13 February 2012

The Vertical Farm

I never seem to know what to read, so when I was at the library recently, I picked up this book (along with Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me and Into Thin Air, the latter of which was fascinating but neither of which is particularly relevant to this post).

Since I've been learning about farming, food issues, the local food movement, etc., The Vertical Farm seemed kind of interesting. And it was -- kind of interesting.

The book revolves around the premise that the world is running out of farmland (which we are; it's really just a question of when). To compensate for population growth and the loss of farms to real estate development, the author, Dickson Despommier, suggests urban farms in skyscrapers. It seems like a far-fetched idea, but if the details can be worked out (as the author, a professor of microbiology and public health, seems to think they can), the advantages are significant. Unlike traditional farms that are subject to flood-and-drought cycles, a vertical farm could be watered with treated-but-not-potable city wastewater, and the plants' processes within the vertical farm would actually turn that treated water back into fresh, usable water. Weather wouldn't affect crops; they could be grown 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. Perhaps most importantly, indoor farms wouldn't require the pesticides and fertilizers that currently pour off of farmland through runoff, killing aquatic life wherever it reaches rivers and oceans. And instead of farms being pushed farther and farther from population centers, these farms would be in cities, minimizing the distance food would need to travel to get to the dinner plate (and creating jobs where the people are anyway).

So the vertical farm is definitely an interesting concept. But the book started with 100 pages of the history of farming (going all the way back to the transition from hunting and gathering), the main takeaway of which was, for me, that the dust bowl was caused by farming land that should never have been cleared for farming. The second half of the book is more interesting, providing examples of other (smaller-scale) indoor and vertical farming operations, technical details of how the facility would actually be set up (including the complicated water processing system), information about hydroponic (water-based) and aeroponic (air-based) gardening, and other benefits of vertical farms. Still, I can't help thinking that Mr. Despommier could have conveyed his idea in a much shorter scholarly article without omitting any of the essentials of his plan. (Needless to say, the average reader of this book wouldn't need all of these details -- not to mention that self-selection of readers creates a "preaching to the choir" situation, rendering the hard sell unnecessary -- and (if and) when the time comes to build an actual vertical farm, it will be based on its own much more technical specifications rather than this book.)

I found the concepts outlined in the book to be very well thought-out (dare I say plausible?) and well-explained.  When I picked up the book at the library, I was skeptical, to say the least.  Now, as I have told some people about what I was reading, I find myself trying to convince them that this plan really could be workable.  The only gap I saw was how to that sort-of-treated-but-certainly-not-sterile water would get clean enough to introduce into the otherwise sterile environment of the vertical farm.  He described a system whereby seeds would be thoroughly checked for pests, molds, etc., before being introduced into the building and employees would change their clothes and shoes before entering to ensure that nothing foreign infected the growing areas, but there wasn't much talk about how to ensure that the water supply was equally safe for that kind of operation (remember, there wouldn't be any pesticides to kill anything that might find its way in.)  The cost of such a process was also not addressed, although the book ends with the usual academic suggestions of public funding.

After the first 100 pages (the history lesson), it was a surprisingly quick read and was peppered with interesting facts and ideas.  Some highlights:
  • Mr. Despommier says it's pretty much undisputed that the world currently has enough food to feed everyone; it's just not distributed proportionally with the population. (How farming in cities in the developed world would help this isn't clear, although at the end he suggests that this plan could also be applied to developing and third-world countries...but doesn't say how it would be paid for.)
  • He estimates that, by 2050, there will be 10 billion people in the world (an increase of nearly 50%). The world, he says, will need to find additional farmland the size of Brazil.
  • While the book was published in 2010, the author appeared on the Colbert Report in 2008 talking about the concept. Click here to be thoroughly entertained by that interview. 

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