Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is the practice of cultivating plant life within a skyscraper greenhouse or on vertically inclined surfaces. The modern idea of vertical farming uses techniques similar to glass houses, where natural sunlight can be augmented with artificial lighting.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Origins of Vertical Farming

While the world relies heavily on traditional agriculture methods for food supply, Dickson Despommier, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at Columbia University and the godfather of vertical farming, urges that people consider growing upwards rather than outwards.

Despommier worked with a group of students in 1997 to figure out how to feed New York’s population of 2.3 million using the city’s rooftops.

While the rooftops were not sufficient, Despommier then realized that food can be grown inside of the buildings through the process of vertical farming.  

The Necessity of Vertical Farming

In another 20 years, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities according to Despommier in his TedxWindyCity talk. While the population is growing and more people are moving into urban environments, the need to control the rate of climate change becomes urgent.

According to Despommier in his TedxMulberry Talk, cities make up only 2.3 percent of the occupied land but create 70 percent of the population’s carbon dioxide emissions.  This is a major problem that will only continue unless sustainable efforts are made.

While the population continues to grow exponentially, especially in cities where land is scarce and oftentimes polluted, traditional agriculture cannot be easily initiated. 

Problems with Traditional Farming

Deforestation due to farming has caused increased carbon emission into the atmosphere. The problem is finding out what to do with excess carbon.

Farming requires herbicides, fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides which are all toxic to the environment and create polluted runoff water which contaminates ocean water. Moreover, farming uses 70 percent of the planet’s water supply leaving less for human consumption. The deficiencies of traditional farming, Despommier suggests, cannot be overlooked especially with the need to feed the world’s growing population.

Despommier in “The Vertical Essay” states that “it is predicted that over the next 50 years, the human population is expected to rise to at least 8.6 billion, requiring an additional 109 hectares to feed them using current technologies, or roughly the size of Brazil.”

His solution to this problem is growing more food with hydroponics, aeroponics, and drip irrigation inside in tall city buildings. While hydroponic farming is implemented all over the world, it has yet to be done in a city.

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponic Onions NASA

William Frederick Gericke, in the early 1930’s, pioneered hydroponics at the University of California at Berkley says According to the Oxford Dictionary, Hydroponics is defined as “The process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil.”

Plants are capable of hydroponics due to photosynthesis in which “they use sunlight and a chemical inside their leaves called chlorophyll to convert carbon dioxide (a harmless gas in the air) and water into glucose (a type of sugar) and oxygen.” Soil is a convenient source of nutrients for the plants, but they do not need it as long as they have access to water and sunlight and nutrients.

Hydroponics has the advantage of yielding more plants in less time than traditional methods. The plants have smaller roots since they do not need to dig through the soil to find nutrients. The system is also cleaner without any pesticides growing in the soil. Also, farming can be done year-round using this system whereas conventional farming methods have to adapt to the seasons. 

How Vertical Farming Works

Beds of plants are stacked to the ceiling in a process called aeroponics which grows plants with air and water rather than soil. A lift is placed between each stack so that people can access each plant. Between each bed of plants, blue and red LED lights create the perfect wavelengths for photosynthesis according to Harbor County NewsAeroponic farms also states that the use of LED lights allows farmers “to control size, shape, texture, color, flavor, and nutrition with razor-sharp precision and increased productivity.”

Sterilized air sweeps up through the building and reaches all of the plants. The purified air is good for the plants and for the people working the farm. It reduces the chance of food borne illnesses. In addition, an aeroponic mist of nutrients, water and oxygen sprays at the root of each plant, drains, and is filtered for reuse, eliminating runoff water. A diagram by Aerofarms shows this process in more detail. Aerofarms, along with many other vertical farms, can raise crops up to 30 feet in the air. 

Bright Farm System Diagram, Wikipedia

The Cost of Vertical Farming

While vertical farming can be a viable solution to the lack of available land use for agriculture, many people are concerned about the costs. It is difficult to find a definitive cost considering that there are no comparable projects to the vertical farm. However, the estimate is $80 to $100 million for the initial building of vertical farms. These estimates are based on the average cost of building skyscrapers. The benefit of outdoor farming is that sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide are supplied for free. Farming indoors requires these necessities at a cost. For this reason, vertical farming is only being promoted in urban areas or areas where farming is normally difficult because of space.

Although the implementation of vertical farming requires siginificant funds, the benefits outweigh. For instance, in Singapore, the first commercial vertical farm was built. In all, it takes only three dollars a month to run one four story tower that holds dozens of fresh vegetables due to the low amount of required electricity.

NutriTower, Day Donaldson, Flickr

Vertical Farming can also be done within the home. NutriTower is 7-foot tall vertical farming system that can grow plants such as lettuce, oregano, and parsley to be harvested fresh. The device is an investment costing $1,299. However, it is convenient, aesthetically pleasing and takes up less space than traditional farming. Therefore, people living in urban environments with limited space can also grow fresh plants. This system may improve nutrition by improving eating habits and allow people to have fresher products without the need for transportation.

