Tall Tales With Vertical Farming

What is a vertical farm? What would be the benefit of a vertical farm? What are the challenges of making vertical farms work? Join Jonathan, Lauren and Joe as they dig into the potential benefits and challenges of vertical farming.

Male Speaker: Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jonathan: Welcome everyone to Forward Thinking. I am Jonathan Strickland.

Lauren: I am Lauren Vogelbaum.

Joe: And I am Joe McCormick.

Jonathan: And today we wanted to talk about something that we think is an interesting subject that's a bit problematic, but we wanted to talk about vertical farms, what they are, why they might be important, and some of the challenges that we could see if we decide to try and pursue vertical farms as an actual solution. But before we get too far into it, I guess we really need to talk about what exactly is a vertical farm? Really, it's kind of what it sounds like. It's a farm that's arranged vertically as opposed to horizontally. So instead of a big farmland -

Lauren: Wide open space.

Jonathan: Exactly, you start stacking it, kind of. Joe you were talking about it sort of being like imagine a green house?

Joe: Yeah, well, essentially the main idea is that you would have a mostly glass structure that allows sunlight to penetrate and it would be as if you were to take a green house and put a green house on top of it, and then add another green house, and keep building up as far as you can go. The main idea is to see if you can create a farm that stretches up towards the sky instead of out in all directions.

Jonathan: Right, so you're taking advantage of a vertical alignment so that you don't need as much land to produce crops.

Joe: Right, and obviously the purpose of this is to fit it within a city, right? Because if you've got plenty of land out in the countryside, you use that.

Jonathan: Assuming that, of course, the environmental impact would not be so negative as to harm the production of crops over a certain amount of time. Obviously that's something that you have to take into account, but yeah, so really it's kind of an idea of producing crops, even livestock, within an urban environment, so that you aren't draining the resources of all the land around you.

Joe: Well yeah, I looked this up. Apparently, according to the USDA, that's the department of agriculture, about 51 percent of the land use in the United States is agriculture, farming. That's a huge number.

Jonathan: Right, right, and as populations grow, obviously that number -

Lauren: The need is only going to increase.

Jonathan: Right. So put aside the issue of waste, how much of that food or how much of those crops go to a food source as opposed to something else, whether it's to feed livestock, or whether it's to use energy.

Joe: To feed our cars.

Lauren: To feed our cars, or that gets exported to feed other people.

Jonathan: Right. Once you take those factors and you just look at the food that we need, it still is one of those things where we need to look at solutions besides just farms, and could vertical farms be that solution? Joe, what was it that you wanted to say?

Joe: Well, I guess we need to talk about, what are the advantages of a vertical farm?

Jonathan: Right, well, and to, the version that we're really concentrating on is one that was proposed by Dixon Dispommier, who is a Columbia professor. He kind of posed this question in his class and sort of got to thinking about this vertical farm idea, and why would you want that and how could it have an advantage over traditional farms. And one of them we already answered, which is that it takes up less real estate, less horizontal real estate, at any rate. So that's one advantage right there. Another is the idea of producing your food very close to where the consumers are. There's a large percentage of the world's population located in urban areas, and that number is actually growing. More and more people are moving towards cities, or you could look at it as cities are sprawling out to slowly envelope and swallow whole all the people.

Lauren: Both, right, yeah. Because that's where the jobs are.

Jonathan: Metro Atlanta, that's a great example. It's definitely more of a sprawl rather than growing up, which is kind of what we're talking about here, is really the concentration is building upward rather than outward, but that's one of the big advantages, right? That you have the food where you eat it.

Joe: Right. If you could make a vertical farm work, and we'll introduce some challenges to that in a few minutes here, but if you could make it work, you would have fresher produce in the city, for one thing. I mean, that's just an advantage in the culinary.

Lauren: Tasty food is a good thing.

Joe: That were picked an hour ago, before you get them.

Jonathan: That may be on the floor above you.

