Robin Munson ISCP 3991 – Fall 2019 Final Draft
By 2050, the global population is projected to be 10 billion, with over two-thirds of it
concentrated in cities (FAO, 2017). This trend towards increased urbanization, exacerbated by a
decrease in arable land; growing water shortages; and the threat posed by climate change;
necessitates a complement to traditional farming practices in order to produce an adequate food
supply. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations believes
“transformative changes in agriculture and food systems are required worldwide” as it will take a
50% increase in production to meet the demand expected in 2050 (2017, p. vii).
Between ten to twelve thousand years ago, humans moved from a hunter-gatherer
lifestyle to purposefully modifying their environment by planting crops. Since farming became
routine, much of the earth’s natural landscape has been coopted for food production. According
to Despommier, the current global landmass utilized for terrestrial farming is equivalent to the
size of South America. Employing contemporary methods of food production for 3 billion
additional people would require another 109 hectares – the size of Brazil (2011). David R.
Montgomery contends that only marginal areas such as the Amazon or the Sahel are available for
expanded cultivation, and after an initial return, the soil quality would degrade rapidly,
precluding it as a long-term strategy (2008).
Conventional farming takes a toll on the environment. It consumes approximately 20% of
the non-renewable fossil fuel used in the United States (Despommier, 2011). With over 90% of
the food in U.S. cities being shipped from outside, a 2008 Carnegie Mellon study determined
delivery of food is responsible for 0.4 tons of CO2 emissions per household each year (Al-
Kodmany, 2018). Globally, farming currently uses 70% of the available fresh water for irrigation
(Despommier, 2011). And water will continue to become scarcer as the population grows and
competes for this resource (Al-Kodamy, 2018). Most of the water used in farming is wasted, and
the runoff contains pollutants that ultimately reach the rivers and oceans (Despommier, 2011).
The adverse effects of climate change – an increase in flooding, hurricanes, and drought - will
negatively impact agricultural production and the global economy by ravaging large areas of
arable land (Al-Kadmany, 2018).
In 2018, there were 23 million ‘food deserts’ in the U.S. (Al-Kodmany, 2018). According
to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), in that same year, 11.1% (14.3 million) of
households in the United States were food insecure, meaning they did not have “consistent,
dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living” (Coleman-Jensen, 2019, para. 1).
The Food Bank for New York City reports that currently, 1.2 million (14.4%) NYC residents are
food insecure, and that they comprise 50% of all food insecure residents of New York State. The
city’s food insecurity rate is 21% higher than the state rate, and 12% higher than the national rate
Waldron defines the biomimicry principle as comparing cities “…to complex living
organisms that can grow organically according to the needs of its inhabitants” (2019, p. 975).
She asserts that the mechanisms of urban areas can be shifted toward more efficient solutions to
their problems if they learn from, and imitate, the biology found in the natural world (Waldron,
2019). In contrast, modern U.S. city planners have traditionally focused on zoning codes that
separate what they consider incompatible land uses, including industrial/manufacturing and
residential housing. In the 1960s and ‘70s, however, grass roots efforts by low-income residents
introduced the concept of using vacant urban lots for food production. This concept became
known as urban agriculture (UA) (Goodman, 2018).
Urban agriculture is an industry located within (intra-urban) or on the fringe (peri-urban) of a town, a city or a metropolis, which grows or raises, processes and distributes a diversity of food and non-food products, (re-)using largely human and material resources, products and services found in and around that urban area, and in turn supplying human and material resources, products and services largely to that urban area (Mougeot, 2000, p. 11).
A recent entry into the UA field is that of Vertical Farming (VF). VF is a type of
controlled environment agriculture (CEA) using state-of-the-art horticultural and engineering
techniques that produces large-scale crops indoors, year-round, without soil, in stacked layers,
utilizing artificial lighting, and a fraction of the water in traditional farming. Dispensing with the
natural attributes required in productive farmland, vertical farming techniques can be employed
in the urban environment, utilizing cutting-edge technologies, and making use of existing vacant
properties. Despommier, developer of the modern concept of vertical farming contends,
“Vertical farming practiced on a large scale in urban centers holds the promise that sustainable
urban life is not only possible but highly desirable and technologically achievable” (2011, Loc
There were no operational VFs in existence prior to 2010. In the last nine years, an
industry has been born around this concept that is projected to reach a global market size of USD
9.96 billion by 2025 (GrandViewResearch). This capstone project addresses the application of
urban vertical farming as a practical component in the quest to secure the food supply of the
metropolitan-New York region. It will also explore additional purported benefits related to the
environment, and the health of the urban population. The viability of the business model will be
examined, utilizing case studies of vertical farms serving the metropolitan-New York area.
