Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Is "Wow Big Idea" a Bad Thing?

In response to the general public's fascination with, and support of, Vertical Farms, some people have recently written rebuttals of the idea. At least two blogs have attacked the economic viability of Vertical Farming, echoing one another in an empty whimper suggestive of unimaginative minds plodding along with a vague conviction that the status quo is a heaven-sent utopia.

EcoGeek just posted an article called "Let's Make This Clear: Vertical Farms Don't Make Sense" in which they write that two things need to happen in order for "Vertical Farms to make sense":
You need the price of food to increase 100 fold over today's prices, and you need the productivity of vertical farms to increase 100 fold over traditional farms. Neither of those things will ever happen.
Sci-Fi author and blogger, Tobias Buckell, writes:
...The fact is, the existing land sprawling out around New York and the US and gasoline to transport the goods from the heartland to NYC is still far cheaper [than building Vertical Farms] when an accountant crunches the figures.
These people are missing the point entirely. First of all, if anyone thinks that today's agricultural system is perfect, he is wrong. If anyone thinks that we don't need drastic change, consider the following: we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, yet we fail to distribute adequate food to even six billion; agriculture is the number one source of water pollution in the world; rapid ecosystem loss due to deforestation due to the need for more farmland has partly contributed to what many scientists are calling The Sixth Mass Extinction, which could claim our species; and the list goes on. Wendell Berry said, "Eating determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used." He's right, and we're using it embarrassingly badly.

Secondly, who's to say Vertical Farming is not economically viable? Cars weren't economically viable, until they were. Cell phones weren't economically viable, until they were. The computer I'm pounding on wasn't economically viable, until it was. Who's to say that Vertical Farms won't become economically viable once they're tried? As traditional farmland becomes unusable, which is happening with climate change, the demand for all alternative methods of food production will increase, partly increasing the demand for Vertical Farms; as this happens, money will flow into Vertical Farm research, and the cost of constructing and operating Vertical Farms will decrease. More to the point, I've seen business plans for a Vertical Farm, and it is economically viable, today.

Dickson Despommier has been clear that the best way to proceed with Vertical Farms is not to go straight in to a 30-story building, but rather to build a prototype that will serve as a Vertical Farm research lab where the scientists, engineers, architects and horticulturalists will smooth out the kinks in what will surely be a very kinky--not that kind--operation. As soon as all of the experts have determined what works and what doesn't work in this structure, then it will be time to raise both the stakes and the height of the greenhouse. This research lab will also have the distinction of First Vertical Farm, and so will command prodigious tourism from around the world. But the point is to get started on research now because we will need and want functional VFs later (actually, we need and want them right now), and the Vertical Farmer, mirroring Despommier's thinking, thinks it would be best to fix the mistakes in the lab. So, five stories now, 30 stories later.

Vertical Farming is already economically viable, and it will happen, regardless of naysayers.

Vertical Farming should be pursued because it is a simple solution to a number of human world problems that does not involve further encroachment into the natural world. Most of our "simple solutions" to date have involved the destruction of the natural world and have proven to be quite complex when we account for ensuing environmental problems. But this one actually shields the natural world from our heavy footprint of progress. Its intuitiveness and its simplicity are actually its greatest strengths. As EcoGeek puts it:
At first, [Vertical Farming] seems to make all the sense in the world. Moving production of food into population centers to eliminate shipping. Creating highly efficient "food factories" that allow land elsewhere to be freed from cultivation.

(VF design by Oliver Foster)

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