Vertical farms: A bad solution to the wrong problem.

Sustainable means able to be sustained, and the alternative, then, is things that are unable to be sustained.Bill Rees, the co-developer of Ecological Footprinting, says sustainability is like pregnancy. You either are or you aren’t, no sorta. You can read my extended rant about this at Why Green is not Sustainable. What part of unable to continue suggests we continue right down the same path? It is like my whole culture is gaslighting me because I feel so crazy. Putting a finer point on it, I have long been a critic of vertical farms, most recently in Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound?  Salon also posted Enough with the vertical farming fantasies: There are still too many unanswered questions about the trendy practice. But over at TreeHugger today, the tireless Lloyd Alter gives vertical farms a little love after nearly a decade of criticism, with I was wrong about vertical farms; Aerofarms shows how to make them really work. Aerofarms has apparently avoided many of the things Lloyd has criticized in the past: the farm is in an abandoned factory, the growing racks are stacked very high to get more square footage, the plants are grown hydroponically in a fabric medium so consumption of nutrients and water can be tightly controlled to eliminate waste, and LED lighting is used that can be tuned to the specific colours the plants need for optimal photosynthesis, thus reducing energy use. Aerofarms is a classic Less Bad is not Necessarily GoodThis is artfully explained in the book Cradle to Cradle. solution, in which efficiency serves to distract from the finitude of our planet. Falling from 500 feet may be “less bad” than falling from 1000 feet, but you are still dead momentarily after impact.  Today, we spend 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Efficiency might allow you to use eight calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, but you are still losing net energy at a shocking rate. It is Not Good. Before fossil-fueled farming, it was easy to see which farmers used more energy than they produced—they were the dead ones. With only their own or their animals’ muscles to power a farm, the chain of cause and effect was very direct. In Salon, Stan Cox calculates:
producing America’s annual vegetable crop (not counting potatoes) in vertical systems under lights would require well over half of the electricity this country generates every year, and that would crank out 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year.
Half of the electricity?! Hey, let’s be generous and assume they can double efficiency! Then it will only take ONE-QUARTER of all the energy used in the United States. And that is before we “succeed” in electrifying transportation and heating and cooling, thus radically increasing demand for electricity. Which quarter of your energy use are you going to give up? Oh, you don’t want to give anything up? All right, I guess we need to increase capacity by 25%… So, just a quick check-in on the facts:
  • The US energy mix is 90% non-renewable, while globally, energy used is 80% non-renewable. Replacing that energy with renewables is going to be a significant challenge—a challenge many analysts characterize as impossible.Does that mean I think we should keep burning coal? No! I think we need to reduce our energy use to a sustainable level. Does that mean I think we should live in caves? Don’t be an idiot! Please enjoy the articles under the Small and Delicious Life tab of this website.
  • Various IPCC reports and international accords agree Greenhouse Gases need to be cut sharply and very soon. 80% reductions by 2050 is one common target.
  • Even still, these 80% reductions are widely seen as inadequate to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • James Hansen predicts a sea level rise of several meters in the next 50-150 years. His position is controversial, but he has a history of conservative conclusions.
Given these facts, let me sketch some vertical farm scenarios regarding the electricity used to power the lights, pumps and filters, and whatever CO2 producing devices they are enriching the atmosphere with: Dark Green Reality In this scenario, let’s assume we look at whole systems and determine the most important response to climate change is to radically slash material and energy use. Energy is allocated with great care to only the most important tasks, like the digital archiving of certain very valuable research texts, powering infant incubators, and very small amounts of pumping and other services. Since sunlight falls on fields for free, it is immediately obvious that generating electricity to power lightbulbs to grow salad is a fool’s choice. Humans choose a more local and seasonal life, following and obeying the rhythms of nature. Birds chirp in every tree. Bright Green Utopia The electrification of the ‘developed’ world accelerates, with champagne corks popped for every new Tesla model. The developing world follows, with electric cars, air conditioners, televisions, light bulbs and computers reaching billions more people then ever before. To power all this requires damming every trickle of water on the planet,And yet the same people who advocate for replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy would also like to still eat salmon. You can’t have both dams and salmon. while resource extraction and manufacturing for solar panels and windmills still need huge amounts of fossil fuels. Coal plants stay online to cope with differences between demand and renewable supply (caused whenever the sun goes down), and there is a huge surge in (non-renewable) nuclear power development. The downwind pollution from nuclear reactors and fuel mining continues to cause cancers and birth abnormalities, and the spent fuel continues to have no place to be safely stored for the lifetime of the danger. It takes a century, but Aerofarms factory is washed away by rising sea levels. Hell in a Handbasket Increasing climate chaos activates human lizard brains at a mass scale, causing people to double down in a hedonistic fuck-it—a sort of perpetual Black Friday riot. All of this consumption requires massive amounts of electricity, so coal plants are spun up to maximum and construction starts on dozens of nuclear plants, as well as fuel mining and processing plants. Global average temperature soars, ice caps suffer catastrophic melt raising sea levels dozens of feet within decades, not centuries. One billion people are displaced and massive urban areas including New York City and Mumbai are inundated. Aerofarms original location is washed away. Business as Usual On our current trajectory, BAU is not wildly different from the Hell in a Handbasket scenario.
There is no way to make vertical farms good. Neither our current model of transporting food great distances nor vertical farms are good responses to overpopulation and urban concentration. Maybe they are less bad. Maybe. The public discourse, politicians, academics, journalists, scientists, most seem to be blithely washed along in the flood of business-as-usual. The plan—the actual policy—seems to be hoping a knight in shining armour will ride in to save us. This is enormously frustrating for me. “Would you like to get kicked in both knees, or just one knee?” “Erm…. I would like to not be kicked at all…” We are talking about systems that rely on non-renewable resources, and are therefore impossible to sustain. The immutable forces here are the laws of nature. If our agriculture is not sustainable, that means it will not be sustained. That means it will end. That means people cannot eat it. Less Bad is slow death. But it is true, talking about what is Less Bad and what is Good obscures the reality of the situation a little. The challenge is that while Less Bad is slow death, Good is increasingly looking like different death, at least in the short term.Dr. Albert Bartlett gave wonderful overhead projector lectures on the exponential function. You can view the original here, or a “jazzed up” version here. At about 13:00 he talks about choices for population control—it is quite focussing. We show no sign of voluntarily realigning our society and our culture to follow the laws of nature.I explain the reasons for this, if you have not yet read it, in The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change. Rather, we continue to throw energy, materials and technology at problems. This makes a reckoning inevitable, and it is hard to see how an involuntary reduction in population can be avoided. It sure looks like truly sustainable agricultural practices that could feed humanity will only be widely adopted when we have exhausted all of our Less Bad options. Now, slowing bleeding is always a good idea, but we are way past the cut and scrape stage. When medics perform triage after a catastrophe, they leave some people bleeding because they have no hope of survival and the bandages and personnel are needed for people who might live. So, should we focus time and attention on infrastructure that, as these rough scenarios show, cannot endure? Personally, I try to work for things that are Good. Which is not vertical farming.


