The Future of Agriculture May Be Up
By OWEN FLETCHER
to see where your food might come from in the future? Look
The seeds of an agricultural revolution are taking root
in cities around the world—a movement that boosters say will
change the way that urbanites get their produce and solve
some of the world's biggest environmental problems along the
It's called vertical farming, and it's based on one simple
principle: Instead of trucking food from farms into cities,
grow it as close to home as possible—in urban greenhouses
that stretch upward instead of sprawling outward.
The idea is flowering in many forms. There's the 12-story
triangular building going up in Sweden, where plants will
travel on tracks from the top floor to the bottom to take
advantage of sunlight and make harvesting easier.
Then there's the onetime meatpacking plant in Chicago where
vegetables are grown on floating rafts, nourished by waste
from nearby fish tanks. And the farms dotted across the U.S.
that hang their crops in the air, spraying the roots with
nutrients, so they don't have to bring in soil or water
tanks for the plants.
However vertical farming is
implemented, advocates say the immediate benefits will be
easy to see. There won't be as many delivery trucks guzzling
fuel and belching out exhaust, and city dwellers will get
easier access to fresh, healthy food.
Looking further, proponents say vertical farming could bring
even bigger and more sweeping changes. Farming indoors could
reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, which pollute
the environment in agricultural runoff. Preserving or
reclaiming more natural ecosystems like forests could help
slow climate change. And the more food we produce indoors,
the less susceptible we are to environmental crises that
disrupt crops and send prices skyrocketing, like the drought
that devastated this year's U.S. corn crop.
Dickson Despommier, a microbiology professor at Columbia
University who developed the idea of vertical farming with
students in 1999, thinks vertical farming will become more
and more attractive as climate change drives up the cost of
conventional farming and technological advances make
greenhouse farming cheaper. In fact, he hopes the world will
be able to produce half of its food in vertical farms in 50
Then "a significant portion of farmland could be abandoned,"
he says. "Ecosystem functions would rapidly improve, and the
rate of global warming would slow down."
An Idea on the Rise
A host of vertical farms are up and running in the U.S. and
overseas, and others are under construction. Some are backed
by nonprofits aiming to promote environmental causes or
local job creation. Others will be for-profit ventures meant
to meet demand for local produce. And some, like one in
South Korea, are being funded by governments looking for
ways to boost domestic food security.
So far, vertical farms are producing only a small amount of
food. Advocates are still developing different building
designs and growing techniques to boost the efficiency of
cultivating food indoors. And a proven business model based
on the concept has yet to emerge.
One ambitious project under construction is trying to
address all of those challenges at once. At 12 stories, the
triangular farm in Linköping, Sweden, will be one of the
tallest vertical farms in the world—most max out at several
stories—and will use innovative ways to generate revenue.
Not only will the company behind the farm, Sweden's
Plantagon, sell its produce at a local farmer's market, but
it also will lease out office space on most floors.
Another unique feature: Outside the office windows, on the
building's southern face, a mechanical track enclosed in its
own layer of glass will carry growing plants from the top of
the building to the bottom floor. The arrangement is meant
to give the plants even exposure to sunlight and allow
Plantagon to perform all of its planting and harvesting in
one place—on the ground floor. (After planting, a normal
vertical elevator takes the boxed plants to the top floor to
start their voyage down.) The company plans to produce 300
to 500 metric tons of leafy greens like bok choy a year.
As for the price tag, "it's much more expensive, of course,
to build a greenhouse vertical than to build a normal
greenhouse," says Hans Hassle, Plantagon's chief executive.
But the planned revenue streams will help make up for that,
and energy costs will be lower because the setup will use
waste from various sources—such as heat from a nearby power
plant and biogas produced through conversion of the
building's own organic garbage. All told, the planned
energy-saving measures will reduce the building's energy use
by at least 30% to 50%, Mr. Hassle says.
Mr. Hassle says the company's next greenhouse will be either
a demonstration model in Shanghai or a research facility in
Singapore. These are good venues for the idea, he says,
because they're highly dense and urbanized societies that
already need to produce more food locally.
