By 2050 an additional three billion people are projected to living on earth – most of them in urban areas: The case for sustainable cities, urban agriculture, and vertical farms.


  • Dickson Despommier Professor of microbiology and public health, environmental health sciences, Columbia University and author of "The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves and The World in the 21st Century"
  • Bob Young Chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. By 2050, there'll be approximately nine billion people on earth. Three-quarters of them will likely live in urban areas. It seems clear our traditional farming models will have to change. Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University says we may be able to find the answer by looking up for more land instead of out.

  • 11:07:34

    MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, he describes how abandoned buildings and vacant lots can and should be used to grow food. His book is titled, "The Vertical Farm" and as part of our ongoing environmental outlook series, Professor Despommier joins me in the studio to talk about feeding ourselves and the world in the 21st century. You are, of course, as always welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:27

    MR. DICKSON DESPOMMIERIt's a pleasure to be here, Diane.

  • 11:08:28

    REHMI know that this project began as a class endeavor. Tell us about that.

  • 11:08:36

    DESPOMMIERYes, some time ago, around 11 years, as a matter of fact, I began teaching a course at our School of Public Health called Medical Ecology which has as its theme, if you damage the environment there's a health risk involved. For instance, if you deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere, there's a likely increase in skin cancer, that sort of thing.

  • 11:09:00

    DESPOMMIERI got about halfway through that course and the students got very depressed. They started to say, we would like to work on something more positive. So I said, sure, it's your money and your time. Tell me what you'd like. About a week later, they came back to me and told me they would like to work on rooftop gardening.

  • 11:09:16


  • 11:09:17

    DESPOMMIERAs a sort of a thinking globally, but acting locally activity, so we worked our way through the problem. We're trying to feed Manhattan by farming on the rooftops. And at the end of the day, there's not enough land on the rooftops to feed New York City, not even Manhattan. But I said, you know, if we took that idea and moved it inside and made it by floor in multiple stories. For instance, a lot of apartments are abandoned in New York City. What if we turned them into indoor farms? What would that look like? And that idea started (laugh) this roller coaster that I've been on.

  • 11:09:51

    REHMTell me how many rooftop gardens there are right now?

  • 11:09:56

    DESPOMMIERWell, it's a surprisingly large number if you look around. This idea wasn't even in anybody's heads 20 years ago. Ten years ago, a few people were thinking about it and today, everybody's considering the opportunity. I think the word has gotten out that, you know, I've got some unused space and maybe I can grow something.

  • 11:10:12

    REHMYeah, yeah, but now this idea of moving gardens indoors, explain how that would work?

  • 11:10:21

    DESPOMMIERSure, well, it's actually a proven technology. In fact, there's no new technologies needed to make this idea come to fruition. We just have to apply what the greenhouse industry has learned over the last 50 years. Hydroponic farming, for instance, is the mode that we would grow most of the food with. But also a newer technology called aeroponics, which is even more water conservative. You can grow food as long as you give them the right nutrients. They don't need soil, actually. What they need is nutrients and the nutrients are locked up in the soil.

  • 11:10:54

    DESPOMMIERSo if we just grow them hydroponically with all of the right things, including the things that we need, we can supply both the nutrition for the plants and for us as well.

  • 11:11:04

    REHMBut I'm looking at a photograph, a drawing, not a photograph and an illustration of a multi-storey building, all of which would house these kinds of gardens.

  • 11:11:20


  • 11:11:21

    REHMTell me first where would the light come from?

  • 11:11:25

    DESPOMMIERWell, you know, a lot of people ask that question...

  • 11:11:27


  • 11:11:28

    DESPOMMIERThey imagine a big, tall building. How are you going to get light into the inside of a building?

  • 11:11:30


  • 11:11:32

    DESPOMMIERIt turns out it's not such a difficult problem if you design the building properly. So you're designing these buildings totally transparent, for instance. And they don't necessarily have to be 30 storeys tall if you've got the room to make them long and narrow.

  • 11:11:46


  • 11:11:46

    DESPOMMIERSo in a lot of cities, including New York, there's a lot of land available for that sort of thing. Like for instance, Floyd Bennett Air Force Base in New York City is abandoned and it's been abandoned since 1967. That's three and a half square miles of city property that no one's using right now. You can design long, narrow transparent buildings maybe five or six storeys tall and then by using reflective mirrors and solar tubes and lots of other clever technologies when you use, for instance fiber optics can be used with solar tubes to direct light to each individual plant, if that's what you want to do.

