We tend to think of farms as huge patches of land that roll across the landscape. Their size has tended to relegate them to rural tracts, well beyond the borders of the cities that will consume their bounty. But Dickson Despommier at ColumbiaUniversity would like to turn that idea on its side – literally. Instead of farming in the country, he’d do it in the city. And instead of letting crops sprawl across acre after acre, he’d plant them floor upon floor in buildings.

An elevator might you take you up to 10th floor – tomatoes and peppers, or 15th floor – strawberries and pumpkins. And because the lighting for these indoor farms could be supplied by color-tuned LEDs, there’s no reason why the plants could not be grown in windowless basement complexes.

The idea, Despommier told attendees yesterday at the inaugural World Science Summit, here in New York City, is to return the land back to nature rather than steal its productivity for urban food production. It’s also far more energy efficient to truck crops within a city, perhaps moving them no more than a couple miles, than to ship them hundreds of miles or more to consumers.

The ideal, he said, would be to have floor-to-ceiling, glass-walled skyscraper farms where each building has been designed to optimize the internal reflection of incoming sunlight. LEDs would supplement the energy requirements of photosynthesis as needed.

It’s an intriguing idea. A daughter of the Corn Belt, I have to say I was never impressed by the grandeur of monoculture croplands that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The idea of returning trees, shrubs, and ecological diversity to much of rural America appeals.

I also like the idea of bringing agriculture back to the people. Too few kids know where our food comes from. The idea that it might one day come from the building down the street would restore an appreciation for the fact that agriculture provides food, not grocery stores.

Despommier acknowledges that this paradigm shift might have problems supplying meat from the hoof. But for the leafy, fruity, or finned staples, he says, urban agriculture might just be the ticket. 

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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