Dickson Despommier articulates a core philosophy of the VF movement by stating “Learning
how to grow our food without damaging the environment will go a long way to helping humanity
achieve the elusive but highly desirable goal: sustainability” (2018, para. 69). The issue of
sustainability pertains to the VF industry itself, as well as to the environment and society. Can
vertical farming make a significant contribution to sustainable, high quality, and safe, urban food
production in the metropolitan-New York region, while advancing social, environmental, and
The FAO conducts long-term analyses of food and agricultural systems in its quest to
achieve its global Sustainable Development Goals. According to their 2017 report on global food
and agricultural systems, the predicted expansion in urban populations will be due to two factors:
increased birth rate and migration from rural areas (2017). With 8,601,186 inhabitants in 2019,
New York City approaches the category of ‘mega-city’, defined as 10 million or more. It is the
largest city in the United States, ranking 36th world-wide (worldpopulationreview.com). Its
population is expected to increase by 9.5% to 9 million from 2010 to 2040 (Salvo, 2013). The
metropolitan statistical area (MSA) comprised of NYC, seven New York counties, twelve New
Jersey counties, and one in Pennsylvania, is predicted to have a population increase of 9.87% to
21,534,705 from 2010 to 2030. This MSA ranks 20th in land area, and 2nd in population density
in the United States (ProximityOne, 2019).
Global agricultural output has more than tripled between 1960 and 2015, due to new
technologies and expansion in land use, yet these resource-intensive farming practices are still
unable to yield sustainable food and agricultural production (FAO, 2017). Montgomery
maintains the Green Revolution may have averted a food crisis by increasing the use of chemical
fertilizers and investing substantially in irrigation infrastructure in developing countries, but at
this point, growth in crop yields has abated, and there is little likelihood of further increase
utilizing current practices (2008).
Prevailing farming methods contribute substantially to deforestation, soil depletion, water
scarcity, and increased greenhouse gas emissions, leading to global warming and climate change
(FAO, 2017). Despommier claims that “Farming has upset more ecological processes than
anything else – it is the most destructive process on earth” (Al-Kadmony, 2018, p. 5). According
to Montgomery, “…modern agricultural techniques are eroding the very soil on which food
production depends” (2008, para. 2). Soil depletion has occurred since the advent of agriculture,
but it has been intensified by modern industrial farming, losing approximately a millimeter per
year, at ten times the rate of soil formation (Montgomery, 2008). Already scarce water is
contaminated and wasted, as agricultural runoff is adulterated by salts, and the herbicides and
pesticides that must be used to maintain decent crop yield. It is considered the most damaging
source of pollution, ultimately adversely affecting the eco-systems in the oceans (Despommier,
2011). This damage is expected to increase, as climatologists predict that flooding in the next
forty years will increase in both frequency and severity, and extend to new areas (Despommier,
2011). ‘Food miles’, the distance crops must travel to reach cities, run on average 1,500 miles
from farm to table and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (Al-Kodmany, 2018).
According to Segal, today’s industrialized agriculture “produces inexpensive crops that
yield to cheap and unhealthy food” (2010, p. 197): in other words, the processed products offered
by the small grocery stores (bodegas) located in the low-income neighborhoods of NYC. These
shops do not carry the fresh organic produce that can be found in middle and upper-class
communities and coupled with a prevalence of prepared fast food restaurants, contribute to the
‘food desert’ phenomenon often found in inner cities. The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill defines a food
desert as “an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food,
particularly such an area composed of predominately lower-income neighborhoods and
communities” (Bitler, 2010, p.154). Studies have shown “a direct correlation between a lack of
access to healthy foods and health risks, including obesity” (Segal, 2010, p. 197). The New York
City Department of Health reports adult obesity rates of 31% and 22% in East and Central
Harlem, respectively, compared with 22% in NYC overall. Approximately 13% of adults in East
Harlem are diabetic. The number is 12% in Central Harlem. Segal proposes a few possible
solutions to the issue of food deserts, including urban horticulture (2010).
Industrialization and globalization have led to greatly increased food supply chains,
causing the physical distance from farm to table to rise significantly (FAO, 2017). Recent
interest in urban agriculture by city planners has been largely due to concern about food
sustainability for the demographic shift in urban populations expected by 2050; environmental
degradation; and erratic weather due to climate change. Potential benefits of increased UA
include the creation of opportunities for millennial farmers, as aging rural farmers retire;
reduction of transportation and energy costs incurred by lengthy supply chains; and reduction of
post-harvest storage and handling, leading to the improvement in food taste (Goodman, 2018).
