Even so, Despommier still believes in his vision of urban agriculture. And recent developments, like the ones in South Korea, might mean his dream is not as remote as critics say. Ten years ago, vertical farming was only an idea. Today, it has developed into a concrete model. About two years ago, the first prototypes were created.
In fact, the concept seems to be working already, at least on a small scale. In the Netherlands, the first foods from a vertical farm are already stocking supermarket shelves. The PlantLab, a 10-year-old company based three floors underground in the southern city of Den Bosch, has cultivated everything from ornamental shrubs and roses to nearly every crop imaginable, including strawberries, beans, cucumbers and corn. "We manage completely without sunlight," says PlantLab's Gertjan Meeuws. "But we still manage to achieve a yield three times the size of an average greenhouse's." What's more, PlantLab uses almost 90 percent less water than a conventional farm.
As a country which has limited land resources but which possesses much of the necessary technology, the Netherlands seems to be an ideal place to develop vertical farming. This is especially true now that its residents are increasingly demanding organic, pesticide-free foods -- and are prepared to pay more for it.
'The Next Agricultural Revolution'
Despommier believes that entire countries will soon be able to use vertical farming to feed their populations. The South Korean government, at least, is interested in exploring the possibility. At the moment, the country is forced to import a large share of its food. Indeed, according to a 2005 OECD report, South Korea places fifth-to-last in a global ranking on food security. Increasing food prices, climate change and the possibility of natural disasters can compound the problem.
These facts are not lost on the researchers in the vertical farming laboratory in Suwon. "We must be prepared to avert a catastrophe," Choi says.
Still, it will be some time before vertical farming is implemented on a commercial scale in South Korea. Choi's colleague Lee Hye Jin thinks that five more years of research are needed. "Only then will our vertical farm be ready for the free market," he says.