Vertical Farming Debated

This is something of an old debate (we posted on this same article in July), and also something of an old post. But the link is still getting comments so we thought we’d post it here in case anyone wants to jump back into duking it out over vertical gardens.

This is something of an old debate (we posted on this same article in July), and also something of an old post. But the link is still getting comments so we thought we’d post it here in case anyone wants to jump back into duking it out over vertical gardens. However, this post more than most, seems to be provocative mainly for the arrogance and snarkiness of its author, Adam Stein than for any real content or debate, but again, it’s still getting readers.

Just to summarize a few points, Stein writes:

I’m as concerned about food as the next guy — scratch that, I’m more concerned about food than the next guy — which is why I find it somewhat dismaying to see a serious and complicated set of issues turned into a sort of fetish. I really don’t know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending “hundreds of millions” of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space.

and then further:

If the only way to sell your conceit is to make it look like I.M. Pei and Rem Koolhaas’ love child, then perhaps the original concept needs to be revisited. I’m not really sure that the profit margins on brussel sprouts are going to support the architect’s fees.

Clearly, Mr. Stein has more than just a fiery passion for agricultural issues — namely a hot distaste for contemporary architecture. Some of the readers comments are quite good however:

I’m sorry, but we are casually wading into muddy water with nothing but flip flops and a snorkel here.

“Terrible way to reduce carbon emissions”
“Huge waste of money”
“It will always be possible to grow crops more cheaply in actual fields than in urban centers”

These are big statements, floating out there without the slightest hint of substantiation. Maybe I am missing completely some critical argument, or, your assumptions about what it means to concentrate and systematize are different from mine, but the only way that I can infer massively higher incremental costs in the cities (as opposed to factory farming in the suburbs, where high technology supports hectares of flat, sprawling product), is through the disproportionate cost of the land. Land is expensive, but urban farms become, like McDonalds, beneficiaries of the perennial trend towards real estate appreciation. In addition, if the urban farms have to compete with product from outside of the cities, the urban farm product will have to either differentiate itself on price or quality, but the market will not tolerate a lesser bargain.

Accordingly, I think you are ignoring the obvious economies of scale that can be found in building up. The benefits of being in a highly concentrated place like New York city that make it 30% more efficient (and carbon efficient) than a typical suburb is representative of the same economies of scale. And its why factories worked so well in Brooklyn, and why this idea could really work well in Cleveland or Portland. Concentrating people, and ideas, closely together creates all kinds of opportunities to do things better.

It’s allowable to suppose that spreading water, energy, nutrients, manpower (think of collection) over a large farm is costly and labor inefficient and might be done better by an engineer in the city, refining the community garden concept to capture these economies of scale through centralized efficiencies. Using heat more effectively, using cooling more efficiently, distributing nutrients, monitoring illness…all of this can be done in a factory when the right rules and procedures are applied. And in the end, maybe ownership is placed in lot Q45475 on the 3rd floor of building B – “my food comes from my plot”.

Bottom line – I don’t know if this idea works, and there are certainly many ways for something like this to be a colossal failure, but equally there seems there is much more worth exploring here than your dismissive and unsubstantiated position implies. It was my hope to get you just to open your mind a little and think about “how to make it work” rather than “why its a bad idea”, but getting you to articulate why you think its a bad idea seems like a reasonable start.

Well, you can see more for yourselves at the link below. And you can find out all you need to know about Adam Stein (how a Wharton Business Grad. becomes an expert on urban agriculture) here:

  1. How can you guys “debate” vertical farming when you haven’t even looked at the real deal commercial units happening right now…

    Time Magazine says Valcent’s Vertical Farming Technology one of the Top 50 Best Innovations of 2009:

    “I can’t think of any technology that addresses more urgent issues than Valcent’s vertical farming system”, says RFK Jr

    Reuters Video features Valcent’s VertiCrop vertical farming system:

    1. Thanks for your comment. Generally it is our policy not to allow product plugs on the site but this does seem to be an interesting option. As to your first point, it is not the role of Animal Architecture to debate anything, but rather to present arguments and issues for discussion. We would hope that our readers would then engage in a debate with each other or Animal Architecture, or both. We can’t debate with ourselves. That would be terribly one-sided. No?

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