The Taste of Tomorrow

As urban-farming geeks know, one of the most audacious-sounding vertical farm plans was for Toronto, Canada. 58 floors, costing $1.5 billion. It was to be a pioneering test of the idea that the key to food security is not to connect ourselves to nature, but to depend on technological systems.

It also would bring locally grown, organic raspberries and bananas to Ontario in January.

Now, I’ve always thought that most likely spot for the inevitable debut of skyscraper farming would be Japan or Dubai: places with a dense population, limited arable,  a strong economic rational for a SkyFarm.

Still, the idea that the Canadians could lead the way in vertical farms made sense. Canada, the Great White North, has been pioneering indoor farming for years.  If you buy a tomato in Chicago in January, there’s a decent chance it’s coming from a hydroponic farm in southern Ontario.  And the British Columbia-based company TerraSphere, a one-time medical marijuana grower, has been on the cutting edge of using hydroponic technology to develop highly efficient, eco-friendly urban-based growing systems.   (Plus, there’s plenty of locavore foodies in Toronto and Montreal who would love the idea of locally, produced organic greens in February)

But last month, Gordon Graff, the young architect who conceived the SkyFarm, told The Walrus (my favorite Canadian magazine) that he now thinks it’s extremely unlikely the farm will ever happen. The space in downtown Toronto, slated for the farm, is now home to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Graff thinks the economic rationale is simply not there for the Gates-ian expenditure necessary to justify SkyFarm.  Graff believes that for vertical farming to happen there will have to be a stronger economic incentive to support locally grown produce He also believes that the economic viability vertical farms hinges on their ability to produce their own electricity. One promising technology: A new waste disposal method called plasma arc gasification would allow vertical farms to recycle solid waste into usable energy without producing harmful emissions.

Graff says he’s shifted focus to smaller scale urban indoor farms.

For more on vertical farming, take a look at Dickson Despommier’s Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.  Despommier, a prof. of public and environmental health at Columbia, and vertical farming’s biggest cheerleader, provides details and schemata on how high-rise farms could work.   To go inside a functioning indoor farm, circa 2011, here’s a short tour through this English farm,  a pioneer of small-scale vertical farming, which grows produce for a zoo..


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