  • 11:12:18

    REHMSo you're saying these would not use more energy?

  • 11:12:24

    DESPOMMIERThat's what I'm saying, exactly. And if you go to some place which has lots of sunlight, for instance the Middle East or Australia or some of the other countries that are blessed with lots of sunlight, not necessarily the northern hemisphere countries, but around the tropics. These are pretty easy to design to take advantage of the natural setting. And don’t forget you've got lots of leftover plant material that you're not going to eat, so you can recycle that energy back into the energy grid for that farm if you could employ some, let's say, high technology incineration devices.

  • 11:12:58

    REHMAnd how does the water get there?

  • 11:13:01

    DESPOMMIERWell, you drill really deep and you get the -- you don't need a lot of water when you farm hydroponically. In fact, normal farming, outdoor farming, uses about 70 percent of the available fresh water on this planet. And hydroponic farming uses 70 percent less of that water. So that's a real advantage if we can...

  • 11:13:20

    REHMExplain how that works?

  • 11:13:21

    DESPOMMIERSure it's called nutrient film technology and it's actually quite old. I mean, I think that if you look around the world for examples of hydroponics, you can see water lilies, for instance, and you can see a lot of natural plants growing this way already. So we've actually taken advantage of that. Back in the 1930s at U.C. Davis, hydroponic farming was actually brought into being as we know it now. So it's around for a long time. And as long as you put the right minerals in the water to begin with, if you dissolve them in the right proportions, plants are very happy to grow that way.

  • 11:13:53

    REHMAnd it would seem that that could be an answer to a growing population.

  • 11:14:02


  • 11:14:02

    REHMBut how open do you think societies would be now with this idea?

  • 11:14:08

    DESPOMMIERWell, you know, it's -- that's a great question because I've actually spent the last three or four years traveling throughout the world giving this kind of presentation on, what if we could farm in big, tall buildings inside cities? And I've been to places like Beijing and to Bangalore, India and to all over Europe and I've yet to make my trip to South America, but I'm planning on that soon. And no matter where I've gone, I've found a very receptive audience to this concept...

  • 11:14:39


  • 11:14:39

    DESPOMMIER...because traditional farming appears to be in such dire straits right now.

  • 11:14:44


  • 11:14:44

    DESPOMMIERWell, we can blame it on a lot of things, okay, but if you go to the food and agricultural organization of the World Health Organization, their biggest reason for explaining the current food crisis revolves around soil erosion. And soil erosion can be caused by two different things all related to climate. So climate change is the central key issue here. You have soil erosion because of floods and you have soil erosion because of droughts. So it seems as though you've got the ying and the yang of soil erosion where the wind will blow the soil away or the water will wash it away, but in either case, what's left afterwards is the lack of soil.

  • 11:15:24

    DESPOMMIERSo that where will you grow your food then? I'll give you an example. About four years ago, Bangladesh -- the country of Bangladesh suffered a terrible flood that washed away enough soil to grow enough food to feed 2 million people. Now, those two million people had to find food from some other place so that another 2 million people now had to feed them. So that's -- if you had enough food already, but not enough to feed everybody in addition to that, you've just cut your food supply in half.

  • 11:15:49

    REHMBut doesn't this country have a sufficient amount of farmland, soil, water right now to continue production of food?

  • 11:16:02

    DESPOMMIEROf course we do, of course we do. We're blessed. This country is absolutely blessed with a heartland that is rich in soil. In fact, I got my graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and all you had to do was just drive south to find out how blessed this country really is. We've got feet-deep worth of topsoil, however, we've had three major floods in the last 10 years that's washed away a lot of that and has polluted all of the gulf. And now we've got a dead zone that goes from New Orleans all the way down to Brownsville, Texas. Where you used to have lots of larval fish and crustaceans growing up in these estuaries, you've got dead zones now created by this agricultural runoff that occurs every now and then because of these horrible floods.

  • 11:16:45

    REHMWhat would happen if you had a multi-storey building? What would -- what would it produce, agricultural runoff or not?

  • 11:16:58

    DESPOMMIERWell, certainly not. In fact, it's called closed-loop agriculture because we recycle everything including the water. You can actually collect the water by dehumidification devices that will actually give you that water back that the plants put in the atmosphere. So you can reuse it to make the nutrient solutions that you run by the root systems, so people are actually doing this now. I'm not suggesting anything that's not being done. If you go, for instance to Wilcox, Ariz. and visit Eurofresh Farms, there's 318 acres worth of indoor farm there and it's in the middle of the desert.

