Despommier (Microbiology and Environmental Sciences/Columbia Univ.) details his optimistic vision of a sustainable future based on urban agriculture.
In the past decade, the author and his graduate students have developed the idea of vertical farming, which would move American agriculture from rural areas into high-tech greenhouses stacked up in specially constructed city buildings. This debut is the author’s first full discussion of the concept, which has been widely covered in major media but never implemented. Recounting the evolution of agriculture, Despommier argues that traditional farming has ruined our ecosystems and cannot possibly meet the needs of a global population expected to grow to nine billion by 2050. Horizontal farming requires 70 percent of available freshwater, uses 20 percent of fossil fuels yearly and produces runoff that is a major source of water pollution. By contrast, vertical farms would rely on soil-free technologies: hydroponics, which permits growing plants in a water-and-nutrient solution; and aeroponics, which grows plants in a nutrient-laden mist. Housed in transparent buildings to capture sunlight, the urban farms would operate year-round, immune to the weather, and produce dozens of varieties of pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Lower floors would house chickens and fish subsisting on plant waste. Providing food for “60 percent of the population that will live in cities twenty years from now,” the high-rise farms would recycle their own water, use the host city’s remediated household wastewater to grow crops, reduce carbon emissions and permit reforestation of farmlands to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon. They would also create new jobs, for workers to build and maintain the vertical farms, and for displaced traditional farmers, who would be paid to return their lands to hardwood forests. How this will sit with agribusiness and other powerful vested interests remains to be seen, but Despommier writes that his quixotic-seeming idea is feasible and has already won enthusiastic attention from scientists and others. The only thing lacking, he writes, is the political will and the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build a prototype.
A captivating argument that will intrigue general readers and give policymakers and investors much to ponder.