Illustration portrait of Dickson Despommier

Dickson Despommier, the founding father of vertical farming

Posted on 17 September 2015.

This Columbia University professor is behind the concept of vertical farming - an alternative mode of urban agriculture that could feed city dwellers from green skyscrapers.

Bringing the sources of food closer to the people in cities is the principle behind vertical farming - a concept passionately promoted by Dickson Despommier.

He has the look of an American writer about him - somewhere between Jim Harrison and James Crumley - as if he should be writing novels in the wilds of Montana. But the man is a microbiologist and professor of public and environmental health at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, where he has worked for three decades. This ecologist, born in 1940, has always worked on the relationship between organisms and the world around them. Expressing himself easily and freely, he is a charismatic teacher and much appreciated by his students, who gave him the title of Teacher of the Year several times. In 1999, as part of his medical ecology course, he introduced the concept of vertical farming. His "farmscrapers" are ecological futuristic skyscrapers that reinvent local agriculture, designed not horizontally but vertically. These vertical farms compensate for the lack of fertile soil in urban areas. They bring food production to where it is consumed, thus reducing the cost of transport, which is one of the main contributors to urban carbon footprints. By opting for hydroponics, that is to say, soilless cultivation, these skyscrapers offer a form of agriculture that wastes less water than conventional methods and, above all, is not dependent on the climate. In principle a thirty-story building could feed 50,000 people.

A visionary pioneer

Designing high-tech vertical farms as a solution to feeding people, especially in megacities, is the great adventure of his life. He devotes all his time and energy to it, holding conferences from Dubai to New York, from Korea to India, and from Brazil to China. At 75, he continues to question why - and regret that - human beings are the only living species with any difficulty in adapting to the environment. He continues to repeat that since the earth's population is still growing, feeding people will be the major challenge of the 21st century. In 2014, the UN report on urbanization predicts that by 2050, the world population will be around 10 billion and 66% of people will live in cities. And therein lies the challenge of feeding urban dwellers.

To his critics who argue that adding artificial light in order to grow food in agricultural towers would involve the use of additional energy, Dickson Despommier responds that it is quite simply urgent to take the initiative and rethink our ecosystem in order to save the planet. Today, although no farmscrapers have yet been built, experiments with vertical agriculture have been conducted in New York, Montreal, Singapore, Paris and Shanghai. The concept has inspired many designers and architects to design futuristic towers equipped with the best technology, mixing chickens, salads and strawberries. As for Dickson Despommier’s favorite saying, "we can if we want to", it expresses the hope that determination will outweigh skepticism.