The Vertical Farming Scam…



Why, after more than a decade, does the idea of “vertical farming” keep gathering momentum? Why hasn’t it collapsed under its own weight of illogic? And why is media coverage of vertical farming almost universally positive, often enthusiastically so?

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when a fantasy persists and thrives despite being unrealistic; after all, that’s what fantasies do. And the vertical-farming concept, unlike, say, creationism, aims at worthy goals. But when a pipedream comes to be regarded, wholly uncritically, as a means of fixing our broken food system, it becomes a dangerous distraction.

Out here in Kansas, for example, farmers and agribusinesses often back up their resistance to much-needed systemic change by claiming that America’s urban-suburban majority has no understanding of what it takes to produce food. And when they learn that city people are wanting to stack fields of crops one above the other, you can be sure that their convictions are reinforced.

Vertical farming, as originally conceived by Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, would involve using the floorspace of tall urban buildings for growing food plants through largely hydroponic methods. This is envisioned as a way to integrate food production with dense human populations, increase production per unit of land area, protect crops against pests without the use of chemicals, and take vulnerable agricultural soils out of production by relocating crops to cities. It can, in fact, achieve none of these goals.

The most obvious problem is that of scale. Despommier’s initial, commendable objective was to help prevent soil degradation. But to benefit the continent’s agricultural soils on a meaningful scale would require substituting floorspace in buildings for a substantial share of cultivated land. Otherwise, vertical farming would simply be adding a little bit to production without taking the burden off the countryside.

But what if we committed to making at least a modest start anyway, by converting U.S. vegetable production from a horizontal to a vertical enterprise? Vegetables (not counting potatoes) occupy only 1.6% of our total cultivated land, so that should be no problem, right? Wrong. At equivalent yield per acre, we would need the floorspace of 105,000 Empire State Buildings. And that would still leave more than 98 percent of our crop production still out in the fields.

It is indeed vegetables, mostly leafy ones, that are envisioned in many vertical farming plans. That is appropriate, because such plants do not suffer as much from sunlight deprivation as do other crops. And the bulk of the plants in a true vertical farm will be deeply sunlight-deprived. If it reaches plants at all, direct sunlight would be reduced in intensity by the glass itself; the light would strike only a few plants at a time—those near the glass walls—usually at a low angle and only for a portion of the day; and those peripheral plants would shade plants that are deeper into the room. (Windows can admit enough light for to see your way around the center of a room on a sunny day; however, vision and photosynthesis are very different processes. Crop plants, if they’re expected to produce a harvest of food, require many times as much light as you require indoors.)

Breathless reports of salad greens being grown indoors under artificial light are becoming a staple of the food media. But my colleague David Van Tassel and I have done simple calculations to show that grain- or fruit-producing crops grown on floors one above the other would require impossibly extravagant quantities of energy for artificial lighting. That’s because plants that provide nutrient-dense grains or fruits have much higher light requirements per weight of harvested product than do plants like lettuce from which we eat only leaves or stems. And the higher the yield desired, the more supplemental light and nutrients required.

Highly efficient LED lighting would improve the overall system only marginally. Meanwhile, Despommier has suggested that vertical farms’ electrical demand be met with renewable sources. But to divert any portion of that tiny amount of sunlight that we manage to harvest and convert into electricity—with wind turbines, photovoltaic arrays, etc. (all arranged horizontally, by the way)— and then, in essence, convert the electricity back into light for illuminating plants that would have grown much better out in the free sunlight in the first place, is something only a society wallowing in a huge energy surplus would even consider. Green plants themselves are solar collectors and should be treated as such.

As the vertical-farm idea’s increasingly obvious flaws are pointed out, proponents respond with a lot of tweaking. And as plans evolve, they are looking both less vertical and less like farms (as when they involve growing food on Ferris wheels). Some believers who’ve caught onto the lighting problem are now talking about giant pyramids or terraced lean-tos that would expose all plants to light from above. That makes life a lot better for the plants, but such Hanging-Gardens-of-Babylon designs, like roof gardens or “green wall” arrangements that would display plants on the south faces of buildings, do not augment land area in the way intended by the original vertical-farm design. Whereas a bona fide vertical farm, if it could work, would in theory multiply the cropped area many times over, a pyramidal or diagonal structure would provide no more effectively sunlit cropped surface than a vacant lot of similar size, and at a vastly greater cost.