Research has identified social benefits associated with UA including improved livability, health,
and well-being; adoptions of plant-based diets that assist in lowering risk of chronic disease; and
strengthening social ties between consumers and farmers (Goodman, 2018). The FAO urges
coordinated and organized food systems offering consistent food for urban areas (2017). This
recommendation may be aided by consumers themselves. Grebitus notes the continued growth in
consumer demand for local food products. By 2014, U.S. local food sales were close to $12
billion, and were expected to rise to $20 billion by 2019. This trend has led to the incorporation
of local food production into existing and new neighborhoods by housing developers (Grebitus,
2017). Studies conducted in the 2000s have shown that consumers will pay a higher price for
locally grown food because they believe it not only tastes better, is fresher, and is of higher
quality, but that it also is better for the environment and adds to the local economy (Grebitus,
Majora Carter (founder of Sustainable South Bronx) concedes that the current food
production and distribution system supplies the public with sustenance at an affordable price, but
notes that it takes a great toll on the environment and consumers, by polluting, and threatening
job security in the food industry, arguing quality of life costs are frequently incurred by those
who can least afford it (Despommier, 2011). Dr. Dickson Despommier, considered ‘the Father of
Vertical Farming,’ and Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia
University in NYC, asserts that 10,000 years of farming has been detrimental to the planet’s
ecology, but that it is possible to repair the damage while producing enough healthy food for all.
Despommier believes vertical farming can have environmental benefits such as reducing fossil
fuel consumption; energy production; grey water conversion; reduced water use; and elimination
of agricultural run-off; - the latter of which is “responsible for more ecosystem disruption than
any other kind of pollution” (2011, loc 185). Despommier posits a city can “bio-mimic an intact
ecosystem with respect to the allocation and use of essential resources and, at the same time,
provide a healthy, nurturing, sustainable environment for its inhabitants” (2011, loc 278). With
rapid climate change exacerbating water scarcity and over 90% of all seeds used in US large-
scale agriculture bred to grow within very narrow temperature and precipitation parameters, the
food supply grows ever more vulnerable. Globally, failed farming is the number one reason
people leave rural areas for the city (Despommier 2011). Despommier’s blueprint for the then
theoretical vertical farm recognized that the return on investment could be lengthy, and
presciently predicted Google as a valuable investment partner (2011).
The primary question of this capstone asks: “Can vertical farming make a significant
contribution to sustainable, high quality, and safe, urban food production in the metropolitan-
New York region, while advancing social, environmental, and economic issues?” To answer this
question, this paper will utilize a qualitative approach due to the dearth of analyzed data on
currently operating vertical farms, as this is a nascent industry that continues to rapidly evolve
due to new advances in technology. Primary sources will consist of government and agency
reports, case studies taking the form of site-visits, and interviews of staff at existing vertical
farms operating in the metropolitan-New York region. I will select interviewees based on
location and willingness to cooperate, and conduct the interviews using a standardized
questionnaire. The questions will gather data on current vertical farming operations including,
but not limited to, farm size, crop types and yield, food safety, technology, resource efficiency,
investment partners, staffing, marketing targets, community relations, and scalability. Secondary
sources will contextualize the challenges associated both with conventional food production and
that of vertical farming. These sources will include scholarly journal articles, academic books,
and industry white papers, and will serve to provide data and analysis for evaluation. Addressing
the following sub-questions will enable me to answer my primary research question.
My first sub-question asks: “Is the practice of vertical farming’s form of controlled
environment agriculture a sustainable endeavor within the food value chain of the metropolitan-
New York area with respect to environmental soundness, economic vigor, and social well-
being?” The primary sources used to answer this question will establish VF statistics related to
the production volume of crops and the reduction of required resources, pollutants, and food
miles. They will address the system and design components required for urban CEA and
establish recommended guidelines for food and agriculture sustainability. These primary sources
include site visits and/or interviews and website information of operational VFs in the
metropolitan-New York area. Potential farms include AeroFarms, Square Roots, Seed and Roe,
Bowery Farm, and Farm.One. Additional primary sources include DLR’s 2015 report Vertical
Farm 2.0: Designing an Economically Feasible Vertical Farm, Kristin Jurkenbeck’s 2019 article
Sustainability Matters: Consumer Acceptance of Different Vertical Farming Systems, Dionysios
Touliatos’ 2016 article Vertical farming increases lettuce yield compared to conventional
horizontal hydroponics, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 2014
report Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems Guidelines, Version 3.0.
