In 1999, Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University, popularized the idea of large-scale urban agriculture by releasing a conceptual model for vertical farms. Crops would grow inside tall city buildings, using very little land to produce bounties of food that would not need to be shipped far to be eaten. With nine billion people worldwide to feed by 2050, and close to 70 percent of them residing in cities, bringing food production into dense urban areas had long been seen as a logical step toward sustainable living, and Despommier’s work seemed to take us in the right direction.
Fifteen years later, despite many experiments with farming inside city buildings, the first large-scale vertical farm, as envisioned by Despommier, has yet to be built. The urban farming industry, still in its infancy, is struggling to address the engineering challenges that make growing food in cities a costly business. Sales and distribution have also proven harder than almost anybody imagined. “What’s been lacking,” says Mohamed Hage of Montréal, “are players who will do it at a true commercial scale, with the right business model.” […]