A few years ago the notion of growing tropical fruits and farm vegetables downtown in a multi-storied solar-paneled glass zig-zag building, with windmills twirling on the roof, would have seemed fanciful. Today, it may be the best idea we have to revitalize downtown Tulsa. But, to be frank, it’s not a question of whether a futuristic building like this will be built. It’s merely a question of when.
It will happen because vertical farming is not just about revitalizing distressed downtowns. It is practical for other reasons. At present, it takes a land area equal in size to South America to grow the food and raise the livestock needed to feed the 6.8 billion people on the planet. By 2050, if farming continues to be practiced as it is today, an additional land mass the size of Brazil will need to be under cultivation. That much new arable earth does not exist. Conventional agriculture requires 70% of the world’s fresh water supply for irrigation, making it unusable for drinking. In the U.S. 20% of all the gasoline and diesel fuel goes into agriculture. Between 2005 and 2008 the price of food has roughly doubled, because the price of food is linked to the price of fuel. The annual loss of crops, due to shifting climate patterns, floods, droughts, and pestilence, is staggering. And guess who bails out the farmer? You do. Huge volumes of agricultural runoff pollute our rivers and streams, our lakes and oceans. Massive deforestation projects will be required to keep up with the food demands of a growing population, further degrading the planet’s ability to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Foodborne illnesses–salmonella, cholera, Escherichia coli, shigella, and so on–kill significant numbers of people every year. Heard enough?
Addressing these problems will require a radical shift in the way we think about food production and distribution. Vertical farming in urban centers will be a big part of the new landscape.
Vertical farming is more cost effective than conventional farming. The yield is higher, because the growing season is year-around. Fast growing crops, like lettuce, can be harvested every six weeks; slower growing crops, like corn and wheat, can be harvested every three to four months. Because the entire cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, storing and transporting takes place within a controlled and predictable environment protected from the vagaries of weather, crop loss is virtually eliminated. Droughts and floods devastate entire counties of crops every year. This is particularly true in the American Midwest. Plus, 30 percent of what is harvested is lost to spoilage and infestation during storage and transport. With an indoor farm, crops are grown, harvested and sold on site: no heavy production machinery; fewer big trucks on the road transporting produce around the country. Growing costs are reduced as well. Conventional farming is very wasteful. Water is expensive and will become precious in the future. Drip irrigation techniques deliver nutrient-laden water precisely to the base of each stem, eliminating water loss, and the insults of runoff to our environment.
The leading proponent of this idea is Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University. (His book, The Vertical Farm: The World Grows Up, is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.) Despommier believes the integration of food production into city living is essential, if we are to sustain our urban economies. He envisions the growth of new industries, urban jobs never before imagined—nursery attendants, growers, harvesters, agra-technicians of all kinds. He sees the eco-systems around us rebounding, like the de-militarized zones separating North and South Korea.
This project will take time and careful planning. It will require a radical shift in the way we think about food production and distribution. But it is doable. Scientists and ecoengineers have done the heavy lifting. Now it’s up to us to make this happen. Our city’s leaders must understand the urgency of the problem. Our developers must realize that a multi-storied farm downtown, one that incorporates restaurants and grocery markets, maybe an aquaculture center to grow fish and shrimp, is neither a risky investment, nor too visionary to achieve. If Tulsa wants to project the progressive image of a city on the go, this is the project. We were among the first cities to enter the Oil Age. Let’s be among the first to leave it.
Photo: Dennis Leech