I reworked my vertical farm piece for Worldchanging, and by the time I was done, it was an entirely different article. So if you can stand one last entry about vertical farms, this one offers a somewhat more thoughtful look at some of the principles behind sustainable development.
Columbia Professor Dickson Despommier has generated a fair amount of attention with his concept for “vertical farms,” stacked, self-contained urban biosystems that would — theoretically — supply fresh produce for city residents year round. The New York Times showcased outlandish artists’ conceptions of what such farms might look like. Colbert did his shtick. Twelve pilot projects are supposedly under consideration, in locations as far-flung as China and Dubai.
The concept has captured the imagination of at least the sliver of the public that laments the enormous resource demands of our food production system and yearns for something easier on the land, easier on our aquifers, and less demanding of fossil fuels. Vertical farms seem to promise all that.
Promising, of course, is different than delivering. Construction requires a lot of energy. Keeping vegetables warm in winter requires a lot of energy. Recycling water requires a lot of energy. Generating artificial sunlight requires a lot of energy. In other words, the secret ingredient that makes vertical farms work (assuming they work at all) is boatloads of energy. No one seems to have actually done the math on the monetary and environmental costs of such a scheme, but they would no doubt be considerable.