We are an urban nation and, increasingly, an urban world. Today, 80 per cent of Canadians live in or near cities, and by 2050 the same will be true of an earth that will then count its population at roughly 9 billion people. Onstage at Moses Znaimer’s IdeaCity conference last week at Koerner Hall (#YRV), Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier explained why that poses a bit of a problem: Our food supply is still overwhelmingly rural.
Right now, Despommier said, about 80 per cent of the world’s farmable land is in use—the rest is pretty much rainforest. To feed the population we’ll have in 40 years, we’d need to farm that rainforest as well. We’d still be unable to feed all 9 billion, and the process of trying would make the the earth uninhabitable for humans.
So, end of the world as we know it, et cetera, et cetera? “Bullshit,” Despommier says to those who foretell the apocolypse. In the past, overpopulation doomsayers such as Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich—who said, in 1968, that a “population bomb” would cause mass starvation—were proven wrong by technological leaps. Ehrlich hadn’t predicted the green revolution in agriculture that allowed higher-yield farming. Despommier believes humans can innovate our way out of crisis again. He’s got a specific innovation in mind.
In 1999, he and a class of graduate students at Columbia came up with the idea of the “vertical farm.” Picture a series of greenhouses stacked on top of each other to form a highrise in the downtown core.
It is a solution to all sorts of what we’ve come to call “sustainability problems.” A hydroponic urban farm can generate four times as much produce per acre of land as a traditional rural farm (and sometimes more—Despommier claims strawberry yields can be 30 times higher), and can be farmed year-round. It is completely organic, immune to droughts and produces no “runoff”—an intractable farming problem that has become a huge pollutant to water supplies due to excess pesticides and fertilizer. Despommier even proposes that vertical farms could clean sewage, turning it into potable water, and could feed electricity into urban grids through methane generation.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to the longevity of human life on earth is that if we move farms into cities, we can allow farmland to return to the wild. Environmentalist Stewart Brand points out in his recent book, Whole Earth Discipline, that one of the most important things we can do to heal the planet is leave huge swaths of it alone, so it can return to ecological equilibrium. Abandon farms and let natural ecosystems overtake them. This is the same point David Suzuki made to me in an interview a couple years ago, when he discussed the huge promise of cities as potential saviours of the environment.
There are currently no plans to build vertical farms in Toronto, despite our growing culture of locavores and backyard-farming enthusiasts. But a breathtaking design was unveiled for a 59-storey Skyfarm in the Theatre District by University of Waterloo student Gordon Graff in 2007. His sketch showed a farm that could feed 50,000 people everything from tomatoes and eggplant to chicken, while earning something like $52 million per year. “It’s a nice metaphor,” said Robert Freedman, director of the city of Toronto’s urban design department, in a 2008 Toronto Star article. “It sounds like science fiction, really. But who knows?”
Three years later, the concept is becoming science fact. Just over a decade ago, vertical farming was an idea in Despommier’s classroom. As of a year ago, the world was still waiting for its first experimental vertical farm. Today, there are prototypes in Japan, South Korea, England and Holland. Two more, Despommier says, are planned in the United States (one in Wisconsin and one in Wyoming).
So the question is, who’s going to be the first to make vertical farming a reality in Toronto?