Lighting is only the most, um, glaring problem with vertical farming. Growing crops in buildings (even abandoned ones) would require far more construction materials, water, artificial nutrients, energy for heating, cooling, pumping, and lifting, and other resources per acre than are consumed even by today’s conventional farms—exceeding the waste of those profligate operations not by just a few percentage points but by several multiples. Vertical enthusiasts also claim that crops grown in buildings chemical-free will somehow be protected from diseases and pests, but as anyone who has worked in a greenhouse can tell you, epidemics and infestations can explode into total losses overnight on plant grown in confinement.

And raising crops in such restricted spaces would, necessarily, mean substituting a lot of human labor for much of the mechanical power now used in farming. That’s fine environmentally, but who will own these enormous high-tech facilities, how much of the hard work—hauling, transplanting, tending, harvesting, more hauling—will be done by idealistic entrepreneurs, and how much will end up being carried out by the same underpaid, overexploited people who do all that grueling stoop work that currently provides us with most of our vegetables and fruits today?

The goals of the vertical-farming concept are generally laudable (Despommier’s Wikipedia-page photo features a slide showing the word “hunger” canceled with a red circle-and-slash) but it has virtually no potential for saving soil or strengthening food security. It’s just another proposal (if probably the most high-input one) for urban agriculture, a practice intended to reduce the distances that food is transported while supporting local economies. There’s no doubt that local fruit and vegetable production is good for consumers. But even if we planted every urban flat roof while deforesting and farming all of America’s front and back yards and open urban spaces, we could supply only a tiny portion of the nation’s food supply. Add in those 105,000 Empire State Buildings full of vegetables, and we’d still have well over 95 percent of food being produced outside of cities.

And ecological impact cannot be estimated simply by counting food miles; food’s ecological footprint lies mostly in production, not transportation. Were vertical-farm planners to add up the enormous quantities of energy and materials required for construction, maintenance, operation, and eventual dismantling, they would be forced to conclude that the structures they’ve envisioned can succeed only in supplying the more affluent city-dwellers with leafy salads.

If we want to protect North America’s soils, the most effective immediate action would be to stop degrading scores of millions of acres every year to raise corn and soybeans for making biofuels and feeding cattle. Those landscapes should be restored as grasslands (and, eventually, mixed stands of perennial grain crops.)

The current corn-and-soybean system serves only to keep animals alive and unwell in confinement, with an extraordinary waste of resources. But if we want to resolve the myriad problems currently created by factory-farming animals in sheds and feedlots, we’ll never do it by factory-farming plants in skyscrapers.


Oh my. And I thought growing my gourds on trellises was vertical farming.

Well, we have a good start on indoor farming up here in the Emerald Triangle, for better or worse (probably the later). It seems crazy even when it can be justified in the short term with a crop going for thousands of dollars a pound, but move the decimal point two or three places to the left, and it becomes completely insane.

Signs of desperation?

Ah, the lack of a real education is evident in the fantastic claims we read about everyday of some techie miracle. Of course, engineers never take biology courses, or if they did, they were quickly forgotten because they would never be needed in engineering. lol. I did take basic biology in college and such dreams as the above would be instantly laughed at by any biologist and impractical and unworkable at best. And just plain stupid. Try sprouting and growing a carrot under artificial light this winter and see what I mean. Set one of those ornamental orange trees in the center of your living room and see if it blooms and fruits. Dram on techies…and get a real education. BTW: Enough light to get that carrot would likely cost you about $60 worth of electricity, if you can do it at all. $60 carrot anyone?

The Real Agenda (21) behind the implementation of Vertical Farming by the Obama appointed Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack:

Last week Tom Vilsack, secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), speaking at a forum sponsored by Farm Journal, claimed that rural America has become “less and less
relevant.” Vilsack went on to say that “It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America. It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”

Vilsack asserts that with more and more Americans moving into urbanized city-centers, the farming communities in rural areas are not necessary in order to supply the US with food and other necessities. He believes that these areas of land would be better served without having to direct energy and resources to them. He is an advocate for Monsanto and genetically modified foods which would explain why Vilsack is against rural America and farming communities.

In fact, Vilsack stated that a farming policy that facilitated the reality of “rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

By eliminating the necessity of trucking food across the country, and growing food in the urbanized centers, the sprawl can be replaced with “greenhouses”. On rollers, and placed upon triangular buildings constructed in Sweden, harvesting is made easier because the sunlight can be tracked through the movement of the food planted upon the mobile platforms.

The concept of vertical farming promises to spare the environment from the nutrient depleting practice of agriculture, while providing the ability to cultivate animal and/or plant life on vertically lined surfaces – such as skyscrapers…..

…..Obama empowered the Department of Labor (DoL) to finalize a federal rule that will apply child labor laws to children working on farms. A list of jobs they will no longer be allowed to preform will be amended to the rule. These will be jobs like, “in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.”

The DoL specifies that “prohibited places of employment include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.”

On August 31, 2012, the new regulations set forth by Obama and the DoL mandated government safety training and certification in classes will replace those once provided by rural institutions like the 4-H and the FFA.

The executive order National Defense Resources Preparedness specifies in Section 801:

“Farm equipment” means equipment, machinery, and repair parts manufactured for use on farms in connection with the production or preparation for market use of food resources.

“Food resources” means all commodities and products, (simple, mixed, or compound), or complements to such commodities or products, that are capable of being ingested by either human beings or animals, irrespective of other uses to which such commodities or products may be put, at all stages of processing from the raw commodity to the products thereof in vendible form for human or animal consumption. “Food resources” also means potable water packaged in commercially marketable containers, all starches, sugars, vegetable and animal or marine fats and oils, seed, cotton, hemp, and flax fiber, but does not mean any such material after it loses its identity as an agricultural commodity or agricultural product.

“Food resource facilities” means plants, machinery, vehicles (including on farm), and other facilities required for the production, processing, distribution, and storage (including cold storage) of food resources, and for the domestic distribution of farm equipment and fertilizer (excluding transportation thereof).

While I agree that there are inefficiencies inherent in the vertical model, there are also incredible efficiencies. I don’t mean in the tower farms necessarily, but rather in people simply growing food in systems that take advantage of cubic footage instead of the typical horizontal plane. Have you ever tried to start a farm before? Land is expensive and increasingly hard to come by. Therefore, using what you have to it’s highest production capability is always productive. Even if it only makes a small dent in the system, why not? Why can’t this be one part of the solution? Think if farmers started growing vertically in the open field…we could substantially decrease the amount of land used for ag. Yes it requires more material, but you have to amortize the cost of the materials against the cost of revitalizing that land and higher transportation costs. Getting away from corn and soy means moving towards fresh product, which also means perishable. Shelf stability is what drives our current system in so many ways…how do you combat that other than to move as much fresh production as possible closer to the consumer? Leafy greens have some of the shortest shelf lives, which is why it makes sense to grow them near folks. You are not going to feed this country simply by converting our fields into grasslands of perennial grains. A big part of the problem is getting people away from high fructose corn syrup and onto fresh food. Once the demand for fresh food increases the benefits of urban ag., hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical farming in general increases exponentially.

I think we can all agree that adjusting our food system is going to take more than one good idea, but the key with Despommier and the tower farm model is that it INSPIRES people. Ferris Wheels in Singapore are COOL. It engages the community in our food system because, yes, it appeals to our techie tendencies and desire for innovation. You can argue all you want that vertical farming isn’t the future and that its inefficiencies are too costly, but I argue that the use of inputs intelligently has been proven to increase food security, safety, and quality, while maintaining a competitive cost. No one can afford to grow a tomato that is outside market prices sustainably. There are many Cornell studies that have found incredible efficiencies with artificial light and CO2 supplementation for a wide variety of crops. On top of that, it gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and how it is produced. These ideas keep the movement alive and growing. I applaud you for pointing out potential failure points, but I believe that what creates beneficial change does not come from the negatives but in how we continually strive to create positives. Let’s stop looking backward, negatively, and instead find ways to use innovative ideas for the greater good. Use what works. Forget the rest. Keep moving towards a healthier community.

