Vertical Farming



Die Weltbevölkerung wächst weiterhin rasant an. Bis zum Jahr 2050 ist eine Zunahme um drei Milliarden Menschen prognostiziert. Einhergehend damit werden Landwirtschaftsflächen zur kostbaren Ressource. Gegenwärtig steht dafür ein Drittel der weltweiten Landmasse Verfügung. Aber wie verhält sich das, wenn exponentiell mehr Menschen auf der Erde leben, die ja nicht nur Lebensraum benötigen, sondern auch Lebensmittel? Eine Antwort darauf könnte Vertical Farming sein. Der Name ist dabei Programm: Der Anbau von Pflanzen erfolgt dabei losgelöst vom Ackerboden, integriert in modernen Gebäuden: begünstigt durch neue technische Möglichkeiten und angetrieben durch wachsenden Bedarf. Der Mikrobiologe Dr. Dickson Despommier ist führender Experte zu diesem Thema. Sein Buch The vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century (2010) gilt als Standardwerk. Im Gespräch mit erzählt er von den Hintergründen, aktuellen Projekten und Zukunftsaussichten von Vertical Farming. 



Vertical Farming

The concept of Urban Mining challenges us to rethink  the ways we currently do things. In particular, it challenges us to come up with more efficient, more sustainable solutions to managing the limited resources within our world. The world’s fast increasing population means that land is quickly becoming one of these precious resources that requires new solutions to how we manage it. Agricultural land currently covers approximately 33% of the worlds land mass. Meeting the growing populations future food consumption needs within the constraints of the limited land mass available may require the rethinking of farming methods that have been around for thousands of years.

Dr Dickson Despommier is the leading expert on the topic of vertical farming, an idea that may pose one potential solution to this challenge. Dr Despommier was kind enough to provide with an introduction to vertical farming:

10000 years ago people began to farm. The methods that were developed when farming began essentially stayed unchanged until the 16 or 17 hundreds. Following this point new agricultural technologies began to be put into place: irrigation for example, the use of different kinds of fertilisers, the development of hybrid crops. During the 1930’s however, farming transformed. The reason that it transformed was that we figured out how to grow plants without soil. This is referred to as hydroponics; using hydroponics meant that people were no longer bound to farming on soil. All of a sudden, people were free to farm anywhere as long as they could get water and food to their plants.

The practical application of hydroponics really only came into use when the earth’s population began to increase dramatically and climate change issues come into vogue. During the 1980s, following an extended period of application of pesticides and herbicides, it became apparent that something was not quite right with the way we were producing food.  At that point the hydroponic technologies were resurrected from the archives and people began to grow food in green houses. However a greenhouse alone is not a vertical farm. But if we were to stack a greenhouse on top of another greenhouse and turn it into a two-story building, now all of a sudden we have a vertical farm.

Essentially, vertical farming started at the point that we began to rethink land use and understand the problems inherent in feeding a growing population. Over the next 20 to 40 years the earth’s population may increase by as many as 3 billion people. Once this occurs there is simply not going to be enough land to feed everyone. Therefore, countries that are able to develop technologies to deal with this problem (Japan, Korea, Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States) are currently investing more and more time and money into exploring the possibility of raising a good portion of their vegetables,  grain crops, fruits and herbs indoors in tall facilities.

There was a defining moment for vertical farming in Japan approximately 2 years ago. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 resulted in the destruction of 5% of Japan’s agricultural landmass. In addition the Fukoshima reactor suffered major damage releasing radioactivity into the environment. As a result the people in Japan developed a mistrust of food that was grown on Japanese farms. The entrepreneurial side of Japanese culture created an almost instant vertical farm community. We now have hundreds of examples of vertical farms in Japan where 5 years ago there were only a handful. My guess is that in the next 10 years or so about 50% of Japan’s food supply will be coming from vertical farming.

Lets look at another country next. South Korea, as far as I am aware, has only one vertical farm at an agricultural research station in Suwon. Connected to the vertical farm is an enormous seed bank housing the seeds of virtually every plant growing in South Korea. I am lead to believe South Korea is currently in negation with the Arab Emirates in the Middle East to help them develop vertical farming in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This is an interesting development because those countries have a great need for food safety, and a great interest in food sustainability issues. Vertical farming could help to solve some of these problems.

Now let’s move to China. Urbanisation is occurring in China at a fast rate and there are fewer and fewer farms to support their growing populations. But if they farmed within the city, in skyscrapers, they might be able to solve some of those problems. This is why China is about to build a building called Sky City. The 86th floor of this building is going to house 86 400 square meters of organic vertical farm land. And this is probably only the beginning.

Moving onto Sweden next: there is a small city between Stockholm and Gothenburg called Linköping. Linköping is currently building a 14 story vertical farm in a mixed use building. The building will have offices on the shady side, and a vertical farm complex that will cover the entire faced of the sunny side. Let’s just imagine the lifestyle changes that could result from this idea. While at work, we could pick and prepare fresh organic food without even having to leave the office building.

Sound futuristic? I can name a building that already does this in Japan. The building, called Pasona, is a human resource centre whose primary purpose is to help other companies develop their human resources departments. But the building itself also serves as a floor-by-floor vertical farm with every floor housing some form of edible crop. For example, the ceiling of Pasona’s boardroom is a hydroponic tomato farm. When the people who work there are having meetings they can stand up and pick themselves a lovely fresh snack of tomatoes.

The United States, at present, have four operational vertical farms. The first one, located in Illinois, is called the Plant and it is a re-used old three-story building that was converted into a vertical farm. The second one, also located in Illinois, is called Framedhere and is spectacular. It is 150000 square feet (aprox. 13900 square meters) and the woman running it manages half of the building to produce leafy green vegetables of all kinds. The food she produces is so popular that she sells out of virtually everything she grows.

The other two operational US-based vertical farms are in Michigan and in Indiana and there are two vertical farms in Vancouver, Canada with many more on the may. So if you look around the world there are now many pockets of activity.

What’s really interesting is that everything I have mentioned so far has only happened over the last five years or so. When you see what is possible, you begin to realise that we are only limited by our imagination as to where the idea of vertical farming could take us. For me this is a huge advance because the idea of vertical farming started in a classroom I taught in 1999.

If you type the term “vertical farm” into Google you will see that there are over 40,000,000 hits. In 2004 there were 4. The idea really only began to be implemented in 2010 following the release of my book titled The vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. As far as I am aware there were no vertical farms prior to that point. So I am extremely encouraged by the way the idea has advanced.

How the idea is likely to develop in future is anybody’s guess. If you ask me where I hope it’s going, my hope is that in another 5 years most large cities will have a vertical farm project. There are many unused rooftops and warehouses that could be used for farming purposes. The more of this type of space we reuse for farming, the more farmland we can give back to nature.

For more information please visit the vertical farm website.


Image of the Pasona  building via Wikipedia 


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