Secondary sources will contextualize the claims asserted by vertical farming proponents by
analyzing data that has been collected to date, finance and business models, the challenges of
architecture and urban regulations, consumer opinion toward indoor-farmed produce, private
sector and government-led initiatives, and industry trend forecasts. Secondary sources include
the USDA’s 2019 Workshop Report Research and Development Potentials in Indoor Agriculture
and Sustainable Urban Ecosystems, Wylie Goodman’s 2018 article Will the urban agricultural
revolution be vertical and soilless? A case study of controlled environment agriculture in New
York City, Richard Volpe’s 2013 USDA report How Transportation Costs Affect Fresh Fruit and
Vegetable Prices, Cornell University’s 2008 report Energy Investments and CO2 Emissions For
Fresh Produce Imported Into New York State Compared To The Same Crops Grown Locally,
Till Weidner’s 2019 article Consolidating the current knowledge on urban agriculture in
productive urban food systems: Learning, gaps and outlook, Agrilyst’s 2017 report State of
Indoor Farming, Howard Brin’s 2016 white paper The State of Vertical Farming, Brendon
Coyle’s 2017 article Will Consumers Find Vertically Farmed Produce “Out of Reach”?, and
Newbean’s 2015 white paper Indoor Crop Production: Feeding the Future.
My second sub-question is: “Can the vertical farming form of urban agriculture food
production augment the supply of high-nutrient, quality produce for the metropolitan-New York
area?” Primary sources will provide information on the quality of local VF produce with respect
to nutritional value and shelf life. Primary sources include site visits and/or interviews and
website information of operational VFs in the metropolitan-New York area. Secondary sources
will analyze the effects on the food quality (both intrinsic and extrinsic attributes) of
conventional agriculture supply-chain length compared to that of local VF CEA. Secondary
sources will also address the role VF CEA may have in the mitigation of food deserts in
impoverished neighborhoods. Secondary sources include Remigios Berruto’s 2009 report System
Approach for Evaluating Locally Grown Produce Issues, Howard Brin’s 2016 white paper The
State of Vertical Farming, Elizabeth O. Christensen’s 2016 dissertation The Changing Seasons of
Produce Distribution: An Investigation into the Past, Present, and Future of the Produce Supply
Chain in California, Adi Segal’s 2010 article Food Deserts, A Global Crisis in New York City:
Causes, Impacts and Solutions, and Marianne Bitler’s 2010 article An Economic View of Food
Deserts in the United States.
My third sub-question is: “Does the food production of VFs located in the metropolitan-
New York area meet or improve upon the health and safety standards of agricultural and food
processing practices of unprocessed or minimally processed fresh produce as it moves from farm
to table?” Primary sources will establish current guidelines for safe handling along the food
supply chain for fresh produce and document procedures practiced by metropolitan-New York
area VFs. Primary sources include the FDA’s October 2018 Guide to Minimize Food Safety
Hazards of Fresh-cut Produce: Draft Guidance for Industry, FDA’s 2015 report Key
Requirements: Final Rule on Produce Safety, FDA’s 1998 Guide to Minimize Microbial Food
Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, Sean T. Hammond’s 2015 article Food
Spoilage, Storage, and Transport: Implications for a Sustainable Future and site visits and/or
interviews and website information of operational VFs in the metropolitan-New York area.
Secondary sources will contextualize the food safety and quality assurance procedures
concerning the harvesting, storing, transport and distribution of produce from VFs. Secondary
sources include Newbean’s 2015 White Paper Indoor Crop Production: Feeding the Future and
Dickson Despommier’s 2011 book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.
Al-Kodmany, K. (2008). The Vertical Farm: A Review of Developments and Implications for the
Vertical City. Buildings, 8(24).
Bitler, M., & Haider, S. J. (2010). An Economic View of Food Deserts in the United States. Journal
of Policy Analysis and Management, 30(1), 153–176.
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2019). Household Food Security in
the United States in 2018 (No. ERR-270; p. 47). Retrieved from United States Department of
Agriculture website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=94848
Despommier, D. (2011). The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. New York:
Despommier, D. (2018, December). Status of Vertical Farms 2018. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century website:
FAO. (2017). Trends and Challenges (No. 1). Retrieved from Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations website: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6583e.pdf
Fast Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from Food Bank for New York City website:
Goodman, W., & Minner, J. (2019). Will the urban agricultural revolution be vertical and soilless? A
case study of controlled environmental agriculture in New York City. Land Use Policy, 83, 160–
Grebitus, C., Printezis, I., & Printezis, A. (2017). Relationship between Consumer Behavior and
Success of Urban Agriculture. Ecological Economics, 136, 189–200.