    Artificial light and artificial chemicals make artificial food and unhealthy, fake people. Small organic farms and gardens, along with fair distribution and controlling population are the answers.

after expereience with growing on trellis I am moving to more vertical all the time. Catch more sun.

Well, Alex, you must be a techie and a young one at that. Growing food on the land can be very productive…if done right and not with Monsanto’s help. It is possible for 1/10 acre to feed a family if you use a more natural system and work at it. We will ALL be working and sweating for our living in the near future, or be dead. Your choice.

Building energy consuming towers to do what you can do with plain sunlight and rain provided by mother nature sounds like trying to heat your home with a mini-nuke in the basement. Another techie dream that died a long time ago, and that the maker for that!

You need to adjust to a life with a lot less of everything you consider to be yours by right. After all, you only deserve 1/7,000,000,000 th of the earths resources, not 25/7,000,000,000 th of it as you have enjoyed to this point if you are an American. Those days are over.

BTW: That tower in the picture consumed about 250,000 barrels of oil energy just to be built. How many barrels do you think will actually be available for dreams? None? Probably.

Makati1, you are missing my point entirely. My interest is solely in getting this country moving in a positive direction. Inspiration is incredibly valuable and if it is too inefficient it will not sustain itself. To underwrite what I’ve written by calling me young, a techie and a consumer of too many resources is itself not the greatest representation of maturity. I think there is a way to have an open, honest conversation about this. I don’t think you’re wrong. I just think there is more than one answer. Finding them requires us to take what works and to leave the rest behind.

I am a farmer. I know how to grow healthy food economically and I am not under contract with Monsanto. Instead, I grow fresh product for the local market. Please do not assume that anyone who has an interest in new ideas that go beyond the boundaries of a typical organic model are not growing organic food. And what is organic anyway? There is more bureaucracy there than people realize. We need to move away from pointing the finger at Monsanto as the root of all food evil…it is way too trendy and doesn’t solve anything. Monsanto exists as it does because they provide a product that people are dependent on. Getting farmers away from that dependency is key. Working to label GMO’s for instance, will yield results.

I agreed that these vertical towers have inefficiencies, but to completely rule out intelligent input increases in general is not sustainable thinking. Are you aware of the drought that occurred this year in the midwest? Water shortages, distribution inefficiencies, soil quality, farmer knowledge, etc. all play a role in this. Many small farmers that grew by your standards this summer are now out of business. There is a happy medium here, a way to improve efficiency, constancy and quality while still being environmentally conscious. Furthermore, I believe that in order to change our food system we have to change what already exists…work with the current system so to speak instead of trying to reinvent the wheel entirely. Not every family can farm. I think your idea is great…intensive organic growing can work, but to suggest that 1/10th acre of fresh product production for each family and the farmers to do that hard work will magically appear is not possible in the near future. I love that you are passionate about this and want the same change as me, but there are things to learn from both sides.

    Alex, sorry if I tramped on a few toes and mistook some of your examples as what you considered ‘practical’. I am very aware of the droughts all over the world. I also see the trend as getting worse and the mega farms being broken up or just abandoned. Family farming is coming back. It has too, but the US population will be maybe 1/3 what it is now and the farming will be concentrates on the coasts. The newest papers on climate project a 2-4 degree C. increase by 2035. Possibly more. If that happens, we will be come nomads and hunter-gatherers, if we exist at all. Transition farming is a nice thought. Not likely to happen in any significant amount in the US. Certainly nothing taking energy other than sunlight and muscle. See Amish farms for an example. They are prepared, as are the farmers here in the Philippines where a lot of the work is muscle power.