Joe: Right, exactly, they came on the elevator, and also you would have much less transportation cost, so that's a - we can look at the economics of that in a minute, but one of the things that has concerned people is this idea of food miles, right? How far does your food travel before it gets to you, and how much energy is spent taking the food from a farm in Kansas or Mexico or Chile or China -

Jonathan: Or Southern California.

Joe: Right, any of these places to get it to your grocery store.

Jonathan: Sure. So we've got the advantage of the food being right here. We have the advantage of you don't have to worry about the transportation costs, although we'll get into that in a second as well. The other advantage, not just the transportation costs, from an economic standpoint, but you also have greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation. You've got toxin emissions associated with that. Now granted, there are greenhouse gas emissions and toxins that are associated just with the production of food, so you're not going to get around that as much as you would the transportation issue, but that's still something that you could take into consideration with the vertical farms.

Joe: Another potential advantage, at least that I've read about, is the ability to reuse materials, especially water. There's a lot of water that goes into agricultural production and one idea that's been floated is that you could re-use gray water from residential areas, or even in a mixed use building, say, water that comes from the drain in your sink or in your shower, and that goes to water the crops.

Jonathan: Right, and then of course there's also the fact that you would not necessarily need to use up so much soil. We were talking before we started recording about the idea of hydroponics, and essentially hydroponics is growing crops using a nutrient base that does not require actual soil. You don't have to plant the plants in soil, you use this nutrient base, and usually you have the plants suspended in something. They might have their roots surrounded by a kind of inert gravel or some other item that keeps them upright, or you could even, in theory, have them suspended, as long as you were able to supply the nutrients to the root systems, then you would be able to continue growing them. Another advantage is the idea that you don't have seasons anymore, because if you have a climate controlled vertical farm, meaning that you have control over how much light is introduced, you have a control over the actual temperature, the moisture levels, the nutrient levels. If you could control all of those factors, then you could grow crops all year round. You wouldn't have a season, so you wouldn't have to worry, like, "I want to get okra, but it's not in season."

Lauren: Right, and you don't have to worry about the expense of importing oranges from somewhere extremely far away during -

Jonathan: Right, you could grow them right there.

Joe: So, this all sounds so great, but I'm not seeing them everywhere yet. So, I wonder if there are some serious challenges that we would have to overcome in order to implement something like this.

Jonathan: There are both serious and humorous challenges to this. There are a lot of challenges. One of the big challenges comes down to energy. How much energy do you need to be able to make a vertical farm work? Even when you're talking about conserving water by recycling it as much as possible, even if you were talking about, say, co-location, where you try and put other things that generate heat so that you can use that heat as part of the H-vac system.

Lauren: If you have a server farm next to your food farm, then you could use the heat from one to heat the other.

Joe: So, like, Google headquarters is right next to the cornfield? Or the corn tower.

Jonathan: That actually wouldn't surprise me one bit knowing the way Google works, and in fact Google does have some of the largest data farms out there, but that's still just one part of the problem. T he taller you build the building, the greater your energy needs are to keep that system going, because it's water circulation, it's the heating and cooling, it's the artificial light, because one of the issues you have is how do you design a tall building to take advantage of sunlight? Because it's not going to be - the sunlight is not going to be evenly distributed across each floor for an entire day.

Lauren: In a horizontal farm the sun is free, and it becomes a whole separate problem.

Jonathan: Right, so when you have a vertical farm, for it to really work, you're going to have to supplement the light that any one floor gets in some way, whether that is through moving the plants around, because Joe, you were talking about a system that was kind of interesting.

Joe: Well, one thing you've seen in a couple of prototypes is something like a ferris wheel. You load the plants up to a moving tray or cart of some kind, and it cycles them through with giving them greater access to the light from the roof as the day goes on, but of course you're still dealing with a problem there that even if you cycle them through, they're not getting the constant continual light that they would get if you just planted them in the middle of a field.

