Gordon Graff’s SkyFarm, a fifty-eight-floor behemoth priced at $1.5 billion, was to be Toronto’s ticket to the future of urban agriculture. In 2007, the vertical farm was envisioned to occupy a block of downtown Toronto that has since become home to the Toronto International Film Festival. Even before the global food crisis hit in 2008 and the locavore movement picked up steam, the idea of urban farming was a provocative one. Science fiction and environmental geeks gushed. For green-aholics, the idea appealed to both the inner consumer (“raspberries in February!”) and the environmental conscience (“local, organic raspberries in February!”). The media ate it up. ”Sometimes,” the Huffington Post wrote, “the answer to a complex problem is so simple, so elegant that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself.” But four years later, Graff, who is now an intern architect at Toronto’s DIALOG, admits that his SkyFarm will never be built, and many in the media have begun rubbing the stars out of their eyes. The apparent retreat of the ivory-green tower raises the question: is vertical farming still the promised evolution of agriculture, or a case of the life and death of an idea?
Graff became interested in vertical farming at the University of Waterloo, where he wrote a master’s thesis on sustainable urban architecture. He began communicating with Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology who is vertical farming’s biggest cheerleader. With urban population densities and a slew of attendant environmental problems increasing around the globe, the answer, Despommier and his students thought, was to grow farms up, instead of out. “All the water is recycled,” Despommier raves in this publicity video for his 2010 book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. “All the nutrients are recycled. And the only thing that actually leaves the building is the produce.”
I arranged to meet Graff in early September, half expecting to be greeted by a Birkenstock-clad eco-savant or would-be prophet. Instead, he was neither. We met at a busy Yorkville Starbucks, where he arrived straight from work at DIALOG. And he was wearing a well-tailored suit. Gracious and humble, Graff explained how he accidentally became a poster boy for the media’s vertical farming mania.
“When I designed SkyFarm, I did it in a week and a half,” he said. “I gave it to Dickson because he wanted to see it, but I told him not to post it on his website — it was just a quick sketch. Six months later I got an email from a friend of mine, someone I hadn’t talked to in years, and they sent me a link to a TreeHugger article about SkyFarm. [The message] was like, ‘Is this you?’”
When the media picked up on the leak, Graff’s designs unwittingly gained major attention. As reporters and well-known developers began calling him up, Graff had to get serious about the prospect of vertical farming. He ran detailed cost analyses and drew plans for different models.
It’s been pointed out that there are some serious kinks in the plans for vertical farming as it has been presented so far. Where will all the waste go, and how would a giant like SkyFarm affect city traffic? How will sufficient sunlight reach crops in the middle of the building, or, if artificial light is used, how will it be possible for anyone but the super-wealthy to afford such premium goods? These were, and remain, important questions for Graff, who places economic and practical concerns on par with the environmental and the aesthetic.
Graff’s thesis was motivated by the belief that society ought to behave in ways that are less harmful to the environment. His theory on how to achieve this goal is quite radical: he believes that sustainable cities should aim to become divorced from nature, depending on technological, rather than ecological, systems. But he admits that to an extent, architects work in an “ideas field” which tends to produce pie-in-the-sky plans. “I’m not interested in making fiction,” he says. “I want to contribute to the real world in a meaningful way, not the theoretical.”
Graff still hopes that vertical farms will become possible within the next fifty years. But, he admits, the likelihood that anyone will be willing to invest $1.5 billion dollars in building SkyFarm is “extremely unlikely.” Instead, he’s redesigned much smaller models that he believes will be productive enough to be profitable. Today, there is economic incentive for big grocery store chains to import produce from all across the globe. Graff believes that for vertical farming to happen, there will have to be a stronger economic incentive to support locally grown produce. And it will have to become cheap enough to feed all city dwellers – not just elite foodies. “I think it’s very unlikely that arable land would ever be electively given up,” he says. “It would have to get to the point where vertical farming is so economically efficient… It would have to get to the point where arable land was too expensive to farm – like if oil cost $300 a barrel. Then we might see farmland return to forests.”
There is plenty of existing technology designed for “controlled environment agriculture”, and it will only continue to advance. A company called Valcent, for instance, has helped a zoo in England become a pioneer of small-scale vertical farming. In a single-level greenhouse, Valcent’s VertiCrop system grows veggies hydroponically on a spiraling shelving unit, with rotating rows to allow sunlight to reach each plant. Crucial to the success of future vertical farms, Graff believes, is their ability to produce their own electricity. A new waste disposal technology called plasma arc gasification would allow vertical farms to recycle solid waste into usable energy without producing harmful emissions. These, and many other new pieces of technology, will provide the building blocks to help create efficient and economically viable vertical farms.
In the October 2011 issue of The Walrus, Chris Turner wrote, “Food is a perpetual hot topic — it is, after all, one of the few consumer products that become part of our bodies. But even as food security, safety, and health have risen on the public agenda, the conversation has focused entirely too much on the contradictory lines of what we want — more local, fewer chemicals, more options, greater convenience — and far too little on how to get it.”
In Toronto and elsewhere in the country, there is a burgeoning community of advocates for urban agriculture and more sustainable practices. And there are those who put forward the urgent need for vertical farms to emerge on our city skylines. But as Graff points out, laying the groundwork and designing the plethora of technology needed will take a collective effort. As progressives like Despommier, Graff, and many others continue to dream up ways of getting what we want, eventually their plans might land in the real world, too.
Julie Baldassi is an editorial intern at The Walrus.