Is Vertical Farming Economically Feasible?

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Brandon Martella, a recent graduate from the New School of Architecture and Design recently submitted his plans to build a vertical farm in downtown San Diego, called the Live Share Grow tower.  He wants to revolutionize the way we grow food in the U.S.  That idea sounded interesting to me, so I snooped around to see if there are any more examples of this type of farming and if they are in fact, successful. Turns out the concept has been around several years already.

San Diego skyline with huge corn cob building

Artist’s misconception of “vertical farming”

Dickson D. Despommier is a microbiologist, ecologist and Professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University. He teaches courses on Parasitic Diseases, Medical Ecology and Ecology. In 1999, he developed his concept of vertical farming  in a medical ecology class and went on to write a book, published in 2010 called  The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.

Another designer by the name of Chris Jacobs, living in Los Angeles has written several articles about vertical farming and hopes to bring the concepts of Despommier to fruition.

In Chicago there is an old building called, The Plant  that used to be a meat packing house that plans to grow food indoors using food waste and animal products. Right now it’s in the experimental stage but it is a functioning, multi-use facility, housing businesses making micro-brews and Kombucha, a bakery, and aquaponic store. (they have room for more tenants, in case anyone is interested in an investment opportunity) Their mission statement is:  to promote closed-loop food production and sustainable economic development through education and research.

A few miles outside Singapore vertical farm skyscrapers grow bok choy and Chinese cabbage. The farm’s first prototype was built in 2009 and since October this year the fully operating farm has been supplying one of city’s supermarkets with weekly deliveries of its greens. The Sky Greens produce costs around 40% more than an imported Chinese equivalent

The indoor grown produce costs 40% more than conventional produce? Are Americans ready to pay 40% more for their produce?  I doubt that. Singapore also has warmer weather than parts of the U.S.  — it’s a balmy 86 degrees Fahrenheit year round. That’s quite a bit different from the sub-zero weather in the Midwest during their winter months. It would cost a great deal more to keep the indoor farms from freezing temperatures.

Stan Cox, from Counterpunch, an online newspaper, writes that the idea looks good on paper but won’t work in reality. Here’s an example of one of the problems Cox sees with the idea of indoor farming:

Vegetables (not counting potatoes) occupy only 1.6% of our total cultivated land, so that should be no problem, right? Wrong. At equivalent yield per acre, we would need the floorspace of 105,000 Empire State Buildings. And that would still leave more than 98 percent of our crop production still out in the fields.

I think Cox makes  a good point. Finding enough space to grow a lot of food is a problem, even if that space is vertical. Now, I’m definitely no farmer but I know windows can allow enough light on its own to see on a sunny day but photosynthesis, which plants need to grow is a totally different thing.  Crop plants need a lot more direct light to produce food and there isn’t enough light coming through a window to do that.  You don’t see anyone successfully growing, for example tomatoes inside their kitchen window sill.

Those in favor of this project claim this type of farming reduces the ecological impact because the food doesn’t have to be transported hundreds of miles to the consumer but Cox argues that the food’s ecological footprint lies mostly in production, not transportation. He has a different idea that I tend to agree with:

the most effective immediate action would be to stop degrading scores of millions of acres every year to raise corn and soybeans for making biofuels and feeding cattle.

It requires a lot more energy to feed cattle than to grow fruits and vegetables.  A good example was last year’s drought. Thousands of animals were slaughtered early because of the higher feed costs and don’t forget lack of water.

I know we are experiencing climate change and that no matter what we do right now, we will feel the pain of it because we refused to act 30 years ago when scientists first told us about it, but adapting to it is not the way to go. I don’t have a problem with aquaponic gardens feeding people on a smaller scale but doing it to feed millions of people will only be a winner for those who design and build these vertical skyscrapers.  They will make billions of dollars and Americans will have such high food costs there will be more who go to bed hungry than who do right now.  The ones who can afford to pay 40% more for food will see it as designer foods, which will lose the original intent which is to feed a growing population in an ever increasing hostile environment.


About Inge

Cancer survivor. Healthy organic food coach. Public speaker. If you have a story you want told, contact me at