In the U.S., vertical farms are sprouting in urban areas
across the country, some in old buildings that have been
repurposed for agriculture. One operation called the Plant
is producing vegetables in a three-story former meatpacking
facility on Chicago's South Side.
The farm grows vegetables on small rafts floating on water,
which is filled with nutrients from waste produced by fish
in a separate tank—a setup called aquaponics. Light comes
from lamps designed to emit the proper wavelengths for plant
growth. The Plant is also designing a growing system in
which crops could grow sticking out at an upward angle from
vertical boards, with nutrients provided to the plant roots
by water dripping down a film from pipes near the ceiling.
The Plant was founded by John Edel, a 43-year-old Chicago
native who has led other projects to renovate and reuse
urban buildings. The facility currently rents out parts of
its space to tenants including three farmers and two
bakeries and plans to find more; it also intends to open a
shared retail area where the tenants can sell their goods.
Other farms around the country use different techniques
designed to save space, reduce water consumption and even
avoid the need for soil. Farms in warehouses and other
buildings in Seattle, Chicago, upstate New York and New
Jersey, among other places, use an aeroponics system from
AeroFarms of Ithaca, N.Y. The method involves growing plants
with their roots hanging in the air, where they can be
sprayed with water and nutrients.
Omega Garden Inc., of Qualicum Beach, British Columbia,
sells a planting device called Volksgarden, a rotating
cylinder four feet in diameter and two feet long. Plants
grow in a circle around the inside of the cylinder. As the
device rotates, their roots dip into a tray holding a liquid
solution that provides water and nutrients. A light runs
horizontally through the cylinder to nourish the crops.
Green Spirit Farms LLC is using the system in New Buffalo,
Mich., in a former plastics-injection facility. The farm
plans to fill the space with Volksgarden units stacked three
levels high, says Green Spirit site manager Ben Wiggins.
Still, many agricultural experts aren't sold on the idea of
vertical farming. The core argument against it: Conventional
farms are the simplest and most efficient places to produce
food. Growing food indoors, using artificial lights and
other special equipment, means more effort and expense—and
cancels out any benefits of being close to customers,
That's why George Monbiot, a writer and environmental
activist based in Oxford, England, says there's "no
prospect" that more complicated vertical-farming techniques
could contribute substantially to world food production. As
for those vertical farming systems that will consume extra
energy to power equipment like artificial lights, he says,
"Even if you are taking the energy from renewable sources,
there are better ways of using that renewable energy."
Likewise, R. Ford Denison, an adjunct professor of
agricultural ecology at the University of Minnesota, thinks
the energy use from vertical farms would cancel out any fuel
savings from transportation. "Food transport from farm to
store is a tiny fraction of total agricultural energy use,"
he says. So if vertical farms use even small amounts of
energy to run their systems, or if consumers have to use
extra fuel traveling to urban farmers' markets, it "would
swamp any energy savings in transporting food to the
Backers say the comparison between conventional and vertical
farming isn't apples to apples, since the government heavily
subsidizes expenses including crop insurance for traditional
agriculture, greatly reducing the costs involved and the
risks that farmers face from unpredictable weather
But boosters say the equation will very likely change as
severe weather makes indoor farming a safer and more
reliable alternative to regular growing. Not only will the
rising cost of conventional farming make vertical farms look
better in comparison, they say, but vertical farms in some
places could end up getting subsidies.
"If we imagine that vertical farming is going to become part
of a nation's food-security program, then naturally this
part of the industry needs subsidies," Plantagon's Mr.
Dr. Despommier, who is also an adviser to Plantagon,
acknowledges that energy use, particularly in artificial
lighting, remains a challenge for some vertical farms. But
he says the lighting industry has made significant progress
in recent years on reducing power consumption for
specialized lights to grow plants, and researchers continue
to work on the problem.
More broadly, he argues that the idea of vertical farming on
a large scale will seem increasingly realistic as techniques
evolve. He cites cellphones and plasma-screen televisions as
examples of innovations that were unimaginable before their
"You have to start small and you have to start at the
research level before you jump into the commercial aspect of
this thing, but that's the way all these ideas start," Dr.
Despommier says. "Everything we have in this world of ours
started out crazy."
Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal