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Corn on the 8th floor, turnips on level 23…


Image: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Times has a slideshow of artists’ conceptions of possible designs for “vertical farms,” stacked, self-contained urban biosystems capable of producing food for tens of thousands of city residents. Amazingly, this futuristic concept, born of academia, seems to be getting at least a little bit of traction in the real world.

Let’s not pull any punches here: how is this not the dumbest idea ever?


Image: Eric Ellingsen and Dickson Despommier

I’m as concerned about food as the next guy — scratch that, I’m more concerned about food than the next guy — which is why I find it somewhat dismaying to see a serious and complicated set of issues turned into a sort of fetish. I really don’t know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending “hundreds of millions” of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space.

Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There’s a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that’s what New Jersey is for.


Image: Mithun

The article accompanying the slideshow is inadvertently hilarious:

> “It also has to be stunning in terms of the architecture, because it needs to work in terms of social marketing,” Dr. Despommier said. “You want people to say, ‘I want that in my backyard.'”

If the only way to sell your conceit is to make it look like I.M. Pei and Rem Koolhaas’ love child, then perhaps the original concept needs to be revisited. I’m not really sure that the profit margins on brussel sprouts are going to support the architect’s fees.


Image: Chris Jacobs

The article does provide some highly diplomatic words of dissent:

> Armando Carbonell, chairman of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., called the idea “very provocative.” But it requires a rigorous economic analysis, he added. “Would a tomato in lower Manhattan be able to outbid an investment banker for space in a high-rise? My bet is that the investment banker will pay more.”

> Mr. Carbonell questions if a vertical farm could deliver the energy savings its supporters promise. “There’s embodied energy in the concrete and steel and in construction,” he said, adding that the price of land in the city would still outweigh any savings from not having to transport food from afar. “I believe that this general relationship is going to hold, even as transportation costs go up and carbon costs get incorporated into the economic system.”

And that’s really the crux of the matter. If you care about food issues, you should be advocating for a carbon price, not drafting plans for vegetable gardens in space. Given the complexity of the food production system, carbon pricing is the only policy lever with sufficient scope and power to meaningfully (and cost-effectively) engage the problem.

Update. I’ve been reaching around for an analogy about why this idea bugs me so much, and I think maybe I’ve found it: vertical farms are the corn ethanol of food policy. Rather than a substantive solution, vertical farms seem like a cosmetically appealing quick fix that in reality will only make the problem worse.

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