Jonathan: So really you have to supplement the light in some way, either by moving the plants or by creating artificial sunlight, and that means that you're actually expending energy just to give them the energy they normally would get for free if it was in a horizontal farm. So that's something that a lot of people have pointed out as a big problem, and the idea that it's not energy efficient to build these vertical farms, even if you are talking about supplementing the energy they require with things like solar panels or wind turbines, you're probably not going to generate the energy you need to keep that going without it tapping into the power grid, and the question then becomes is it actually more energy efficient to operate a vertical farm, versus a traditional farm? And if it's less energy efficient, then -

Lauren: Why are we doing it?

Jonathan: Why are we doing it? Right. Especially when you're talking about artificial light. That's the big one, because you're like, this is a resource that is literally free to us with the traditional set up, and it costs us in the vertical setup. So unless we can demonstrate that the benefit we get from the vertical standpoint is greater than the energy expenditure that we get using this method, why do we do it?

Joe: So these concerns are out there, and we know that people have had to think about them before they have invested in prototypes of vertical farms. So one thing it might help to do is to look at where people have tried to build these things, and see what reasons might have motivated them. One thing I think we all read about, of course, is an NPR piece about the Sky Green farm in Singapore. Of course, Singapore seems like an ideal location for a vertical farm because real estate values there, it's probably the most densely populated places on earth. So, obviously there's no room in Singapore to really go out and lay out a horizontal -

Lauren: Yeah, unless you're going to raze a few buildings then yeah, you're not going to build any farms out there horizontally.

Joe: Exactly. So, it may be an issue of, there's an economic conflict here. There are great costs to investing in something like this, but in tight enough circumstances it might pay off.

Jonathan: Right, yeah. In certain countries where you either have very little farmable land that's available, or the seasons just don't really fall in such a way that makes it easy for you to grow anything, it might actually make a lot of sense to do vertical farms, although a lot of people have argued that perhaps the greenhouse route would be as efficient or perhaps more efficient. So apart from the energy barriers that we have here with vertical farms, there may also be economic barriers. First of all, just building a vertical farm would require a pretty enormous initial investment, so that asking for that can be difficult.

Joe: You'd be taking a risk, too, because it's somewhat unproven.

Jonathan: Sure, and if you are spending all this money, that also may mean that in order to recapture those costs, that you end up having to charge more for the produce you produce within the vertical farm.

Lauren: Right, right. Although, at a certain point, is it worth it if you can get a tomato that is incredibly delicious and only have to go upstairs to get it? Would people pay for that?

Joe: Right, I mean, if you buy greens that are picked today, people would pay up for that, I think.

Lauren: People do pay up for that.

Joe: To an extent, some people would. In that same piece we were talking about, they said in Singapore the greens from the vertical farm there would cost five to ten percent more than standard greens at the grocery store where people were buying them.

Lauren: Well that's not bad. I mean, five to ten percent increases. I was thinking about some kind of outrageous 50 or 70 percent kind of increase in food costs.

Joe: It might be that much in other scenarios.

Jonathan: Right, it all depends. And so the vertical farms may make a lot more sense in particular communities where we have these preexisting conditions, like for example, there are islands in the Caribbean where they have really no agriculture whatsoever so they import everything, or there are communities in Alaska or Hawaii that have to import a lot of the stuff they use, and those expenses get pretty high because they're in fairly remote areas that it's a challenge to get stuff there in a way that's efficient and economically feasible. So it may make perfect sense there. It might actually offset some of the prices that they're spending on certain items right now.

Joe: Right. Even if you live in a place like New York or even in Atlanta, it might make sense to target certain crops for vertical farming. Well, we have fairly close access to the corn and all these other things, but we've got to fly the vegetables in from Europe or from South America if we want this special fruit or something like that.

Jonathan: Right, if I want my wasabi, I have to fly them either from one place in Hawaii, or Japan.

Joe: So in those cases it might make sense to invest in urban farming solutions for -

Lauren: For things like grapes that don't grow very well here in this particular, yeah, that's a terrible example, because we totally have wine country in the Georgia hills. There's wine in them there hills.

