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Organic Farming in…Skyscrapers?

Posted By G Monkie On June 26, 2009 @ 8:00 am In Architecture / Interior Design,Gardening Organically | 1 Comment

We’ve written about urban farms before, how the future of farming might rely on giant skyscrapers, using hydroponics or other systems to feed our growing cities. New York Magazine has decided to do a feature on this as well, and has named it Skyfarming.

(via nymag.com) "A Columbia professor believes that converting skyscrapers into crop farms could help reduce global warming and make New York

Urban farming has always been a slightly quixotic endeavor. From the small animal farm that was perched on the roof of the Upper West Side’s Ansonia apartment building in the early 1900s (fresh eggs delivered by bellhop!) to community gardens threatened by real-estate development, the dream of preserving a little of the country in the city is a utopian one. But nobody has ever dreamed as big as Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University, who believes that “vertical farm” skyscrapers could help fight global warming."

The New York Magazine article is based on Dr. Dickson Despommier work and essay on Vertical Farming. He has recently updated his essay and we will include part of it here: Essay 2


The advent of agriculture catalyzed the transformation of the human condition from that of hunter-gatherer to world citizen. The human population responded, burgeoning to some 6.4 billion individuals. Over 800 million hectares (i.e., nearly 38% of the total landmass of the earth) is committed to producing crops to support this still growing population. Farming dramatically re-arranged the landscape, replacing functional ecosystems with cultivated fields and herds of a wide variety of domesticated animals. Undeniably, a reliable food supply has allowed for the evolution of culturally robust societies. Ironically, farming has created a set of new hazards unique to activities involved with the production of food, and has exacerbated many older ones. Exposure to toxic levels of agrochemicals (pesticides, fungicides) and a plethora of physical injuries are part and parcel of plowing, harvesting, etc. Influenza, rabies, yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, leishmaniasis, hookworm, schistosomiasis, and a wide spectrum of geohelminths are transmitted with regularity at the tropical and sub-tropical agricultural interface. Emerging infections, many of which are viral zoonoses (e.g., Ebola, Lassa fever) have adapted to the human host following our encroachment into their environments. In 50 years, the human population is expected to increase to some 8.3 billion individuals. Feeding these new arrivals will require an additional 109 hectares of farmland; land that does not exist. Other approaches to growing food must be employed if we are to eliminate hunger and poverty


As of January 2006, approximately 800 million hectares of arable land were in use, allowing for the harvesting of an ample food supply for the majority of a human population now in excess of 6.4 billion. These estimates include grazing lands (formerly grasslands) for cattle, representing nearly 85% of all land that could support a minimum level of agriculture. Farming also produces a wide variety of grains that feed millions of head of cattle and other domesticated farm animals (1). In 2003, nearly 33 million head of cattle were produced in the United States, alone (2). In order to support this large a scale of agricultural activity, millions of hectares of hardwood and coniferous forest (temperate and tropical), grasslands, and wetlands were sacrificed, or at the very least severely reduced to fragmented remnants of their former ranges. In either case, significant loss of biodiversity and disruption of ecosystem functions on a global scale has been the result (3-5).

While no one questions the value of farming in getting us to this point in our evolutionary history,even our earliest efforts caused irreversible damage to the natural landscape, and is so wide-spread now that it threatens to alter the rest of the course of our life on this planet. The silt-laden soils of the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys serve as a good example in this regard (6). This region was the cradle of western civilization attributable solely to the early invention of food growing technologies (mostly wheat cultivation). The land was soon degraded below a minimum level of food production due to erosion caused by intensive, primitive farming practices that rapidly depleted the earth of its scant supply of nutrients, while mis-managed irrigation projects were often interrupted by wars and out-of-season flooding events. Traditional farming practices (i.e., non-high tech) continue to this day to produce massive loss of topsoil (3,5,6), while excluding the possibility for long-term carbon sequestration in the form of trees and other permanent woody plants (7).