  • 11:17:30

    REHMIndoor farm.

  • 11:17:31

    DESPOMMIERIt's an indoor farm. It's one storey, it's not a multiple storey farm, but it manufactures delicious tasting tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans. In fact, it'll produce anything you'd like.

  • 11:17:41

    REHMI guess that is certainly a question lots of people would have namely, you know, the quality of the food...

  • 11:17:53

    DESPOMMIERThat's right.

  • 11:17:53

    REHM...that would be produced.

  • 11:17:55

    DESPOMMIERThat's correct. I think there's an early history of hydroponics failing to deliver on that level. What they produced was a beautiful looking tomato which tasted mushy and it wasn't very good, so people began to reject them and favor the local crops, of course, and I'm a New Jersey resident, so we're very, very proud of our Jersey tomatoes. And -- but you can have bad crops of Jersey tomatoes, also. It just depends on the weather. So eventually, the hydroponic industry figured out how to make the food taste good as well as look good and this...

  • 11:18:28

    REHMDickson Despommier, he's author of "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century." He's professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University. Short break, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. Dickson Despommier, who is at Columbia University, has written a new book. It's titled "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century." I hope you'll join us. We have many, many callers waiting. Here is an e-mail and this individual says, "I'm wondering if this type of farming would be geared toward places like Manhattan or if it would be geared toward those in low-income families. It would seem in today's society, green healthy living is geared only toward those who can pay."

  • 11:20:56

    DESPOMMIERWell, I agree with the premise that all new technologies usually end up in the hands of those who can afford it first. The idea here, though, is, of course, to popularize this so much so that it becomes as common place as cell phones, so -- or other things which find their way throughout the general population. And I know the first ones will be expensive, but I...

  • 11:21:20


  • 11:21:20

    DESPOMMIER...the hope is that once they're accepted and you can modularize them and make them cheap, everybody can use them.

  • 11:21:27

    REHMYou talked about soil erosion and runoff. How, in the future, do you see that climate change might actually affect our ability to farm?

  • 11:21:41

    DESPOMMIERSure. Well, it already is. It's estimated for every degree centigrade increase in the earth's temperature, and that is atmospheric temperature, it rearranges the landscape to the extent of about 10 percent of where you can now farm. You can't farm anymore, you move somewhere else. It moves either north or south from where you are, so it rearranges the landscape and farmers have to stay put, so it creates a conundrum.

  • 11:22:07

    REHMAll right. We'll open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, David.

  • 11:22:21

    DAVIDHi. How are you, Diane?

  • 11:22:22

    REHMFine, thanks.

  • 11:22:23

    DAVIDI was interested in your caller's book and I had the same idea. I did not know that somebody had already thought of this and I nicknamed it skyscraper farming. I'm a graduate student in St. Louis, as a criminal justice major, but I was wanting to get into environmental things. And I had an idea of bringing the skyscraper farming down to the local level for peoples in countries like Haiti that can't afford these mass, you know, scaled and produced industrial farming, as your caller is talking about -- or as your guest is talking about. I thought maybe we could take products like bamboo and, you know, people that don't have the area, they can at least use the area that's around their house and can also use this bamboo to irrigate so you can plug the end of the bamboo and make your scaffolding like they use in China for their building. And then this -- you could maybe make your layers out of that and use the bamboo as your structural integrity and strength and also for some irrigation purposes on a small scale.

  • 11:23:30

    DAVIDOn the large scale, I was thinking if you had your girders for a skyscraper that you could hang your machinery for the planting of the seeds and the irrigations from the girders above and have everything on a rail system, but I was just very interested and wanted to -- I'll take the rest of the information off the air. Thank you.

  • 11:23:48

    REHMHow interesting.

  • 11:23:50

    DESPOMMIERYou're hired.

  • 11:23:53

    REHMReally a great idea. How sustainable is that bamboo?

  • 11:24:00

    DESPOMMIERIn fact, it's very sustainable. We've even thought about it -- using it in the substitute for the PVC piping that you use for normal hydroponic farming in an indoor setting.

  • 11:24:11

    REHMSo you think this is...

  • 11:24:12

    DESPOMMIEROh, yeah, it's a great idea.

  • 11:24:15

    REHM...fella has a great idea?