Jonathan: Even so, the point being that depending on where in the world you are, you may not have access to certain kinds of foods, and so, if you were to design vertical farms that specifically targeted that, then that would be a reason to do so.

Lauren: Right, and this also, I wanted to mention, to kind of go along, I think, with what is going to need to happen, which is a little bit of a change in perception of food. Because we're all so used to being able to get whatever we want whenever we want it, and if we really want to live in a more energy conservative way, we're not always going to have access to green globe grapes that we can just run down to the store and grab. We might need to start -

Jonathan: Your future is dark and frightening, Lauren.

Lauren: Well, but you know, it's not a terrible thing to think more about eating seasonally and appreciating really good strawberries when you get them, versus having terrible cardboard strawberries six months out of the year that cost you five times more than they otherwise would.

Jonathan: Well, and also, another solution that people could look at for these problems that we're talking about with these vertical farms, some of them involve just designing buildings differently. Like, instead of, we all have kind of a stock image in our minds of what a skyscraper looks like, but some of these vertical farms look a lot different from that image. For example, there are some designs that are tiered in a way, so that each level is slightly smaller than the level below it, which increases the amount of sunlight the lower levels can receive on any given day, and you orient that building, when you build it, to such a way, so that you get as much sunlight throughout a typical day as you possibly can, and you lower the need for things like that artificial sunlight we were talking about earlier.

Joe: Of course then it becomes less like the skyscraper.

Jonathan: But it's still a vertical farm, it's just not in the form - It's not necessarily - it's not like a multi use building where floors one through 15 are residential, 16 through 30 are offices, and 31 through 50 are farms. It's not like that, but it would still be a vertical farm, it just might not stretch up 30 stories. It may be more like fifteen.

Joe: A diagonal farm.

Jonathan: Still vertical.

Joe: Yeah, no, I believe you.

Jonathan: I can show you pictures. Not on an audio podcast, unfortunately, but these are the possible solutions we're looking at, and beyond that, there are alternatives. We have people living in urban areas today who are looking at or even creating gardening spaces and farming spaces within the city limits.

Lauren: Yeah, there's lots of park space that is certainly gorgeous, but can be gorgeous and also have apple trees. Food does not have to be mutually exclusive with urban beauty. And also just rooftop gardens or small personal gardens on a porch are all terrific ways to get a little bit extra food.

Jonathan: There's actually quite a few community gardens in the Atlanta area in particular. In fact, I know of three or four that are pretty close to where I live. Now, that can be complicated because depending upon what city you live in, there may be very strict rules as to what you can and cannot grow, but that's one of those things that could help offset the need for going outside the city limits to get your food.

Joe: Those rooftop gardens have a lot of advantages, don't they? Don't they say that they cut down on that urban heat island effect?

Jonathan: Sure. They also, of course, all plants take in carbon dioxide, so there's -

Lauren: Just as long as we've got cars, it's a pretty excellent thing.

Jonathan: Right, it's a carbon dioxide sync. It may not offset -

Joe: How many gardens would you need?

Jonathan: That's actually, that brings up another criticism I've read about vertical farms and the idea that in greenhouses and in these vertical farm models, often you would want to pump in more carbon dioxide than would normally be in a regular mixture of atmosphere in an attempt to essentially feed the plants.

Joe: Yeah, it would be like an oxygen rich environment for us.

Jonathan: Right, so it would be a carbon dioxide rich environment for them, and I've read some criticisms that say, "Well, how do you get the carbon dioxide?" And one of the common ways is through combustion. You burn something, and carbon dioxide is - but that just ends up releasing other elements. Yeah, so there again, more problems here, but it's not all bad, and of course even if we reach the ideal vertical farm world, where it makes perfect sense, maybe we have some energy surplus for some reason, we've cracked that nut and the energy isn't an issue anymore, so we can, depending upon your point of view, invest or waste energy on these vertical farms.

Joe: The fusion reactor is online. Let's build vertical farms.

