Global Research Priority page.

Dickson Despommier is a microbiologist, an ecologist, and emeritus professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University. He is a member of the Urban Design Laboratory, part of the Earth Institute, at Columbia University. He is also affiliated to the American Society for Tropical Medicine, the American Society for Parasitology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Despommier is a member of the New York City Department of Health's Food Safety Committee. In 2003, he won the National Teacher of the Year from the American Medical Student Association and, more recently, received the Distinguished Teacher Award, from Columbia University School of Medicine, in 2007. Despommier is a regular contributor to two weekly podcasts; This Week in Virology (TWIV) and This Week in Parasitism (TWIP). 'The Vertical Farm: feeding the world in the 21st Century' by Dickson Despommier was published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press, New York.


Image of vertical farm design 'VF Type O' by Oliver Foster from: www.verticalfarm.com/designs