  • 11:24:16

    DESPOMMIERHe certainly does.

  • 11:24:16

    REHMGo for it, David. Let's go to Washington, D.C. Good morning, Jeremy.

  • 11:24:23

    JEREMYGood morning, Diane. How are you today?

  • 11:24:25

    REHMWell, I'm pretty well. This...

  • 11:24:27


  • 11:24:27

    REHM...voice has not come back yet.

  • 11:24:30

    JEREMYI thank -- well, I'm glad to hear that. I am calling because I'm very grateful to your -- to the professor for all the work he's doing on aeroponics and hydroponics and these solutions. I've actually launched a small company in Washington, D.C. called Compost Cab and we're in the business of taking food waste, coffee grounds, food scraps, things that people have gotten used to calling trash and making sure that they get into the hands of the people who can put them to their best and highest use and those are urban farmers. And so while the professor is talking about these amazing and, you know, futuristic long-term solutions to this urban food problem, we're looking at an ancient solution, which is basically taking advantage of nature's organic breakdown of organic matter and its ability to let loose -- nutrients loose that can allow you to grow food in the city. And so I was curious as to the professor's thoughts on traditional farming in pocket farms, community gardens and the like supplied by the waste -- in part, by the waste stream of the city itself.

  • 11:25:43

    DESPOMMIERThat's a great idea. In fact, I'm a big fan of Will Allen who has a big farm in the middle of Milwaukee and he employs load technology composting to produce worms. The worms are then fed to Yellow Perch. He gets his water right out of Lake Michigan and then uses the worm casts, which is a byproduct of the worm's metabolism, as the fertilizer for his farm. He's now thinking of actually building that up into a five-story building and he's been very successful with it. So, you know, I’m in favor of all varieties of urban farming because I think that's where we live and that's where our food should come from. And the more you can see where your food comes from, the more you trust it. And the less likely it is that there'll be a disease outbreak.

  • 11:26:23

    REHMAnd joining us now is Bob Young. He's chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Good morning to you, sir.

  • 11:26:34

    MR. BOB YOUNGGood morning, Diane. How are you today?

  • 11:26:36

    REHMWell, I'm pretty well. Bob, tell us in what ways you think traditional farming methods are going to have to change to meet the demands of a growing world population.

  • 11:26:52

    YOUNGWell, I think we recognize that we're gonna have to work to get the, you know, two blades of grass where before we got one. I would also say that, you know, we're strongly supportive of local food production, of the local farmer's market, of recognizing that, you're -- to the extent that we can end up with food production around the city. That's a fine thing. But I think we also recognize that there's also a very definite need and a very definite requirement for us to be able to produce food out in the countryside as well and recognize that we're gonna have to move some food around the country and around the world in order to satisfy all the demands.

  • 11:27:29

    REHMYou've got 75 percent of the world's population projected to live in urban areas. So if you've got that kind of a shift, how is the farming industry going to keep up with that?

  • 11:27:52

    YOUNGWell, I think as we have before. You know, again, we're -- and as we are now. You know, we'll continue to be productive, we'll continue to investigate new production techniques and new production technologies, et cetera and different transportation systems and things of that nature and provide that food and provide the product that the consumer's after.

  • 11:28:14

    REHMWhat do you think about the idea of creating more urban centers for the growth of food?

  • 11:28:23

    YOUNGYou know, again, I think you've got to look at the cost associated with that. You know, real estate, last time I checked in Manhattan, was pretty expensive, certainly quite a bit more expensive then real estate in, you know, rural Virginia or Iowa or Montana, for example.

  • 11:28:37

    REHMWhat about that point, Dickson?

  • 11:28:40

    DESPOMMIERWell, I agree that I wouldn't dissituate a farm in the middle of Wall Street, but there are plenty of open areas of New York City that are going -- begging for use. And one of them is Governor's Island, another one, as I mentioned before, is Floyd Bennett Air Force Base. So if you look around to cities and ask the mayors of those cities, where would you like a vertical farm, that they'd be ready to show you where.

  • 11:29:01

    REHMOne last question, Bob Young. What about the projections regarding climate change. How do you think that climate change could affect what farmers do today and shift their thinking to tomorrow?

