This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as TED2009 on Technorati.
Dickson Despommier wants us to think vertical, because we don’t have enough space to grow our food.
The agricultural footprint of 7 billion people requires a South America-sized plot of arable land to feed us, at current technologies. By 2050, we’ll have 3 billion more people, and we’ll need another Brazil’s worth of land. And we don’t have it. We’re farming 80% of all arable land on the planet, and we’re doing so at great cost.
We use 70% of our fresh water and 20% of fossil fuels to produce our crops. We use massive amounts of fertilizes, pesticides and herbicides. This leads to agricultural runoff and dead zones. We’re killing off native vegetation in these dead zones, which helps explain why there have been three “millenium” floods in New Orleans in the past couple of decades.
The radical idea Despommier is putting forward is this: “What if we didn’t need soil?” We know how to do this, he tells us, using hydroponics, aeroponics, and drip irrigation. We used these techniques to raise produce in the South Pacific duing World War II… then promptly forgot what we learned.
Why vertical farming? There’s no run-off, we can produce crops year-round, we don’t lose crops to severe weather, and we use fewer fossil fuels, because there’s no plowing.
What if we built cities around sustainable, vertical agriculture? We’d build sustainable eco-cities, recycling water from urine, making power from solid waste. Despommier argues that all this technology exists already, and just requires the ambition, bravery and creativity to put them into place.