Visiting Professor at Cornell Encourages Vertical Farming in Buildings

Prof. Emeritus Dickson Despommier, Columbia University, spoke about vertical farming to solve the planet’s climate issues...

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By Alexa Davis via the Cornell Daily Sun, 4/25/13

A few graduate students’ dream that skyscrapers will be filled with plants instead of cubicles may be becoming a reality. In a lecture Wednesday, Prof. Emeritus Dickson Despommier, Columbia University, environmental health sciences, spoke to an audience of 30 students about how groups are beginning to adopt vertical farming to solve the planet’s climate issues.

Despommier said that the world’s cultures, ecosystems and economic systems currently face challenges obtaining a safe water supply, securing food safety, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and restoring damaged ecosystems. Food producers have farmed 80 percent of earth’s available farmland, consumed 70 percent of available freshwater and 20 percent of the country’s fossil fuels, he said.

Vertical farming, or the cultivation of plant life in skyscraper greenhouses, Despommier said, is the solution to these problems. By growing plants in “living buildings,” the agricultural industry can decrease its production of agricultural runoff and stop using fossil fuels and pesticides, according to Despommier.

In addition to creating a positive carbon footprint, vertical farming would stabilize the success of agricultural industry, Despommier said. The “living buildings” would provide shelter so there would be year-round crop production and no crop loss from severe weather events.

Furthermore, “living buildings” are more productive than traditional farmland, Despommier said. In fact, each indoor acre of farmland is more productive than 10 outdoor acres of land, according to Despommier.

According to Despommier, the biggest payoff of vertical farming is teaching cities to function as ecosystems. To be a functioning member of an ecosystem, you must be both a giver and receiver of energy, Despommier said. In natural ecosystems, plants are the primary producers, but in cities, the role of primary producer has not been filled.

“Cities are parasites. They do not produce anything of their own. They use up everything. For example, New York City consumes food equivalent to the size of Virginia,” Despommier said.

Despommier said that once city dwellers are able to successfully use their waste to produce more energy, cities can become eco-cities.

The students in attendance, who represented a variety of majors, said Despommier’s ideas, which some described as “revolutionary,” have major impacts on many different industries and areas of society.

“I think it’s really interesting that [Despommier] is using design and architecture and the idea of vertical farming as a public health initiative. I’m interested in how access to different foods impacts poverty and education. I’m interested in how everything fits together,” Laura Stokes ’13 said.

Ben Javidfar ’13, a neurobiology major, said he sees potential for a career in vertical farming.

“I could potentially make a career out of this ... like improving the science and making the technology more efficient to improve the tecahnological aspect. [Vertical farming] is just a really efficient — probably the most efficient — type of technology that I’ve ever heard of in agriculture,” Javidfar said.

Cory Furst ’13, a hotel student, was thankful that Cornell is supporting efforts to invite speakers who are relevant leaders in their respective fields.

“I’ve been following [Despommier] for a few years, so I was really excited when I heard about the lecture. I think it’s really nice that at Cornell you get people like this who actually speak first-hand about what they’re doing in this revolutionary field,” Furst said.

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