Monday, October 18, 2010
The Vertical Farm Feeding The World in the 21st Century by Dr, Dickson Despommer
This book is both utopian and visionary. However, I also found it to lacked some attribution for where the science and some of the philosophy for the things which he is describing are coming from. He does not describe some of the more interesting and radical ideas that have come out of ecology recently.
Dr. John Despommier spends quite a bit of time describing how agriculture came into being. Then he describes how modern agriculture is wasteful from an ecological standpoint. I found some of his writing to be a bit overbearing. He jumps from bad modern farming methods to giant skyscraper farms.
There is very little of a median. He goes into greenhouses and how they work, but does not do much with bioshelters, organic farming, or natural pest control.
He also wants the vertical farms he is designing to be hermetically sealed liked the biosphere experiment. This did not work as planned in the biosphere experiment.
He also is arguing for moving hydroponics into the city. This is already starting to happen. It is just not happening in the fashion of skyscrapers. When he describes the advantages of a vertical farm, it is the exact same advantage of having urban greenhouses. I see urban greenhouses and farms as being incredible positive for people in cities.
The advantage which a vertical farm would have over a horizontal greenhouse would be that the system he is describing would use less land and probably have a greater surface area to place solar panels and wind turbines on.
He properly praises John Todd for his work on living machines which led to many breakthroughs with ideas for things like bioshelters, water purification based on living machines, and other concepts which are used in the book, The Vertical Farm. http://toddecological.com/eco-machines/
I distinctly remember reading about a multistory bioshelter farm design for cities in the book Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design written in 1984 published by Sierra Club Books. This was the basis for a later book, A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design, Island Press c2005.
I think Dr. Dickson Despommier synthesized a new idea from the work of many others. The scale of a vertical farm is what differentiates his idea. It is hard to imagine a skyscraper filled with greenery.
There is also a single sentence citation for the book, Cradle to Cradle Remaking The Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This is a book about how to design things so there is very little waste in a closed loop system based on ecology. I did find it listed in recommended reads.
Dr. Despommier also uses the term "natural capitalism" without explaining where it comes from. Natural Capitalism is a term for businesses that use environmental principles. It is also a book, Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins.
I wish he had spent some more time describing the workings of how a vertical farm is put together. For example, I might have liked a little more on how Aeroponics which came from NASA works. Incidentally, Dr. Despommier also mentions Biosphere II which was a closed loop system for maintaining humans for long time periods in space. Many of the potential systems he is describing come from space research.
Dr. Despommier's description of the Eurofresh Farms is quite interesting. They are in the middle of the Arizona desert. There is another example of a closed system farm in the antarctic not mentioned in the book where they grow fresh food for researchers. It is also preparation for growing food on Mars. http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=13724
The Vertical Farm which he is describing is a future design combining space research, agronomy, and bioshelter design inside a skyscraper. It uses both wind, solar, and biomass power. It commercializes concepts like aeroponics from NASA and adds to some ideas that already came from space research. Solar panels were originally invented at NASA.
This brings the theme to power in the book. Dr. Despommier describes how they will be using wind power, biomass, and solar power. He suggest plasma arc gasification as the way to get rid of biomass. Plasma arc gasification is very expensive. He also suggests that we grow fuel crops in vertical farms. Fuel crops like algae can grow on open water in big bags for far cheaper prices. I liked his sugestion from an earlier article in the New York magazine that they use pellet burning cogeneration for heat, power, and steam. http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/
Dr. Despommier says this can only be built by governments doing research; there is no venture capital interested in this. This statement bothered me. Mr. Despommier is wrong. Bayer is doing research for this and many other companies are working on projects which involve these technologies.
Other companies are seeking venture capital to build these projects like Home Town Farms. http://www.hometownfarms.com/ Many cities are becoming more interested in investing in urban agricultural greenhouses. In New York, there is http://gothamgreens.com/ whch supplies Whole Foods markets. There are also combined systems called aquaponics which create closed loops for growing fish and vegetables together. http://www.growseed.org/growingpower.html
I thought the book was very interesting and very flawed. Most of the advantages which he is describing could be done with rooftop aquaponics, or moving advanced greenhouses into an urban setting. I am not convinced that stacking one greenhouse after another into a skyscraper is a good idea. I can see smaller buildings of three or four stories tried first. This would reduce pollution, provide fresh organic food, create new jobs, and a cleaner environment. It is well worth doing.
In the appendices, there is a lot of material on hydroponics and urban hydroponics with many websites. It would have been nice to see him list a few green incubators like Green Spaces http://www.greenspaceshome.com/ or NYC Acre http://www.nycacre.com/ . Also, it would have been nice to see a little bit on aquaponics as well.
The best part of ths book was the illustrations. They are incredible pictures of green cities, buildings and skyscrapers. In fact, his descriptions of green buildings were also superb. This is an excellent reason to take a look at this book.
This is a fascinating and flawed book. I found many of his ideas to be very interesting, but impractical. Maybe, I had some problems with his not going more deeply into parts of the philosophy behind building a vertical farm. I also did not like his over focus on the idea that the government will fund research into vertical farms. Vertical farms incorporate some fairly radical ideas about science and technology.
This book hopefully will stimulate people to look at the fascinating new developments in aeroponics, hydroponics, recycling, green buildings, cradle to cradle design, ecological design, and alternative energy which this book presents. I think most people will find this book fascinating. I did have some questions about the authors approach and philosophy.