Urban Cooperative Farming: A Game-Changer for Food Systems

May 3rd, 2020 | By | Category: Featured, Food and Hunger/Agriculture

By Geoffrey Holland, guest writer for Transition Earth.

[photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming]

Lettuce grown in indoor vertical farming system [photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming]

All humans require nourishment. No exceptions. The future of food may reside in multi-story urban structures, built out with hi-tech hydroponic or aeroponic crop growing systems. Another name for this is vertical farming.

There’s a lot to like about vertical farms. They require about 90% less water than cropland farms.[i]  They don’t need chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or toxic chemicals of any kind.  Vertical farms are organic farms.

Well matched with clean, renewable sources of energy, vertical farms are designed with highly efficient OLED lighting, tuned to deliver optimal plant growth.

A square meter of vertical farm delivers as much as fifty times the harvest of a square meter of cropland.[ii] Most traditional farming is seasonal, yielding a single harvest. With vertical farms, there are no seasons; three, even four harvests are possible.

Traditional crops can be ruined by weather extremes; vertical farm crops are grown indoors. They are not subject to the weather.

Vertical farms can be purpose built. They can also be a way to revitalize old shopping malls, warehouses, and disused commercial buildings.

Pretty much any vegetable that can be found in a grocery produce section can be grown in a vertical farm. The cost per unit of production in a vertical farm of tomatoes, carrots, and leafy greens is generally competitive with crops harvested from traditional farms.

Vegetables grown on industrial scale farmlands in California’s central valley or imported from other countries can travel thousands of miles, and take a week or more, before ending up in someone’s kitchen. Urban vertical farm crops can go from harvest to dinner plate the same day.

Another consequence of traditional cropland farming is the massive amount of ag chemical runoff that spills into rivers, and then oceans. An example: the Mississippi River watershed carries ag run off from ten states, and dumps it into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a 6,000 square mile toxic dead zone in the Gulf.[iii]   There is no ag runoff with vertical farming.


A Professor’s Stewardship

Vertical farming emerged in the classroom of Dickson Despommier, Professor of Public Health at Columbia University.

When Despommier’s book, The Vertical Farm was published in 2010, there were no vertical farms in existence.  Ten years later, there are hundreds of vertical farms operating successfully in cities across the world.


With vertical farms scattered throughout the urban landscape, city life will start to reflect the essentials of ecological process, producing food and recycling all waste. When this finally occurs, the promise of a sustainable, healthy future will be well within citizen’s reach.

~Dickson Despommier,  The Vertical Farm[iv]



Without question, for humans, vertical farming could not have arrived at a more opportune time.


A "grow deck" commercial sprouting system {https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming}

A “grow deck” commercial sprouting system {https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming}


Prisoners of Our Own Success

Case settled: Humans are an unmatched success as a species. We are the dominant life form on Earth. We lord over pretty much everything, land and sea.  It took from the first appearance of Homo Sapiens as a species, some 200,000 years ago, all the way to the year 1970 to reach a total human population of three billion. Just in the fifty years since then, our numbers have more than doubled to nearly eight billion. From three billion to eight billion in fifty years. Demographers tells us we could be at 10 billion by as soon as 2050.[v]

Each and every human needs food, water, and shelter to survive. In a just world, add access to education, to healthcare, and to personal security.

The reality is the Earth has only so much to give, and humans are rapidly exhausting all that remains. We are literally sucking the life out of the only planet we have.

The Commission on the Human Future lists ten existential threats to human survival.[vi]They are…

  1. Decline of key natural resources, and an emerging global resources crisis, especially in water
  2. Collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species
  3. Human population growth and demand, beyond Earth’s carrying capacity.
  4. Global warming, sea level rise, and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity.
  5. Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life
  6. Rising food insecurity and falling nutritional quality
  7. Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. Advent of powerful, uncontrollable new technologies
  10. National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks

Any one of these threats could trigger the end of human life on Earth.  Every one is manmade. That is not fake news.

Humans made this mess. We did it. We are all responsible.  We are the only ones, who can take corrective action. Our moment of reckoning has arrived.

Embracing vertical farming in a big way now would be a huge step toward a sustainable future.


Climate Change and Food Security

Through our collective behavior, we pump billons of tons of greenhouse gas pollutants annually into our atmosphere. In 2019, 37 billions of CO2 alone[vii]: just carbon dioxide, mostly from vehicle exhaust.

An overheated atmosphere triggers ever more extreme weather events; droughts, heat waves, wild fires, and floods.

In just the past year, massive, climate driven wildfires have ravaged Australia, the Brazilian Amazon, North America, and other parts of the world. Extreme weather events, like Hurricane Harvey that dumped more than 50” of rain on the Texas Gulf coast over five days in 2017, used to happen only once in a hundred years. Now, massive extreme weather events are seen somewhere on the planet, one or more times every year.

Extreme weather is what you get when you continue pumping millions of tons of heat trapping pollutants into the sky.  As the world heats up, cropland farming becomes more and more of a challenge. Weather driven failure of farmland is causing considerable food insecurity in the Middle East and some parts of Africa.

In fact, starvation is a common factor in the world’s poorest places. Just during the first four months of the year 2020, an estimated three million people on planet Earth have died from hunger.[viii]

Hundreds of thousands of people, unable to feed themselves and threatened with violence, are seeking refuge elsewhere. In the decades ahead, the number of people fleeing for survival is likely to increase substantially.

How will the rest of the world cope with this? Thus far, the answer appears to be ‘uncomfortably’, at best.

