January 19, 2018Important news or anything!

TEDx Express – The Vertical Farm – Dickson Despommier

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Everything in this article is directly attributable to Dr. Dickson Despommier, unless otherwise noted.
Quick History Lesson

About three million years ago a hominid very similar to us arose out of the plains of East Africa, and about 200,000 years ago we emerge from that evolutionary process, and 10,000 years ago to the present we created a new world for ourselves. You’re standing in it. You see around you all the manifestations of technology.

Farming is not a natural thing for humans to do. We invented it, we created it. It’s only 10,000 years old. … 15,000 years ago there wasn’t a single farm on this planet and there might have been a million of us. Today look at what we find ourselves in: 6.8 billion people and our ecological footprint for food production is bigger than the size of South America. We’ve damaged a lot of [the environment] making room for our food production.

01 Agri Footprint

[The land used for pastures (grazing) is about the size of Africa. See ‘The Other Inconvenient Truth’ by Jonathan Foley.]
How does our food production system fail and why do we need to find something else to do?

[Everyone’s birthright: 2.3 liters of safe drinking water per day and 1,500 calories of safe food per day.] This is my mantra. This is what I believe and this is what I believe everybody else believes: that everybody is entitled to at least safe food and safe water. If you’re born this is what you get. But of course, that is not the case throughout a lot of part of the world.

Agriculture in all of its forms has been wonderful in the sense that it has brought us to the present.  But it has created problems along the way of its own: the use of herbicides, fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides, [as well as requiring] 70% of the available fresh water on the planet. Sure we get our food, but we also get agricultural runoff — the biggest source of pollution on the planet. So cities that depend on this food are in current states of configuration unsustainable.

06 Agriculture

We’ve spent a lot of time deforesting, making room for our farms, and this has created our biggest issue: climate change. How do we absorb all that carbon that we keep putting into the atmosphere if we have no more trees?

You might think you’re listening to Malthus talking up here — that’s not true, not at all. There are technological solutions for this but we have to realize what the problems are first.

Global Challenges

Here are some of the [global] challenges:

  • safe and abundant water supply,
  • food safety and security,
  • repairing the environment, and
  • reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

In the biosphere that we came from, we came from cycles — in which there were no beginnings and no ends. … [But now] we’ve become the only species on this planet that doesn’t know what to do with their own waste. In ecology there is usefulness for everything that occurs. But in the world we’ve created, we’re busy choking ourselves to death, and that death is being caused by the waste that we accumulate.

Learning from Nature

All we have to do is look back to nature, because nature has all the answers, every single answer. However, it requires asking the right questions.

03 Ecosystem

Look at the ecosystem. It’s a series of interlocking life forms neutrally dependent on all the other life forms. …  They’re balanced (when we don’t disturb them) and they’re resilient. If nature disturbs them through storms, droughts, floods, insect invasions, population increases, etc, these ecosystems that are untouched by human hands mostly can recover. And above all they’re sustainable, and there’s a good reason for that: Nature takes what the universe gives it in the form of energy, this case from the Sun, and distributes it throughout the life forms in an equal fashion so that everybody gets a little bit of it.

04 Solar energy

Cities don’t behave that way, they want to keep growing. I don’t know why that ethic exists but all of them seem to imitate that anti-nature behavior.

Asking the Right Question

So if we’re all in agreement that nature has all the answers then what should our question be? My question is: can we provide a sustainable, safe, and abundant food and water supply for $10 billion people — because we will have 10 billion in another 20-30 years from now. The answer, if I just left it there, would be: of course we could, but we’d have to use the size of Brazil to farm.

[So] we need to do one more thing, we need to bring the Earth back into balance — otherwise we will die ourselves. We’ll shoot ourselves in the foot.

05 Can We

I think we can do this. We HAVE to do this. We don’t have a choice. But how?


07 The Vertical Farm

[The answer is creating ecocities.] But where do we start? An ecosystem begins with bioproductivity — food for all the plants and animals. [So] an ecocity has to make its own food.

09 Sustainable Ecocity

We can grow food hydroponically and aeroponically with drip irrigation, indoors, and save a lot of land outside. We have these tools. They’re available for us. Half of what you eat comes from these kinds of operations now, especially during the winter time when farms are not productive — at least in the northern hemisphere.

08 Vertcal Farm Toolbox

Benefits of Urban Agriculture

10 Vertical Farm Advantages

If we could… I take that back. WHEN we create urban agriculture in which vertical farming plays a role — a large role — we will have no more agricultural runoff, because we’ll recycle the water. It’s a closed loop agricultural system. We get year-round production of crops. We get no crops lost to severe weather events. We use 70% less water than normal agriculture, and with no runoff. We can remediate grey water. And above all we get to repair the environment because for every indoor acre of land, you can save 10 to 20 outer acres of land that you could then allow to go back to the way it was before we farmed it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

We can create buildings that make our food, we can then look back the other way and say how beautiful the landscape now looks, now that we can leave it alone. We can get back our hardwood forests and our tall grass prairies.

We can even grow biofuels and plant-derived drugs. You don’t have to grow [just] food necessarily.


So you skeptics out there, I don’t blame you. “You’re just talking like an academic.” Perhaps, but we are already doing a lot of this.


Here’s a few forced examples of what happens to the Earth after we leave it alone: (1) the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, (2) Chernobyl, and (3) a long-term study at Hubbard Brooks shows that the Earth will repair itself if we can just keep our little hands of it.


We can produce lots of it indoors. There’s a 318 acre, one-story greenhouse operation in the middle of the Arizona desert. And look at the shopping list from hydroponically produced plants. These are commercially available plants. There’s a tremendous advance that has been made over the last 10 years in this area.

12 Hydroponic Shopping Cart


We can take our solid wastes and incinerate them in a safe fashion. In fact, this method (plasma arc gasification) pyrolysis it and there’s nothing to show at the end except energy and the elements. Japan is employing this now on a large scale. It works, it’s safe, and I think it’s just a matter social marketing to get it acceptable in lots of other places.


The city of Santa Ana, California, went to the Governor and said “we need more water” and he said “well go make it yourself.” So they did. They went back, hired engineers, and built a $500 million dollar water processing plant that takes black water — which is urine and feces — separates the water, separates the solids, takes the water, re-processes it, and makes it into drinking water. But of course no one would drink it so they had to percolate it over the ground and draw it out of the grounds and say “your water doesn’t come from there it comes from here.”

13 Santa Ana

Getting Started

14 Andrew Kranis

All these intricate, interesting, beautiful drawings [of vertical farms]. How could we go about doing this? We can’t start with a building like this, that’s ridiculous. Well, I think I know how to start. You can start by making prototypes.

Check out this prototype [made in a 3rd grade class]. This is the kind of prototype that I love. Why? Because when these 3rd-graders grow up they’re going to expect them!

Imagine yourself back in your own schools when you were undergraduate or graduate students and you’ve heard about something in class and you go home and you think about it. The next thing you know, it’s happening. I think that’s what’s happened in this case.

Time for me to stop talking. Time for us to start doing. Farm smart, save water, save land, save lives, and let the earth repair itself.

16 Learn More

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