  • 11:29:21

    YOUNGWell, I think farmers have been dealing with climate change, you know, go back to whenever. You know, farmers adapt, they adjust, they change production technologies, change the way that they farm. You know, where before, you know -- for example, and this would be within the very recent past, it used to be that we planted an awful lot of wheat in North Dakota, for example. We still plant a lot of wheat, but we used to not plant any corn or soybeans up there at all. They've grown their corn and soybean production substantially over the course of the last five, six, seven, eight years as different production technologies, different varieties have been developed for them. We're actually planting soybeans up in Canada at this stage of the game, so again, farmers adjust, adapt and move on. That's what they do.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMWhat about that, Dickson?

  • 11:30:08

    DESPOMMIERWell, I think we're -- as I said, we're blessed in this part of the world to have so many farming environments to take advantage of, but when you travel throughout the world, like for instance, to China or to India where half of the world lives, they've got some unique problems that we don't share with them. For instance, their monsoons are changing daily almost and washing away tons of topsoil or not coming at all and creating these enormous droughts, so in that sense, I think they've got some real problems ahead of them.

  • 11:30:37

    REHMWhat about that, Bob?

  • 11:30:40

    YOUNGWell, you know, again, I'd have to let farmers in that part of the world, you know, make their own comments about that, but again, it does get down to we've made some tremendous strides here in this country about how we deal with soil erosion and work on keeping the dirt actually on the field itself. Actually, for a national average basis, we're now to the stage where the soil -- the fields are regenerating about as much soil as is coming off the field on a national average basis. They've got a long way to go in some of those other countries where they do still rely substantially on tillage methods that do break the soil surface, that do generate quite a bit of -- allow the field to erode substantially. So again, they need to think about that, but that's going to require very different adoption, very different production technologies than they're using today.

  • 11:31:29

    REHMBob Young, he's chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Thanks very much for joining us.

  • 11:31:39

    YOUNGAny time.

  • 11:31:39

    REHMThank you. And we've got many more callers waiting. Let's go to Boston, Ga. Good morning, Martin. You're on the air.

  • 11:31:51

    MARTINHi, Diane. I'm so glad to be on your show. It's good to hear your voice again, too.

  • 11:31:55

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:31:58

    MARTINI was just calling because I'm a farmer down here in South Georgia and a lot of the farms down here are very large industrial farms and, you know, I've talked to farmers around here and, you know, they claim that, you know, all the chemicals that they spray on the vegetables and the cotton and everything, you know, it's not going into the -- it's not affecting the plants and it's not going into our water sheds. Well, I just -- I highly disagree with that. And my wife is graduating this semester from Appalachian State University with a major in appropriate technology and whenever she gets down here, we are definitely looking at, you know, large, you know, the size, let's say like chicken houses, large indoor hydroponic vegetable farms and, you know, organic vegetable farms and stuff like that and I talk to all these other farms about this and they -- you know, they just laugh at me. And the problem down here is that they've been doing the same thing for so long that they don't want to change.

  • 11:33:10

    REHMThat's really a good point. And just to remind, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Farmers do things the way they do and they don't want to change. What do you think of that, Dickson?

  • 11:33:26

    DESPOMMIERWell (laugh), I think whether they want to change or not, sooner or later the environment...

  • 11:33:31

    REHMThey're going to have to.

  • 11:33:32

    DESPOMMIERI'm afraid so. They're already changing in many parts of the world as we speak, so change is the only constant in nature, so to speak. We've changed ever since farming first came on this planet. And, by the way, it hasn't been here that long. If you look at geologic history, we've been a species for about 200,000 years and for only the last 11,000 of our years' history have we farmed, so this is an experiment that, in terms of nature, hasn't lasted that long.

  • 11:33:58

    REHMAll right. And joining us now from Stockholm is Perchant Rambaut (sp?). He's head of International Business Development at Plantagon International. Good morning to you, sir.

  • 11:34:18

    PERCHANT RAMBAUTGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:34:19

    REHMI gather your company has made a model for a vertical farm. Tell us about your company.

  • 11:34:32

    RAMBAUTPlantagon International has developed a spherical dome, transparent. And internally, we have a helical vertical greenhouse.

  • 11:34:45

    REHMAnd what is in that dome?

  • 11:34:51

    RAMBAUTThe vertical greenhouse, basically the core is a spiral shaped mechanism that slowly moves hundreds and thousands of soil-filled plant boxes upwards. As they move up, they get more access of light. I think that was the first issue you brought up, where does the light come from in a vertical greenhouse. So what this -- our innovation is one that delivers a solution, which is very automated and brings about a number of different technologies into one, whereby we can actually economically develop internally in a greenhouse.

