Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is: A Conversation on Vertical Farming, City Planning, and Healthier Food

The fruit of vertical farming? Ilustration: Holley Flagg

Last month, the American Museum of Natural History held its 21st Annual Spring Environmental Lecture, attended by folks hungry first for a discussion of sustainable food in cities, and then a locavore luncheon (which alas, this reporter didn’t partake in). The event's panelists included Nevin Cohen, a professor of Environmental Studies at The New School; Dickson Despommier, a professor emeritus of Public Health at Columbia University; and Nancy E. Easton, the founder of the New York City nonprofit Wellness in the Schools. Here’s just some of their conversation, to whet your appetite for more.

First, a few of the challenges. “At the global level,” Cohen began, “one big issue is climate change from our food system. Food production itself, plus deforestation to provide the grains to feed our livestock, represents nearly a third of global C02 emissions” in part because of the need for long-distance shipping. Meanwhile agricultural plots surrounding cities are being paved over. “We’re losing our farmlands, we’re losing our farmers, and we’re probably losing that institutional memory,” said Despommier, adding that, by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

How will those cities be fed sustainably? One piece of the puzzle is urban agriculture, not just on rooftops, but within buildings—vertical farms. Despommier's their champion. “If we can catch the tail of a comet's dust, and bring it back to this planet and examine it, we can build a farm in a skyscraper,” he said. One such farm is being built in Milwaukee, and last year, Despommier proposed another to the City of Newark, which expressed plenty of interest. But it's the funding, of course, that's key. “The world needs to see that we’ve done something other than invade countries, and things like that,” argued Despommier. “We need to spend our money better, and [vertical farming] is a great way.”

According to Easton, supporting fresh local food, cooked right, is going to be essential to “undoing about 30 years of bad eating." Thirty percent of U.S. children are overweight, she said, and in New York City, it’s 43 percent. When Easton was a teacher, she noticed that kids were consuming mainly “bottles of something orange this big”—cue sweeping gesture—“and bags of something orange this big.” They were out of shape. So she was inspired to start Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit that brings trained chefs into NYC’s public school cafeterias to overhaul menus and teach healthy cooking in classrooms. She also has helped build a hydroponic garden atop her own childrens' school, making urban food integral to their education.

Planning needs to be a priority, too. “For 100 years, city planners have pretty much ignored food as an issue,” Cohen said. In addition to rooftop plots, cities also need to support mid-size farmers just outside their limits, allowing them to sell profitably in urban zones (and not just at farmers markets). Cooperative distribution centers are crucial, said Cohen. “We can reorganize space in the city so that community gardens can thrive and we can experiment with all types of food production”—rooftop gardens, vertical farms, and the mid-sized farms that preserve open space on the fringe. “The exciting thing about food is that it involves everyone,” Cohen said, as stomachs began to rumble, “and there isn’t a one size fits all solution.”

All three panelists pointed to the U.S. Farm Bill’s heavy subsidization of big agriculture—of mega-crops like corn and soybeans—as a major impediment to healthier farms and eating habits. By contrast, Easton pointed out, the average school lunch is budgeted just 96 cents. Despommier likewise shook his head in amazement. “If we had 2 percent of that Farm Bill, you wouldn’t be asking me what is a vertical farm,” he said. “You’d be asking me to have dinner in one.” If you’re truly for sustainable food, the panel told the audience, then do more than garden—write your Senators, as well.

But first, if you haven’t already, be sure to browse the March-April issue of Audubon devoted to the cycle of food. Senior editor Susan Cosier’s article "Urban Planting" is especially apt.