The threats are global. No one is immune. There are no easy answers. In the years ahead, the entire planet is likely in for daily doses of existential turmoil.


While convincing eight or ten billion people to eat more sustainably may appear a tall order, in fact rising awareness of the damage caused by lifestyle diseases and industrialized diets, as well as the effects of today’s food system on the climate, water, and wildlife of the planet, is already spreading at breathtaking speed among consumers, thanks to the internet and social media.

Julian Cribb, Food or War[ix]



As humanity tries to find a life-affirming, and sustainable pathway forward, we can expect to see ever more human misery to spread across the world. There will be more of the kind of unrelenting conflict we are accustomed to in the Middle East. Much of it will be fueled by famine.

Building a safe and enduring network of vertical farms worldwide could be an essential part of keeping the peace and surviving the difficult years ahead.  Wise decisions generally come from people, who have enough to eat.


Food Security Urbanizing World


Giving Back to Nature

The Half-Earth Project[x] calls for half of our Earth’s land and oceans to be returned to their natural state, protected from human exploitation. That would be a huge commitment toward restoring our planet’s biosphere.  Every human has an interest in seeing this bold idea come to fruition. Encouraging the widespread adoption of urban, vertical farming makes the return of half the Earth to nature a genuine possibility. Just the kind of human initiative we all should stand behind as part of our obligation to protect the biosphere, which we cannot do without.


The Case for Cooperative Ownership

It appears that private enterprise is behind pretty much all of the vertical farm construction thus far in different parts of the world. Progress is being made, but the pace of vertical farming’s emergence could and should be faster.

When this writer first learned about vertical farming, he recalled a book, titled, Our Common Wealth, authored by systems theorist, Thomas Hanna. It makes a strong case for business development models that include public ownership, and variations on shared public-private ownership. Thomas Hanna points to a number of arenas around the world, where public ownership has long worked very effectively. This includes public transportation, banking, healthcare, education, and postal services.

Let’s add vertical farming as natural fit for some kind of public-private ownership structure.

Think about this; most Americans, who shop in supermarkets, take their food supply for granted.  In the years ahead, as the supply chain becomes ever more stressed, citizens will need government to be prepared for the worst.  Can we all agree, the public welfare is best served when there is a reliable, cost-effective, locally grown food supply?   Locally owned and operated vertical farms can fill that need. They also provide a boost to the economy, and a source of quality, living wage jobs.


Public ownership – by virtue of being tried, resilient, popular, and scalable – has the potential not only to be deployed more widely to deliver, real, tangible socio-economic benefits, but also to be reimagined and reinvented in such a way that it can serve as the institutional basis for a more far-reaching transformation of our failing contemporary political-economic system.

~ Thomas Hanna, Our Common Wealth[xi]


As time goes on, big, multi-national corporations will likely become serious players in the vertical farming business. Where they build, and when they build will surely be focused on development in the biggest, most profitable markets first.

Rather than wait for the private sector to act, local and regional governments should be pro-active. They should facilitate vertical farm development locally through direct public ownership, or through the use of some sort of public-employee or cooperative ownership structure.


The capitalist era is passing…not quickly, but inevitably. A new economic paradigm – the Collaborative Commons – is rising in its wake that will transform our way of life.

~Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society[xii]



Governments – local, state, and national – must seize the day, and facilitate the emergence of a cooperative, vertical farming revolution.


A Made for the Moment Idea

As the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic gradually subsides, government leaders in every nation on Earth will be looking for ways to re-invigorate their economies and their communities.  For all the reasons previously stated, building vertical farms would seem to be a very good answer, pretty much everywhere.

A secure food supply is an essential requirement for getting through the deeply troubling uncertainty that lies ahead.  Vertical farms, in every community across the world, could dampen the kind of desperation that drives armed conflict.

Vertical farming is not just a pregnant business possibility; it’s a civilization scale game changer.  Civic leaders should foster it. Community’s should embrace it.  Citizens should support it, as a critical part of providing a safe and secure food supply, while working together to shape a survival plan for our existentially challenged world.


To cherish what remains of the Earth, and to foster it’s renewal is our only legitimate hope for survival

~Wendell Berry, American Naturalist[xiii]



Geoffrey Holland is an Emmy Award winning writer/producer, the author of The Hydrogen Age, and Coordinator of the Stanford University MAHB Dialogues.


Suggested reading:

Food or War, Julian Cribb, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019

The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, Dickson Despommier, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010

Our Common Wealth, The Return of Public Ownership in the United States, Thomas Hanna, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2018


Commission on the Human Future –  www.humansforsurvival.org

The Next System Project – www.thenextsystem.org



[i] https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/post/is-vertical-farming-really-sustainable

[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebanker/2020/02/03/vertical-farming-transforms-the-farm-to-fork-supply-chain/#2c83bb4e1cd5

[iii] https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/dead_zone.html

[iv] The Vertical Farm, Dickson Despommier, St. Martins Press, New York, 2010, 230

[v] https://green.harvard.edu/events/feeding-10-billion-2050-creating-sustainable-and-healthy-food-future

[vi] http://humansforsurvival.org/sites/default/files/CHF_Roundtable_Report_March_2020.pdf

[vii] https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2019-12-03/carbon-dioxide-emissions-fossil-fuels-record-high-2019

[viii] https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/people-and-poverty

[ix] Food or War, Julian Cribb, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019, 251

[x] https://www.half-earthproject.org/

[xi] Our Common Wealth, Thomas Hanna, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2018

[xii] The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin, Palgrave MacMillan,  St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2014

[xiii] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/wendell_berry_100967?src=t_survival

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