A Growing Passion, Up
A Discussion with Dr. Dickson Despommier
By Marisa Hanson
“Well, you don’t get that kind of call everyday,” Dr. Dickson Despommier chuckled giddily as he hung up the phone with an United Nations official, who had just invited him to speak at a special symposium on agronomy and agriculture.
Despommier receives invitations often these days, and he is becoming increasingly more high profile. Dr. Despommier is a microbiologist, professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the founder of the Vertical Farm Project, a concept he describes as “high tech green houses stacked on top of one another.” With this he envisions integrating agriculture into urban living, and saving the world by returning farmland to its natural ecosystems.
Sitting amongst a sea of books that is his office in the Columbia Medical School, the affable professor-at-heart shared how the Vertical Farm Project came to be, and why it will change the world.
Q. You spent almost 30 years conducting laboratory-based research on parasites that you said you’d have been happy doing for the rest of your life. What was it that sparked such a passion for the Vertical Farm concept after leaving that behind?
A. Let’s make this a grand question first. The virtue of biology is diversity. The greater the diversity index the greater the resiliency and the greater the sustainability. It’s been proven that small island communities are less resilient than larger island communities, which are less resilient than continental communities. So you’re at risk by having only a single grant, which is what I had and thought was plenty; enough to last the rest of my life. The joy of research is the discovery of secrets that organisms keep to themselves, and it requires you to speak their language in order to reveal that secret, and that’s what I did for 30 years. Then I get this letter from the government that says, “Thank you. Next!” And that’s…ugh.
Biology taught me that in order to survive you have to diversify. Diversification in my case meant doing something else. I was really disappointed with this of course, but I also love teaching. That’s my passion. My passion is to tell stories that are true. That’s what teaching is.
I also went into the publishing business. I invented a publishing company I call Appletrees. I had all this information in my head from teaching the medical students, and I wanted to bring it forward.
In my past life I was teaching about how the ecology of diseases spread from person to person; in this case parasites. Then I began teaching two new courses at the School of Public Health because I had a lot of time on my hands. Ecology was one of those courses. The second course I began to teach was Medical Ecology. And that’s where the vertical farm comes in.
Q. What is Medical Ecology?
A. Well, you have to resort to medicine around here otherwise people don’t listen. If you damage the environment, there’s a medical risk. That’s the connection.
Normal ecology was what the first course was about. When things go wrong is what this one was about. In medical school they have an equivalent to this: first year, Normal Human Biology, second year, Abnormal Human Biology. So if that’s how the Medical School is teaching their students, why shouldn’t we be teaching our School of Public Health students in the same vein? Teach them to think at the world level like physicians think at the individual level. You’ve got a microscope and a telescope and you should be looking through both.
Medical Ecology was the telescope side of the study. I let the students decide what they wanted to study, and they came up with rooftop gardening as their idea. It turned out to be a lousy idea because you can’t feed enough people with rooftop gardening, but it’s a good start.
Q. How did it develop into the idea it is today?
A. A miracle happened, and that is a good idea escaped from the classroom and the public took it over. The course got popular because the students, at the end of that lecture series and then their project, realized they couldn’t feed all of Manhattan with rooftop gardens. I said, “Let’s take that idea and move it into the building.” It was that casual. I didn’t have any clue as to where that was going.
The next year I got more students and the following year even more students for this elective course. Finally I ended up with about 32 students and the projects became more varied and we put them up on the Internet. Then architects began sending us drawings and it just went crazy! Around 2003 when our first Internet appearance was, there were maybe four results for the search “Vertical Farms” and they had nothing to do with our concept. Today there are 29 million search results.
Q. The design of Vertical Farms has been very collaborative with people from all over the world submitting renderings and ideas to your website. How integral is participation from everyday Joes to the success of this idea?
A. Very. Very. I can’t post all of the submissions, so people began to put them up themselves. When you can enlist that many people to work on an idea it’s a guaranteed success. Guaranteed.
Take the concept of Leonardo building a glider. He builds one, and it can fly fine, but when you build one big enough the aerodynamics change. So other people said, “I can do better.” Leonardo was looking at bird wings, but he wasn’t looking at them correctly. A Frenchman was the first to build an airplane, but he couldn’t steer it. So the Wright brothers became famous because they learned how to turn.
Around 2006 the idea went viral. At that point people started to see what the idea was, and I started getting invited to these things. It began slowly, and of course every time I went to one I would misspeak because I’m a microbiologist I’m not an agronomist, but people were very kind. They would come over and say, “Next time you give this talk say this, not that.”
Q. What’s an example of something you misspoke about early on?
A. The fact that we need transparent buildings to make this idea work. That was one of the things I said that turned out to be not the best approach. I learned that at a talk I got invited to called, “Innovating Metropolitan Agriculture” between the governments of Holland and China. I began getting invited to more and more of these meetings so it allowed me to see the world through a more broad telescope. The more I saw, the more I really became an enthusiast.
Q. Do you think Vertical Farms are an inevitable part of future urban landscapes?
A. I do. I think there should be a greenhouse on the top of every roof in New York. Our students said if you put a garden on every roof, you could feed two percent of Manhattan. But put a roof over that and you could feed six percent of Manhattan because you get three crops every year. Now that’s still not enough, but that’s why we did this!
Q. We talk a lot about closed-loop systems in sustainability. How is Vertical Farming a closed-loop system?
A. If you use the sun as your constant source of sustainable energy then plants convert it to the things that animals need and animals then convert that to the things that the plants need. Like in the form of carbon dioxide, or fish poop. So those are closed loops. They grow the grain for the fish, the fish poop is the fertilizer for the grain and the whole thing starts with grow lights or sunlight.
You can also make the water system closed-loop by dehumidifying the air, condensing it and returning it to the irrigation system.
Q. You recently spoke at the Urban Agriculture Summit in Linkoping, Sweden. What was the most inspiring takeaway from those talks?
A. It wasn’t an inspiring talk, it was an attitude. No one at that meeting ever doubted for one moment that this would work. And for that reason, they weren’t trying to find out whether it was feasible or not, they were trying to find out how to do it. They had no question as to whether it should be done or not.
I used to have a little saying that I had taped to my desk for about 30 years that said, “Nothing is impossible for a willing heart.” And it’s true.
Q. So this has been a random walk.
A. This is how I taught. But I always come back to the topic. You can connect up infectious diseases, Vertical Farming, illiteracy and economic sustainability all in one. It’s easy because it’s all connected. You just have to know how to make the connections.