Profile on Dickson Despommier, Ph.D.

A discussion about vertical farming and some of its environmental implications
(Portions of the quoted text have been edited from the raw transcript.)

Vertical farming has been brought into the forefront recently, with a spot in the film FUEL, articles in TIME, Scientific American, as well as others in the past 6 months. What this concept entails is growing food in a controlled indoor environment in vertical structures that could be built in cities, urban centers, and as annexes to new buildings being constructed. Plants can be grown hydroponically, and even some livestock can be raised. The technology is there, as is most of the ecological understanding.

The man behind this concept is Dickson Despommier, Ph.D., a professor of medical ecology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is the kind of guy who gives away copies of The Lorax to spread love for the environment. He even keeps extra copies of them on his shelf in his office at Columbia’s Medical Campus. I visited him at this office, which, by the way, has a great view of the Hudson River. When asked how this vertical farming idea developed, Despommier tells the story about how the idea came out of a somewhat failed class project investigating rooftop gardening in New York City.

What came immediately after was further investigation and, later, years of adding detail to the concept. He and his wife spent that first summer talking out the concept. They learned a lot about what technology out there and even revisited some old favorite stories. Despommier explains it, “She put me onto a book she got as a kid—it was called Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House. And it was about Old MacDonald, who moves to the city and grows his food, all of his crops, inside the apartment house he’s in. And of course he grosses out everybody else in the apartment building. And they all move out, and in that case, he just took the whole thing over, but they come back in the wintertime to see where their old apartment was and they look in the bottom of it, and there’s a greengrocer, selling fresh produce. Wow! You know, they actually forgave him for doing all of this. Of course, that was the story, right?”

Making the connection between vertical farming and our daily lives may seem like a stretch, but put into the perspective of the global human impact, it begins to make sense.

Despommier is personally invested in vertical farming because, as he says, “[at] no time in the history of the earth has any one organism dominated the scene like we have. And it’s created huge problems…. [F]or every indoor acre of farming that you create, you can save five to ten to fifteen outdoor acres of land.” This encourages the hope that we may decrease our dependency on the environment as well as relieve some pressure on the farmers. He continues, “Seven billion people have an agricultural footprint the size of South America. Another three billion, which will happen in another forty years, will require an additional Brazil. We already use 80% of the land to farm.” So if something doesn’t change in the way we grow our food, millions more people will not have enough to eat.

Because vertical farming requires less land, a big incentive to make it work on a large scale is that it would allow more people to live in urban centers. Social pressure, specifically as it affects livelihoods, is an important factor that influences density of settlements. “Failed farms result in a migration of farmers to the cities, every time. What happens to the land? In fact, there’s been a recent trend—which is quite amazing, actually—Landsat photographs from space will tell you that the forests have recovered over 5% in the last three years.” Vertical farming will not induce failed farming on conventional agricultural lands, but it will create alternatives to a system that has no future for expansion. If the right social pressures are created and people are given the choice, vertical farming may be one of the solutions to growing problems.

According to Despommier, “If we could supply everybody with enough water and enough food, you could have ten billion people on the planet, because most of them will choose to live in cities, just like you and I. Make the cities imitate nature in terms of ecological process, and you’ve got it made. Your agricultural footprint goes very, very small. The rest of the world recovers.”

At the heart of the issue is the disconnect between humans and the environment. The overwhelming attitude towards the environment and resources is one of utilitarian values. This worldview is not only destructive for the earth, but for our species and our existence. “If you look at nature and say what’s the difference between us and them,” Despommier suggests, “the answer comes back, there’s no difference. Because we are them. We are nature. We are an expression of nature.”

“However,” Despommier continues, “we don’t behave like a single species. We don’t behave like one termite mound, for the greater good of the termite mound.” This type of behavior makes it difficult for collaboration towards a common goal. The goal must be large enough that all humans find purpose in it. Maybe we are reaching that point in the face of the threats presented by climate change, but we have yet to make any progress.

“So here’s my question,” he says, “my question is how can humans behave like the rest of nature? The rest of nature self limits themselves by the amount of resource that they have available to them, and the availability of their niche that they live in. That’s an ecological concept that is immutable. Everyone believes this, everyone except us. Isn’t that crazy? So if we are a natural species, just like everything else, and if we are creating for ourselves a world that is non-sustainable, then it behooves us to use our intelligence to create a sustainable world.”

Just like with any invention, Despommier points out that, “The way you make a vertical farm work is you don’t assume it’ll work to begin with. The assumption is I will get it to work. How? By applying science and technology at all levels.” The mindset that things must immediately work, that they must be an immediate solution, is impossible to live up to. Nothing really ever works that way in any other sector, so we shouldn’t expect that from this one. There may be hidden factors to consider and several issues to work out, many more than to mention here, but that happens with every new human endeavor and can be overcome by investment in innovation.

The right mindset is to ask the right questions to help progress along the way. “So, how do I make this building behave like an ecosystem?” he asks. “I want this building to reflect that process. We create cities. We love ‘em. Let’s live in them. Let’s make them ecological units. Let’s encourage people to live in the city.”

However, we should remember that the social factors are just as important as the ecological ones. “Old MacDonald moved to the city!” he exclaims. “Remember, remember, he wanted the social services, for his kids. He wanted to go to the movies every now and then. He wanted to visit the library. He wanted social services to take care of…he didn’t want to have to worry about his water anymore, his heating, that’s all taken care of.” So maybe the solutions to human problems are also intertwined with solutions to environmental problems, and we cannot view or approach them as completely separate things.

Close to the end of my time with Despommier, I asked, “For vertical farming to happen, what is the next barrier to overcome?”

“Money,” he says. “Social will and political impetus. I think in another year, those 2 things will go away. They’ll go away because the virtue of this is to prescient not to want to do it.” So we can hope to imagine the future, with adequate investment in this new technology, we could have self-sufficient communities and a more sustainable lifestyle.

“Cool stuff,” Despommier comments. “It’s like a living building. It is a living building. I want it to be inside my city. I want to live near it. I want to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and be able to make myself a Caesar salad by going to the green market that’s open 24 hours a day and buying something that was picked 10 minutes ago. And take it back to my apartment and chop it all up and put some nice stuff on it and sit down and eat it. That’s what I want.”


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4 thoughts on “Profile on Dickson Despommier, Ph.D.

  1. Vertical farms are such an amazing concept. I hope that more people realize how much they would help reduce our impact on the environment as well as centralize our food sources in cities. I hope I get the chance to tour through a vertical farm in NYC someday. I can hope…

  2. Yeah. I think it could be a great thing to do, but as of yet it would cost so much to do it. It could take as long as 20 years for a real impact could be made by this type of agricultural innovation. I’m not sure what the state of the world will be by then, but it might not be enough to really be a significant solution on a large scale. For urban centers at least, I think it could be important for lessening the burden on imports of food.

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