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?


Peak food is an inevitable consequence of peak oil

Tomas Martin @ 05-11-2007

Vertical farming may save the cityCurrently for every 1 calorie of food, some 10 calories of energy are used to make it. As George Monbiot said in the Guardian last week, it is increasingly unclear where future supplies of water and phosphates will come from. After world war two the world population was around 3 Billion. Using newer techniques and fertilisers we have increased the amount of food an acre produces. The population has risen to match. Fertilisers are almost entirely all oil-based on large scale, however. With biofuels taking away land and oil prices rising as well as increased transportation costs, the current system of food from around the world is becoming a danger to supply. If the recent survey of 155 oil experts saying peak oil will come before 2010 turns out to be true, we will have to downscale very quickly indeed.

Two ways to combat this would also reverse many of the social changes of the last thirty or so years. Firstly, the reduction of food miles by producing stuff closer to home will bring down fuel needed to transport the food, often a massive contribution to the energy cost. The second involves fertilisers and other fuel-intensive techniques. As the amount of machinery and fertiliser brought into farms decreases due to prices, manual labour becomes increasingly important again. Eating less meat, particularly red meat, will reduce the amount of calories an acre of land can produce, as well as boosting our health. Large farms currently operating with few employees will need to split into smaller units and introduce nitrogen fixing vegetables between grain crops. On a social level this could increase the number of people making a small living for themselves off a plot of land, selling most of their produce locally. Using more varied crops, utilising the seasons and even vertical farming mean we could have good food even without shipping it in from abroad.

[photo by Chris Jacobs for The Vertical Farm Project]

Note: edited to attribute the photo to Chris Jacobs, who says: ‘For all of you out there…this illustration is NOT how a real vertical farm would be…it would be 100% hydroponic. This was just created to “show” growing food.’ – thanks for keeping us informed Chris!