  1. I am not disputing the over-all vector of your thesis here, just some of the details you cite. Whether changes to these details will ultimately change the outcome of your argument is uncertain to me.

    You gave what amounts to the fossil and nuclear power industry’s defense for their continued use, which ignores or purposefully embraces pessimism over storage technologies. The nuclear industry has been asserting (though not in these words) that mankind is smart enough to figure out how to store high level nuclear waste for half a million years to let it decay to the point of being benign, but not smart enough to figure out how to store energy from sunlight for a rainy day. Wind and wave power and geothermal and various other renewables have enough energy potential to close the intermittency gap, and it feels like you aren’t giving enough credit to these. It feels like your argument takes a pessimist’s view on the trajectory of storage and non-intermittent renewables.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting Berkana.

      In the side notes I noted that I do not defend fossil or nuclear, and do not want them to be used. I want humanity to live sustainably, so non-renewables are out.

      I don’t know how the nuclear industry could possibly assert they can accomplish safe storage when they have yet to do so. And of course, no human civilization has lasted as long as much of the waste will, so the question of safety through millennia seems essentially impossible to me.

      But renewables pose challenges, the most important of which is they are all mined, refined and manufactured with fossil fuels. I am not aware of ANY solar powered heavy industry.

      According to Charles Hall, all renewables except hydro are very close to breaking even—which means they don’t make enough surplus to run a society. It is pointless to install geothermal if it never produces more than it cost to build. This Energy Returned On Energy Invested is critical—it is really the same math comparing muscle-powered farming to oil-powered farming.

      As far as storage technologies, I have yet to see anything that looks promising to support a civilization vaguely like ours, or even our civilization from 50 or 100 years ago. Again, there is the problem of fossil-fueled mining, refining and manufacturing for batteries or whatever. And the problem of possibilities that are dynamic with various population levels.

      All I know is that nature enforces sustainability, though it may be enforced over time scales too long for us to see. If we approached renewables with the mind set that it sure would be nice to have a single LED light bulb, we would be a lot more assured of success than if we plan to power electric baseboard heaters for 300 million people.

      But beyond all of that, the biggest challenge renewables seem to be facing is a lack of social capacity. You can read more about that at

      Thanks again for reading.

      • Not sure exactly how big or sophisticated one must be to meet your definition of heavy industry, but your assertion there is not ANY that is solar powered (or any you are aware of)… leaves me to wonder if agriculture, by hand and beast if necessary, isn’t a solar powered industry worthy of the moniker? Sure, its not all glittery and high tech, but isn’t that the point?