Jonathan: Right, we've harnessed the power of the galaxy itself and now we're going to have our vertical farms, gosh darn it. But even if we do that, the numbers really don't add up. You don't - it's really hard to envision a world where we have enough vertical farmers to offset the need for our food.

Joe: Well, it's not just hard, it's kind of impossible, right? There's just a scale problem.

Jonathan: We would essentially have to replace all of our buildings with vertical farms.

Joe: And even then that wouldn't work, right? I mean, the vertical farming future, if it is a feasible possibility, it's supplemental. It's not to replace all of the horizontal agriculture. It can't. It can't possibly.

Jonathan: Right, so really what we're looking at is a way to kind of offset it a little bit, to reduce our reliance upon traditional horizontal farms, and thus reduce the impact that we make either through the whole production process, the environmental impact of just clearing out land to make a farm, we can definitely take a chunk of that out, which is an important part of conservation and sustainability, especially if we do things like Lauren, you were mentioning, when we were meeting about this earlier. If we were to shift our diets to be more of a vegetable and fruit heavy diet as opposed to eating lots and lots of meat -

Lauren: Yeah, it takes something like 1,600 liters of water to raise a two-pound steak. Not even a two-pound cow, a two-pound steak.

Jonathan: I'm just thinking about just nurturing a two-pound steak.

Joe: How many big gulps of water is that?

Jonathan: It's a lot. It's a lot of big gulps. Yeah, that's, obviously if we were to shift to a more vegetarian type of diet, not necessarily strictly vegetarian, but more so, then we would require -

Lauren: Alleviate a lot of the need for that kind of thing, yeah. And also yeah, there's probably a lot of crops that are a lot more - a watermelon is a lot more difficult to grow, for example, than, I don't have a good counter example. But watermelons, man, lots of water. Shockingly enough. No seriously.

Jonathan: It's right there in the name, yeah. I would imagine more so than, say, a cucumber. But anyway, yeah, it's an interesting idea, and it's definitely one of those things where you can look at it and you see an artist's rendering of what a vertical farm could look like, and you're like, "Wow, that's a super cool building of the future," and also these are the same sort of techniques that we're looking at as possible ways of helping us get from Earth to some distant planet. These growing techniques, these things that we have to take into consideration just to grow plants here on Earth in urban settings, could eventually inform us in our quest to get off this rock and visit other planets. So, it's definitely got its use, and we don't mean to downplay the importance of vertical farms. It may very well be that one day they are a common site in any major metropolitan area. But there are issues that we definitely need to take into consideration and acknowledge before we jump right in.

Joe: Well, we know it's not a sure thing yet, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea to keep trying. Trying at things that are hard or even seem impossible is how we innovate.

Lauren: Make improvements, yeah.

Jonathan: Yeah, and if nothing else, even if we eventually get to the conclusion that vertical farms are not a viable way to go, we could learn that there are other, through that process, we could learn other things that improve growing in traditional farms, or even if we just say, "Okay, maybe we don't make vertical farms, but we do make more greenhouses within urban areas to help with this issue," no matter what, we learn through that process, so like you were saying, Joe, it's definitely a positive thing in the long run, it just might be a little longer than what everyone was hoping for. That's okay. That's what the future is for. We get there.

Lauren: We've got nothing but the future. The future is everywhere.

Jonathan: It is. So anyway, guys, thank you so much for listening, I hope you are enjoying the podcast, the video series. Remember we have blogs at fwthinking.com that you can go and check out. We write about stuff that relates to the podcast, and we also write about other things that we don't really touch on in either the series or the podcast, so I highly recommend that you check that out, and follow us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, follow us on Google Plus, and let us know what you are interested in. We definitely want to tackle those futuristic topics that are just gnawing at your brain; you've got to know how is it going to turn out? We want to hear from you. So, get in touch with us, and we will talk to you again really soon.

Male Speaker: For more on this topic and the future of technology, visit fwthinking.com. Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places.

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Duration: 26 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: vertical farming, Agriculture