Montgomery, D. R. (2008). Peak Soil. New Internationalist, 418.
Mougeot, L. J. A. (2000). Urban Agriculture: Definition, Presence, Potentials and Risks, and Policy
Changes (No. 31). International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Proximity One. (2019, May 6). Situation & Outlook Report [Data analytics]. Retrieved September 22,
2019, from New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA MSA (35620) website:
Salvo, J., Lobo, A., & Maurer, E. (2013). New York City Population Projections by Age/Sex &
Borough, 2010-2040. New York City.
Segal, A. (2010). Food Deserts A Global Crisis in New York City: Causes, Impacts and Solutions.
Consilience, 3, 197–214.
Vertical Farming Market Worth $9.96 Billion by 2025—CAGR: 21.3%. (2019, April). Retrieved
November 6, 2019, from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-vertical-
Waldron, D. (2019). Evolution of Vertical Farms and the Development of a Simulation Methodology.
WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 217. https://doi.org/10.2495/SDP180821
World City Populations 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from World Population Review
Agrilyst.com. (n.d.). State of Indoor Farming: 2017. Retrieved from https://artemisag.com/wp-
Berruto, R., & Busato, P. (2009). System Approach for Evaluating Locally Grown Produce Issues.
Bonn, Germany: International Center for Food Chain and Network Research.
Brin, H., Fesquet, V., Bromfield, E., Murayama, D., Landau, J., & Kalva, P. (2019). The State of
Vertical Farming. Association for Vertical Farming.
Christensen, E. O. (2016). The Changing Seasons of Produce Distribution: An Investigation into the
Past, Present, and Future of the Produce Supply Chain in California (Dissertation). University
of California - Davis.
Cornell University. (2008). Energy Investments and CO2 Emission For Fresh Produce Imported Into
New York State Compared To The Same Crops Grown Locally. Ithaca, NY.
Coyle, B., D., & Ellison, B. (2017). Will Consumers FInd Vertically Farmed Produce “Out of
Reach”? Choices, 32(1).
Deutsches Zentrum Fur Luft- und Raumfahrt. (2015). Vertical Farm 2.0: Designing an Economically
Feasible Vertical Farm (No. Final Report).
FAO. (2014). Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems Guidelines (Version 3.0).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
FDA. (2015). Key Requirements: Final Rule of Produce Safety. US Department of Health and Human
Services - Food and Drug Administration.
FDA. (2019). Guide to Minimize Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Produce: Draft Guidance for
Industry. US Department of Health and Human Services - Food and Drug Administration.
Hammond, S. T., Brown, J. H., Burget, J. R., Flanagan, T. P., Fristoe, T., Mercado-Silva, N., … Okie,
J. G. (2015). Food Spoilage, Storage, and Transport: Implications for a Sustainable Future.
BioScience, 65(8), 758–768.
Jurkenbeck, K., Heumann, A., & Spiller, A. (n.d.). Sustainability Matters: Consumer Acceptance of
Different Vertical Farming Systems. Sustainability, 11(4052).
Kalantari, F., Tahir, O. O., Joni, R. A., & Fatemi, E. (2018). Opportunities and Challenges in
Sustainability of Vertical Farming: A Review. Journal of Landscape Ecology, 11(1), 35–60.
Newbean Capital, Local Roots, & Proteus Environmental Technologies. (2015). Indoor Crop
Production—Feeding the Future.
Proksch, G. (2017). Creating Urban Agricultural Systems: An Integrated Approach to Design.
Abingdon: Routledge - Taylor & Francis.
Touliatos, D., Dodd, I. C., & McAinsh, M. (2016). Vertical farming increases lettuce yield per unit
area compared to conventional hydroponics. Food and Energy Security, 5(3).
United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). Research and Development Potentials in Indoor
Agriculture and Sustainable Urban Ecosystems. Retrieved from
USDA. (2017). Census of Agriculture—2017 Census Volume 1. United States Department of
Volpe, R., Roeger, E., & Leibtag, E. (2013). How Transportation Costs Affect Fresh Fruit and
Vegetable Prices (No. ERR-160). United States Department of Agriculture.
Weidner, T., Yang, A., & Hamm, M. W. (2019). Consolidatng the current knowledge on urban
agriculture in productive urban food systems: Learnings, gaps and outlook. Journal of Cleaner
Production, 209, 1637–1655.
(N.d.-a). Retrieved from Farm.One website: https://farm.one/
(N.d.-b). Retrieved from Association for Vertical Farming website: https://vertical-farming.net/
(N.d.-c). Retrieved from Square Roots website: https://squarerootsgrow.com/