Farm of the Future?
Someday food may grow in skyscrapers
The United States, like other countries, is becoming increasingly urban; by 2030, 60 percent of the world's population and 87 percent of North Americans will live in cities. This trend invites a vision of the future that isn't pretty: city dwellers subsisting on tasteless pink tomatoes, flown in from a distant land.
Dickson Despommier has a different vision: fresh, healthful food grown in glittering high-rise city farms. These "vertical farms" would produce crops, poultry, and fish year-round in a controlled environment free of pollutants, parasites, and dangerous microbes. "What would happen to Harlem if vertical farms were a reality?" Despommier asks. "Diets would change; disease would change."
A challenge. Despommier is an unlikely farmer. He's a professor of parasitology at Columbia University who teaches about creatures like hookworm, a parasite that causes anemia and stunts children's development. It remains a major problem in tropical countries, where it spreads through human waste used to fertilize crops. Eight years ago, Despommier challenged the public health students he teaches to come up with a system of growing food for the world that would reduce the risk of disease. Each year, a new class has built on the concept.
Their vertical farm prototype is based on existing technology for hothouse farming and would recycle some of the 1.4 billion gallons of water that New Yorkers pour down the drain every day. All of New York City could be fed with about 150 farms, 30-stories each, Despommier estimates. Pests and late-spring frosts wouldn't be an issue. Fish could live in tanks; poultry in small pens. Plants could be raised hydroponically-without soil, suspended in water or some other solution. Sunlight would be used to generate heat and electricity to optimize growing conditions around the clock. "We shouldn't be at the whims of nature when it comes to providing calories and water," Despommier says.
Several New York companies, including ibm, have expressed interest in developing the concept; Despommier predicts a farm will be in business within 10 years.