Vertical Farming Part 1: Could WSU Feed the City of Pullman?

Vertical farms

Vertical farming is a brand new concept that originated in about 1909. No, that’s not a typo. So why are we getting excited about it now, over 100 years later? In 1909, the burgeoning growth of the world’s human population and the need for food production didn’t seem quite as pressing as it does today with global climate change and 8+ billion people soon staring us in the face. Wild concepts that once were the work of science fiction now are the realm of everyday discussion. The future we once dreamed of, both for its glorious accomplishments and potential, as well as its environmental devastation, is here. Like it or not, we’re smack dab in the middle of the future.

And lest you think that food production isn’t very sexy or interesting, let me remind you of one sobering fact. While industrialized nations face serious health problems from an over abundance of the wrong kinds of foods, many people in less developed nations face starvation on a daily basis. According to the World Health Organization, over 30,000 people, many of them infants and young children, starve to death or die of simple nutritional related diseases every single day of the year. While that shocking statistic does not technically indicate a food shortage, but a food distribution problem, it’s clear that food production deserves the best of our intellect and science for many reasons, including our ethical development as a global civilization, and the conservation of the natural world.

Simple questions often have complex answers, and that appears to be what we’re up against here. Could Washington State University feed the city of Pullman? One would think that as a major land grant university, and one with a large College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS), that we could answer this question in a heartbeat. But I bet that it would actually take some effort on the part of a lot of people throughout WSU to do a decent job. But let’s take a stab at it anyway, just for fun.

According to an authoritative source, Wikipedia, the world’s public encyclopedia, “Vertical farming” pertains to the concept of essentially farming in skyscraper-size buildings and greenhouses. Imagine a building the size of one of our campus parking garages, or even larger, that was a multi-story greenhouse growing a variety of food crops throughout the year. Wouldn’t such a high-rise greenhouse, or perhaps a complex of them, be able to feed the people living in Pullman?

Greenhouses obviously create controlled growing conditions, which is precisely why we use them to regulate heat, light, water, and pests and extend the growing season for plants that are well suited to greenhouse production. Indeed, there are times when I wish my own home were about half greenhouse so I could have enough room for the new plants that accumulate on my window sills and kitchen table on a weekly basis while waiting for gardening weather to arrive.

But just being able to envision a skyscraper-size greenhouse doesn’t automatically mean that the concept would work well. At the very least, we’d certainly have to think about the economics and environmental consequences of building and operating such a large structure that would presumably require supplemental lighting, heating, cooling, and water supplies. So immediately, our simple question requires a complicated interplay of agriculture, biology, ecology, horticulture, economics, architecture, and engineering, with healthy doses of chemistry, molecular biology and genetics, mathematics, and physics thrown in for good measure. Good thing we have a well rounded university close at hand to answer simple questions!

Vertical farming has popped back up on the science radar screen the last several years, because it has been popularized by Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York City. Despommier apparently had a class determine whether they could feed the population of Manhattan off of 13 acres of rooftop gardens, only to have the students decide it was not feasible. Subsequent discussions led to exploring the idea of large, self contained, greenhouse skyscrapers, and resulted in the book, The Vertical Farm – Feeding the World in the 21st Century.

Vertical farm vegetables

[Illustration from "The Living Skyscraper: Farming the Urban Skyline" by Blake Kurasek © 2008 The Vertical Farm Project.]

Proponents of the concept argue that we face a severe agricultural and food crisis that needs to be solved using new technology that doesn’t result in the conversion and loss of large amounts of natural habitat to food production. We don’t have that much more productive land to give. By growing food in high rise food condos, we can reduce the pressure to convert land to agriculture, reduce environmental impacts, produce food locally, and possibly even cut the production of climate changing greenhouse gases.

Critics of the vertical farming concept are quick to point out what we’ve already noted ourselves. Rough calculations about requirements for lighting, heating, cooling, and water supplies are not promising, or at least indicate many engineering and environmental challenges. Furthermore, only certain kinds of food lend themselves readily to greenhouse production.

Vertical farm

[Illustration: Vertical Farms by Chris Jacobs © 2008 The Vertical Farm Project.]

So who’s right? Proponents or critics? I’m not one to just automatically pooh pooh wild and crazy ideas, just because they’re wild and crazy ideas – and hopefully, Steve Martin agrees with me. On the other hand, just because something is billed as futuristic and high tech, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea. It’s a scientist’s job to be skeptical. Prove it to me. Show me the numbers.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to reach a definitive conclusion about vertical farming here. However, the concept has alternatives that are also quite interesting, including the even earlier work of Malaysian architect, Ken Yeang, noted for his ecological design work and who is sometimes called the father of the “sustainable bioclimatic building.”

Professor Yeang’s work focuses on ecodesign, biomimicry, ecoengineering, and “green” design in integrated architectural systems that combine open air, mixed use buildings that blend plant and food production with other human and community uses. Yeang’s work might be described as a less hermetically sealed and technologically focused vision than that of Despommier’s sealed skyscrapers. So even if the concept of vertical farms, with a large skyscraper looming overhead and glowing visibly for miles in the middle of the Palouse night, is not what we can readily imagine for the WSU campus, the concepts of green building design and urban food production are worth exploring.

Let’s begin by doing some background research. I’m serious when I suggest that you begin by looking at the Wikipedia account for vertical farming and the numerous excellent information links provided there. Also check out The Vertical Farm Project directly. We’ll then return here in the near future and pick up the topic of “The Architecture of Agriculture.”

And as we explore vertical farming, we’ll also explore the smaller scale concepts and approaches to vertical gardens, sometimes called green walls, living walls, or biowalls. And who knows? We may well install a vertical garden in the WSU Arboretum & Wildlife Conservation Center, so our learning and discussions here can be put to good use!

[Featured photo at top of this article: Source - Wikipedia.]

One Response to “Vertical Farming Part 1: Could WSU Feed the City of Pullman?”
  1. Rod Sayler says:

    Yes, I agree with you that more pictures of the vertical farming concept and related issues would be quite helpful. Good pictures do say a thousand words, don’t they? I haven’t been able to locate many vertical farming photos on the web that are available for general use with attribution, so I may have to set about getting my own photos and drawings made up. I haven’t yet decided how many separate parts of the vertical farming series will be presented here, but hope to have the next, Part 2, completed soon and will be curious to know what you think of it.

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