The Benefits of Vertical Farming

Fresher product 

Despommier points out that people living in urban environments and far distances from farms buy fruits and vegetables from grocery stores that are a week old. Plants stay on the rack for 20 days at Verticrop and they harvest five days a week. Vertical Farming is meant to fill rooftops and building spaces so that food can be interspersed locally in each neighborhood. 

Lower cost of transporting goods

With a vertical farm growing in a building right in your neighborhood, the costs will decrease. This method lowers the cost of the produce and allows people to receive fresher products. Verticrop, for instance, states that the current process of shipping food is twice their carbon footprint. They send out couriers on bikes with fresh produce to local restaurants.

Green Year Round

While outdoor farming heeds to the seasons, indoor, sustained vertical farming allows green vegetables to grow fresh all year round.Hydroponic Tomatoes, Wikipedia

Controlled Climate

There is no crop damage due to weather such as droughts or storms. Also, no bugs have access to the plants.  

No pesticides

Since vertical farming is indoors, the bugs cannot eat up the plants, so people do not have to ingest unneeded chemicals.

More crops

The maximization of space allows for more crops to grow meaning more food to go around. Aerofarms is able to make “the exact same seed from the field and grow it in half the time as a traditional field farmer, leading to 75 times more productivity per square foot than a commercial field farm.”

Less water use

Agriculture uses 70 percent of our water supply. Vertical farms, can release water to the plants then recirculate that water after it is purified. In addition, Despommier suggests that vertical farming promotes good health, clean air, abandoned building use, more drinking water and employment opportunities.

Vertical Farming Versus Traditional Farming

(Information Courtesy of

  • Yields are approximately 20 times higher than the normal production volume of field crops
  • VertiCrop™ requires only 8% of the normal water consumption used to irrigate field crops
  • High levels of food safety due to the enclosed growing process
  • Significant operating and capital cost savings over field agriculture

Downsides to Vertical Farming

Bright Agrotech, Pixabay

Many vertical farmers are using LED lights to help the plants grow, but some vertical farmers are suggesting that plants still need natural sunlight. It may be a waste to spend money using LED lights, when the sun is a natural source of energy. Then, the problem may be that some plants receive less access to sunlight depending on where they are stationed. Also, this puts a limit on the establishment of vertical farms in urban cities where space is limited, greenhouses scarce, and sunlight is blocked by tall buildings. Ted Caplow, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the company BrightFarms, an urban greenhouse, stated to NPR that "If you wind up using more energy to light the plant than it would've cost to truck them across the country," Caplow says, "then at least from an energy standpoint, you're not coming out ahead."

In addition, only “leafy greens” says Stan Cox, a senior scientist at Land Institute, are being produced on vertical farms. Growing fruits, grains, and vegetables like potatoes out of the sunlight becomes “impossible.”

Stacked versus Vertical Planes

While most vertical farms use stacked beds, Bright Agrotech suggests that this is not the most efficient way to create a vertical farm. It does not utilize all possible space, plants in the middle do not get as much sunlight, and people have to use a lift to reach all of the plants. They suggest that growing up and vertically makes use of space without lifting. The elevation requires more labor and can be a safety hazard. The plants are grown on an eight feet tall plane and each plant is exposed to the same amount of light. 

The Possibilities with Vertical Farming and LEED

While vertical farming still may seem like a technology for the future, many people certified in green building are working together to turn this hydroponic system into a reality. Instead of waiting for the population to increase and food shortages to become more of a detriment to society, Despommier and many others such as the creators of VertiCrop, AeroFarms, and Bright Agrotech are thinking about viable solutions of growing more food in less time with less harm on the planet. There is plenty of information available about how to create a sustainable environment via green technologies. By becoming LEED certified, more people will be able to join the effort in making vertical farms and other green buildings and technologies a reality. 

Vertical Farm, Despommier, Amazon

      Here is a list of LEED Credentials:

      • Building Design + Construction (LEED AP BD+C)
      • Operations + Maintenance (LEED AP O+M)
      • Interior Design + Construction (LEED AP ID+C)
      • Homes (LEED AP Homes)
      • Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND)
      • LEED AP BD+C

      Becoming LEED Certified is the first step towards revitalizing our planet, creating sustainable technologies, and helping others learn green practices like vertical farming. “The best reason for doing this, of course, is to supply fresh produce for people who live next to where you farm it," says Despommier. "And the less impact on the land, the better." Read more at

      More on Vertical Farming

      Dickson Despommier’s book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, provides more information about the future of vertical farming and its benefit for an ever-changing planet with a growing population. The future of farming has become high-tech and highly efficient. 


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