        As for the value of vertical farming – I think you’ve pretty much nailed it. The only quibble I would offer is perhaps we might allow that they can experiment with it at their own cost… and who knows, there might be some clever development they can come up with. I’m just not going to bet on it however.

        Oh, and it’s REALLY great to see you back writing here. Looking forward to all the stuff I’m sure to learn from what you’ll have to say 🙂

        • Thanks for reading, Clem, and thank you for your support and encouragement. I really appreciate it.

          Farming is mostly solar-powered, though as soon as you use a steel tool, you are no longer 100% solar powered.

          I don’t want to feed the Jetpack Futurists, but we would have to be grubbing the soil with sticks, or pulling wooden ploughs with animals yoked with leather or natural fibre ropes.

          I certainly know many smallfarmers who can measure their on-farm fuel use in a few dozen litres per year. Plus more for getting the truck to market and more to heat their house because they are growing micro-greens not working in the wood lot…

          But I bet these small market farmers have a pretty low non-solar input. I have read that farmers used to produce ten calories of food for every calorie they or their draught animals expended, whereas now farmers spend ten calories of fuel to grow one calorie of food.

          Now, as I noodle a bit…here are a couple of quick google results:
          Just how much energy is in a litre of petrol? » Transition Culture
          1 gal. gas = 600 man hours?

          So, one litre of gas might equal two weeks person labour. Which means two dozen litres equals an entire person-year of labour. In Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels, Chris estimates 100 litres of diesel per hectare of arable farming. So that is four person-years labour equivalent!!

          Suddenly, 80% of the energy on that hectare is not solar powered, it is fossil fuelled—and this is a smallholder.


          Just on heavy industry…

          Probably the closest we have to solar heavy industry is the aluminum smelters powered by hydroelectric dams. After all, the sun powers the rain, which lifts the water behind the dam.

          But, then the dam, the turbines, the steel beams in the factory, the trucks that bring the ore, the factories that build the trucks, the drills for the holes for the dynamite that blasts the ore… Nearly every gram of this is fossil-fuelled.

          So, all the renewable energy fantasists are just seriously ignorant of what industry means—mining, refining, manufacturing. The only solar part of that whole operation is the herb garden outside the cafeteria.

          And then on vertical farms….
          Letting them work on it at their own cost is probably the best we can hope for.

          The thing that upsets me about it is the sunk cost of materials, energy, attention, time, and political and social capital.

          Any amount of those resources spent on vertical farms will not be spent on things that I think are urgent, necessary and durable. My top three is always: Walkable communities, well-insulated homes, local agriculture.

          Let me use my elevator-escalator example. Both machines will take you up to the next floor. An escalator fails safe, and becomes stairs. An elevator fails dangerous, and becomes a trap, or at the least, useless.

          So, in these declining years of our industrial culture, I would love it if we tried to be smart about selecting things that will fail safe. Elevators are a waste of materials, energy, time and money, and will be left, just hanging there in the sky.

          In my little city there thousands of relic fruit trees, all bearing tonnes of fruit, much of which falls on the ground and attracts wasps—while the homeowner drives to the store to buy fruit that has been in cold-storage for six months. It beggars belief.

          So there is a clear opportunity, already existing in our cities, that would provide solar-powered food. I would so much rather we work on that than on vertical farms.

          Thanks for reading, Clem, and for picking at the edges of these thoughts.

      • In the end the outsourcing and competition from the 3rd world will fix itself when consumers demand quality US products.When you factor in the short useful lifes and harm to health walmart products are not saving americans anbi.tnghProylem with GM is they were inferior products priced higher than foreign competition.

  2. What you fail to realize is that depopulation will happen quickly once energy prices rise significantly. It will be painful for some – hunger and extreme poverty. But in the end, the Earth’s population will re balance to sustainable levels.

    • You may be right, but this dynamic is one that is too muddy for me to have any confidence in my predictions. After all, why is gas four times more expensive in Japan and Europe, but depopulation is not rapid?

      Even in the collapse of the USSR, and the more recent great recession in the U.S. increased death rates seemed to mostly happen via people drinking themselves to death. Certainly hunger and poverty. Even a pandemic wouldn’t surprise me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Yeah. You are right. The problem is that very few people, including most “environmentalists” understand what you are getting at. A voice in the wilderness. You are one of the few sane voices. Others are Dark Mountain (.net) and Low Tech Magazine.

    We are doomed.

    • Thanks for reading Stephen, and I love Low Tech Magazine and Dark Mountain!

      I also love The Archdruid Report, and tend to subscribe to Greer’s view of a slow, stairstep collapse—though “slow” sure seems hard to believe sometimes. So, I don’t think doomed like all humans die off completely, but definitely doomed like a lot fewer people living a lot more close to the bone and without any funny cat videos to cheer us up. This arrangement we have built is not able to be sustained.

      And we have front-row seats…

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