Agrochemicals, especially fertilizers, are used in almost every commercial farming scheme 8), due to the demand for cash crops that require more nutrients from the substrate that it can provide. Fertilizer use is expensive and encourages the growth of weeds, making herbicide use almost a requirement (9). In commercial ventures, farming involves the production of single crop species, most of which are vulnerable to attack from a wide variety of microbes and arthropods (10,11). The agrochemical industries have, over just a short period of time (50+yrs), responded to these biological pressures, producing an astounding array of chemical deterrents that have, up to very recently, been able to control these unwanted guests attempting to sit at our table. The regular application of pesticides and herbicides has facilitated an ever-increasing agricultural bounty, but many arthropod and plant species have developed at least some level of resistance to both classes of compounds. As the result, higher and higher doses of these products are needed to do the same job as the year before. This is why the single most damaging source of pollution is agricultural runoff (12). In the majority of intensive farming settings following even mild rain events, a toxic mix of agrochemicals leaves the fields and contaminates surrounding ecotones with predictable regularity. The ecological consequences of runoff have been nothing short of devastating (13; see also USGS web site: http://www.usgs.gov). Human health risks are also undoubtedly associated with high exposures to some agrochemicals, and some illnesses associated with them have been identified (14). However, many chemicals manifest their toxic effects in the human body in ways far more subtle than, say for instance DDT and the thinning of birds of prey egg-shells, making them difficult to implicate in the disease process (15).

Farming itself is an activity fraught with health risks (16-23). The mechanisms of transmission for numerous agents of disease (e.g., the schistosomes, malaria, some forms of leishmaniasis, geohelminths) are linked to a wide variety of traditional agricultural practices (e.g., using human feces as fertilizer, irrigation, plowing, sowing, harvesting; 24-29). These illnesses take a huge toll on human health, disabling large populations, thus removing them from the flow of commerce, and this is especially the case in the poorest countries. In fact, they are often the root cause of their impoverished situation. Trauma injuries are considered a normal consequence of farming by most who engage in this activity (25,30,31), and are particularly common among “slash and burn” subsistence farmers. It is reasonable to expect that as the human population continues to grow, these problems will worsen at ever increasing rates.

To address these problems and those perceived to soon emerge onto the horizon, an alternate way of food production was proposed; namely growing large amounts of produce within the confines of high-rise buildings. This idea appeared to offer a practical, new approach to preventing further encroachment into the already highly altered natural landscape (32: verticalfarm.com). The Vertical Farm Project was established in 2001, and is an on-going activity at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City. It is in its virtual stages of development, having survived 4 years of critical thinking in the classroom and worldwide exposure on the internet to become an accepted notion worthy of consideration at some practical level. We have identified an extensive list of reasons why vertical farming may represent a viable solution to global processes as diverse as hunger, population growth, and restoration of ecological functions and services (e.g., returning land to natural process, carbon sequestration, etc.). If vertical farming (VF) were to become widely adopted, then the following advantages would most likely be realized:

  1. Year-round crop production; 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending upon the crop (e.g., strawberries: 1 indoor acre = 30 outdoor acres).
  2. VF holds the promise of no crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests, etc.
  3. All VF food will be grown organically employing chemically defined diets specific to each plant and animal species: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers.
  4. VF eliminates agricultural runoff.
  5. VF would allow farmland to be returned to the natural landscape, thus restoring ecosystem functions (e.g., increases biodiversity) and services (e.g., air purification).
  6. VF would greatly reduce the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface by avoiding use of human feces as fertilizer for edible crops.
  7. VF converts black and gray water into potable water by engineering the collection of the water realized through evapotranspiration.
  8. VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of plants and animals.
  9. VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.).
  10. VF eliminates much of the need for storage and preservation, thus reducing dramatically the population of vermin (rats, mice, etc.) that feed on reserves of food.
  11. VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers.
  12. VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers.
  13. VF creates new employment opportunities.
  14. We cannot go to the moon, Mars, or beyond without first learning to intensively farm indoors on earth.
  15. VF may prove to be useful for integrating into refugee camps.
  16. VF offers the real possibility of measurable economic improvement for tropical and subtropical LDCs. VF may become a catalyst in reducing or even reversing the current trend in population growth of LDCs, as they adopt urban agriculture as a strategy for sustainable food production.
  17. VF could reduce the incidence of armed conflict over natural resources, such as water and land for agricultural use.
  18. VF could provide year round production of medically valuable plants (e.g., the anti-malarial plant-derived artemesinin).
  19. VF could be used for the large-scale production of sugar (sucrose) to be used in the revolutionary new method for the production of non-polluting gasoline.

Read the full essay at: verticalfarm.com/essay2.htm

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