Tobias Buckell takes down vertical farming

Paul Raven @ 16-10-2009

Vertical farm conceptWe’ve mentioned vertical farming a number of times before, and the mighty BoingBoing brought it up earlier in the week; general consensus seems to be that it’s a lovely idea. [Vertical farm image borrowed from VerticalFarm.com]

But lots of things are lovely ideas until you run the numbers on them, and that’s exactly what Futurismic alumnus Tobias Buckell has been doing with vertical farming:

One of the more famous advocates of the Vertical Farm concept, Dickson Despommier, estimates a 30 story farm would feed about 10,000-50,000 people (depending on which article he’s speaking in). Let’s be charitable and assume 30,000 per 30 story skyscraper.

A 30 story skyscraper can cost as much as half a billion dollars. So we’re looking at a unit cost of at least that to build these, and that’s not considering the hydroponic and recycling technology costs!

New York has 10 million people. To feed New York, you’d need roughly 334 of these buildings, with the building cost being at least $150 billion.

That’s affordable on a country scale (10 years of NASA-like budget).

But the fact is, the existing land sprawling out around New York and the US and gasoline to transport the goods from the heartland to NYC is still far cheaper when an accountant crunches the figures.

That’s a whole lot of money, as Toby rightly points out. Which is no reason to abandon the idea entirely, of course, but as with all futurist visions it needs to be tempered with some reality. No plan ever survives contact with the enemy, after all, and economics is the enemy of us all at the moment (with the possible exception of the Wall Street weasels, natch).

One possible solution to Toby’s objections might be retrofitting old skyscrapers with the new kit. Perhaps that would be cheaper than raising a structure from scratch?

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4 Responses to “Tobias Buckell takes down vertical farming”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Most successful creative people will confess readily that most of their first-cut ideas (whether in art, science, engineering, literature, government, music, economics, etc) turn out to be BAD ones. A critical key to success in advancing new ideas is to recognize and reject the bad ideas quickly, thus clearing away the massive clutter and increasing one’s odds of finding the true gems. Paul, I salute you and your colleagues for not merely bringing many new ideas to the readers of Futurismic, but for being willing to criticize (and accept criticism of) those ideas too.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks, Robert; I think what unites us is the belief that science fiction is at its best when used to question the future rather than make assumptions about it, and that’s why – despite our disagreements – I’m glad you’re a regular commenter here. 🙂

  3. khannea says:

    So if we can reduce the construction costs of a normally highly tempered steel and concrete building by reducing it raw weight loading structure with labour/robotic content, less safety requirements, no amenities or structures for containing humans – essentially one giant box – where we create environments that are superior to open-environment hydroponifs or even spray-based aeroponics – where and when shall the two meet?

    Essentially when oil goes exit and electricity enters. Outdoors agriculture is based not just on transport and space – it is even more based on specialized seeds and fertillization. Imagine doubling the cost of either – the system starts with highly specialized genemod plants. You might want those in the environment for (!) IP reasons – or because they might inberbreed with natural strains. Or these crops might be extremely fragile. Intensifying folodstuff production (or animal production – they plan pigtowers here in the netherlands) in highrizes, concentrated closed environments. I can easily see this trend emerge on barren former suburban zones. After they tear down the malls and McMansions.

  4. Kwashimi says:

    Actually, $150 billion is chicken feed to the new US President Obama. And if it isn’t chickenfeed now, it soon will be at the rate the US dollar is crashing under the new regime.

    If it is less than a $trillion, it is not worth discussing in the higher halls of US government.