vertical farming: when high-tech meets food production

In 2008, Dickson Despommier published the book ‘The Vertical Farm’. His vision of growing up rather than outwards intrigued the world and ignited the imaginations of innovators who would build on his ingenuity to create sustainable, agricultural production systems even in the most land poor locations. Since the release of his book, his creativity has become a source of inspiration for those who believe in his dream for the future in which cities are no longer resource-hungry, environmental destroyers, but self-sufficient landscapes capable of producing enough food for each citizen. The non-profit organization the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) has also since come together to help support this effort and help transform Despommier’s dream for the future from fantasy to reality.

While there are many varying concepts related to the realization of the vertical farm concept, a basic conceptual framework is nonetheless present: Vertical farms are isolated ecosystems that engage in a practice referred to as Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) that is arguably ideal for edible food production, particularly leafy greens. These systems, which can exist in a variety of locations ranging from old warehouses to newly designed multi-use urban farms, can grow food 24/7/365 regardless of the outside climate conditions. They are efficient in that production per square meter is increased and the outputs are highly nutritious due to the controlled nature of the growing environment. Production in such an environment requires also fewer chemical inputs, allows for water and nutrient cycling and recycling and eliminates the need for pesticides. Likewise, the issue of agricultural runoff is removed and arable land is not required for production. Explained more concisely, vertical farms are plant factories, which apply many of the concepts of traditional, technology-based manufacturing to food production.

Vertical farming is of interest to many different industries due to its novel nature, which provides an opportunity for innovation and new products for manufacturing. Technology companies are particularly keen on this technology because of the inherently high-tech nature of this strategy for food production. In Japan, the global epicenter of vertical farming, there are already 370 vertical farms (as of 2014) and the demand currently heavily outweighs the supply despite products costing more than double their conventional counterparts, albeit this is arguably a result of Fukushima which has engendered a great deal of fear related to food safety. Success has been so great that major technology companies, such as SONY and SHARP, have invested in vertical farms and begun adapting inactive infrastructure to suit growing consumer demand. Other successful endeavors can be seen in the Netherlands with the Plantlab, in Sweden with Plantagon, and in the United States with Farmed Here and Green Spirit Farms.

However, despite some demonstrated successes, there are still questions as to the economic feasibility of vertical farming operations – especially due to the high technology and energy demands. However, it can be contended that as this practice expands and renewable energy becomes more readily available, the costs of the technological components will decrease as is the case with most technological advancements, indicating that vertical farming will likely be a permanent component of the urban agriculture family.


Loesel, M. (2014). Vertical Farming: From Concept to Reality. Urban Agriculture Magazine, 28. p. 62-64.

zero acreage farming (zfarming): what it is and how it can change the future of (urban) agriculture

It is not uncommon to hear about the challenges that will be faced in feeding the growing population of the world. One of the main concerns is the lack of arable space, an issue that can be attributed to land-use changes, especially urbanization. Subsequently, the rapid growth of cities contributes to a number of issues, with the overwhelming demand for resources, e.g. food, that must be imported from outside systems being among the most relevant. This long-distance between urban-dwellers and agricultural production creates ecological problems in the form of inhibited nutrient cycling, high costs, and emissions problems.

Despite these issues, it is also well-documented that cities are efficient hubs of innovation. Accordingly, cities have birthed the idea of zero acreage farming, or ‘Zfarming’, which is defined as a form of agriculture that does not use farmland or open space, rather it uses otherwise unused spaces. Zfarming can take the form of, for example, rooftop farms/gardens, edible walls, indoor farms, or vertical greenhouses. As the competition between food producers and various interests is alleviated, the conflict related to land-use in urban spaces is resolved. Moreover, urban spaces supportive of Zfarming practices can be considered to have added-value as there is a unique component to said spaces.

Additional potential benefits associated with Zfarming include, for instance, the potential to shift towards new frameworks for food supply systems via input from evolving customer and social demands, and income generation – especially when higher value crops are grown. Furthermore, Zfarming can help address issues related to urbanization by providing economic opportunities which incentivize the transition towards more sustainable, resilient and efficient urban spaces.  

At present, Zfarming is almost exclusive to middle-class spaces with operations often catering to the needs of higher end restaurants or supermarkets with the use of mid- and long-term contracts in order to establish income consistency. This is arguably necessary due to the higher startup and maintenance costs. However, Zfarming is also associated with social/educational centers, efforts to improve the quality of urban life, and supporters of innovation focusing on alternative, i.e. not soil-based, methods for growing. It can, therefore, be assumed that as innovative practices are disseminated, they will gradually become integrated into lower-income spaces.

To encourage and promote Zfarming in more locations and further foster development in existing venues, the following supportive infrastructure is needed:

  • Modern and adaptive policy that is reflective of modern societal demands
  • Financing programs to allow for a shift away from top-down approaches to startups
  • Greater involvement (human capital)
  • Knowledge sharing to address the issue of a lack of practical experience which results in difficulties in the planning and implementation phase, something that can hinder the longevity or establishment of any Zfarming operation

In promoting Zfarming, innovative practices that may contribute to sustainable urban agriculture may be developed and implemented. Supplementary to the practical benefit of growing food, Zfarming also aids in the advancement of new forms of resource efficiencies, farming technologies and the practical application of such innovation, making it a trend worthy of further investigation.


question: what are the reasons to believe that current design of cities is not sustainable?

Cities require a concentration of food, water, energy, and materials that nature cannot provide. In turn, a multitude of resources from long distances are necessary in order to meet the needs of inhabitants. This requires non-renewable inputs for transport and puts pressures on other systems that are being utilized to meet the needs/desires of urban inhabitants. Unfortunately, cities also produce huge quantities of waste, sewage and pollutants in the air and water. Clean-up and waste management is costly and the majority of the public is unwilling to live face-to-face with these unsightly byproducts [NIMBY]. This requires that the waste be shipped elsewhere, burned or put in landfills which involve more non-renewable inputs and causes further environmental contamination. Furthermore, most cities [particularly in the United States] were not designed for people; rather they are designed for cars. As we are close to or have already reached peak oil and the oil comes from far away and the costs are only going to rise. This makes the very infrastructure of cities unsustainable.

In order to address this issue and restructure cities to be more sustainable, cities should first be viewed as a functioning system instead of distinct parts. This can be accomplished by capitalizing on localized natural resources, such as using plants to heat and/or cool buildings, using recycled water, expanding/introducing public transportation, encouraging citizens to walk/bike, and planting food on rooftops and in abandoned/unused lots. Integrating cities into the local ecosystem [rather than imposing on them] also allows for a city to become more sustainable because it incorporates the natural environment upon which these urban settings are dependent upon.

Plan B, Chapter 6