The Vertical Farm

by Aaron Martin

Did you know that in New York City there are 10 rats for every person?

Perhaps you suspected as much, and Dr. Despommier confirms this suspicion in his delightful new book, “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.”  What I didn’t know was that this army of rats is not eating Gotham Restaurant’s throwaway.  They are in fact feeding on the mountains of cockroaches that are eating our garbage.  Hopefully I haven’t grossed you out enough that you’ve stopped reading or get the wrong impression that Dr. Despommier’s book is a work designed to shock.  Instead, The Vertical Farm, through easy storytelling, manages to convince at least this reader that the environmental and ecological degradation today’s agricultural system causes can be ameliorated through human ingenuity and vertical farming.

Global climate change is turning the already precarious occupation of farming even more unpredictable. A major drought like that during the 1920’s dustbowl could very well lead to not only local hunger but global in today’s interconnected world. This very scenario is presented in clear terms with a sweeping historical narrative and ample archeological and scientific evidence by Despommier.  His description of these desperate times is colorful and vivid, echoing those of Steinbeck, an author he justly acknowledges while skillfully writing of “ghost convoys of overloaded, nearly worn-out vehicles of all sizes and shapes shrouded in a dirt-laden cloud of former farmland, a silence of mass exodus, of…destitute families…filthy, dilapidated hovels; the half-buried skeletons of legions of farm animals littering the barren countryside like some collaborative surrealistic hybrid painting by Georgia O’Keefe and Francis Bacon.”

The discussion of why and how human agriculture developed as well as its inherent limitations occupy a large initial portion of The Vertical Farm and turns the novel into more than just a wonky presentation of vertical farms that one might suspect the book to be.  Of course, there is much discussion of what vertical farming is, how it might be done, and what benefits it would produce and these chapters carry much more impact with the background into agriculture we are given.

You may ask, “How on earth could a vertical and expensive indoor structure ever replace the endless fields of corn and wheat from the Midwest, the bountiful California fruit and vegetable crop and all the myriad of hodgepodge family farms located throughout not only the United States but the world?” Despommier answers this conundrum convincingly.  To learn the details you’ll have to read “The Vertical Farm” yourself, perhaps this summer on the beach.  Because believe it or not, Despommier has managed to write perhaps the first science beach read.   Even the feel of the book screams “beach read.”  The light paper weight, generous font size and spacing, and Despommier’s easy writing style make this a pleasure book that also imparts generous knowledge almost imperceptibly; a rare feat for a professor and Despommier is to be commended. And it is not just scientific wisdom we are treated to, but also little, delicious, philosophical nuggets.  Perhaps the crux of the book is summed up in this bit of wisdom Despommier imparts at the halfway point: “How could we have so quickly forgotten the most important lesson of all, taught to us by none other than Copernicus: The universe does not revolve around us, and neither does the biosphere.  Deny and/or ignore our relationships with the rest of the world and we will surely perish.  That is the simple truth.”

In the face of much presented negative evidence that we are all doomed to starvation, Despommier presents vertical farming as the panacea that will solve all our waste and pollution problems.  When presented with a utopia, it is natural to be skeptical. This skepticism is addressed as is the overall tone of the book by the author who acknowledges that “negative thinking isn’t in my vocabulary,” and he pulls off this feat with colorful and memorable phrases.  For Despommier, a city isn’t just congregated human living, but a “monstrous parasite” sucking the life out our natural landscape and plants aren’t simply plants but “living filtration machines.”  His vision of the city as a “hybrid techno-biosphere” is not only futuristically cool but also very humane, freeing up our overworked land to return to its natural state free of monocultures and the blight they bring with it.

By the end of the book I was cheering for the vertical farm, and according to Despommier it is unstoppably on its way into reality. As Despommier says, “We have the ability…all that is needed is the political will to do so.”

“The Vertical Farm” was published by Thomas Dunne Books on October 12, 2010 and retails for $25.99

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