  • 11:35:32

    REHMTell me what sort of interest there is in Stockholm at this point for that kind of innovation.

  • 11:35:45

    RAMBAUTWell, at this point of time, we have had a lot of interest. We have three metropolitans in Sweden which have requested such a building. We have been approached by -- in Shanghai. We have been a part of the Expo 2010. We have been showcased by the Globe Forum and had awards. We have had Singapore, India and even U.S.A.

  • 11:36:19

    REHMSo how soon...

  • 11:36:20

    RAMBAUTThere's a lot of interest and I think Professor Despommier, I would like to applaud his vision in this because it has been a driving force in the vertical farming and urban agriculture.

  • 11:36:36

    REHMHow soon realistically do you think there could be one of these vertical farms in operation?

  • 11:36:48

    RAMBAUTAs a business development head, I have already -- we have set up some framework for about two years -- two to three years, we should have major cities around the world hosting such a building.

  • 11:37:05

    REHMHow wonderful. Perchant Rambaut , thank you so much for joining us. And he is...

  • 11:37:14

    RAMBAUTThank you.

  • 11:37:15

    REHM...head of International Business Development at Plantagon International. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd we're back. Dickson Despommier, would you be good enough to read for us a couple of the e-mails that we've just gotten?

  • 11:40:15

    DESPOMMIERSure. Here's one that says, uh, "Two questions. How will the system provide for pollinators? Will there be beehives inside these farms?" And the answer's yes. If you go to England, for instance, there's a wonderful farm that makes green peppers and lots of other produce for the local markets. And they employ bumblebees. And they're quite efficient in pollinating all kinds of things, so bees are very happy to live inside as long as you give them their food, so it's being done as we speak. So that's great. I'm glad I could answer that question, actually. But the next question is, "Why is it that roots of plants in pots may rot with too much water, but roots in hydroponic systems do not?"

  • 11:40:50

    REHMGood question.

  • 11:40:51

    DESPOMMIERIt is a good question...

  • 11:40:52


  • 11:40:52

    DESPOMMIER…'cause root rot is a big problem with home growers for all kinds of decorative plants, et cetera. Well, the answer to that is that too much of anything is not good for anyone. And I think that was first said by Socrates (laugh).

  • 11:41:03


  • 11:41:05

    DESPOMMIERSo, you know, overdoing anything for plants -- but the thing that makes it work for hydroponics is the fact that you're giving them just the right amount of nutrients and the root systems are very healthy. And they've worked all this out. I mean, actually, I mean, I'm not a plant scientist, so I can't give you the technical reason for that, but it does work and you don't get root rot with hydroponic plants.

  • 11:41:23

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Raleigh N.C. Good morning, Bart, you're on the air.

  • 11:41:31

    BARTHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a...

  • 11:41:33


  • 11:41:34

    BART...huge fan of your show.

  • 11:41:36

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:41:37

    BARTI just wanted to bring up a point of the relationship between the food that's produced for livestock production and topsoil erosion in this country. Supposedly 85 percent of topsoil erosion in this country is related to the food that's being fed to livestock. 80 percent of our corn, 90 percent of our soy, 95 percent of our oats are being fed to livestock, so one issue that's not brought up I think frequently is the fact that changing our eating habits and switching to a more vegetarian or vegetarian leaning diet would be -- have a huge impact on our food. Which even though I applaud, you know, people who come up with creative solutions to the situation that we can't meet our food demand, I would like to see more attention being paid to changing our eating habits perhaps to meet our demands.

  • 11:42:38


  • 11:42:40

    DESPOMMIERWell, yeah, there is a movement afoot now particularly in urban centers for fresher produce, for healthier diets, for locally grown things. The books produced by Michael Pollan certainly address this issue. And, in fact, one of his called "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is required reading in my course that I teach, so I totally agree with this listener that says that our food supplies being diverted off into, let's say, commercial meat producing ventures. I think if we had open range buffalo, bring back the buffalo (laugh), you know, Ted Turner's approach to raising livestock on open land, you'd restore the grasslands and you'd still have your meat at the same time and you wouldn't have to feed them all these other things. And by the way, you should've also mentioned -- I'm sure you're aware of this, that if you feed cattle, particularly in cattle stalls where they're being held just before going off to the slaughter house, a high corn diet, that you'll select for E. coli 0157 strain H7, which is, of course, a kidney toxin producer and people die from this thing, so we've had outbreaks of food diseases traceable back to the way we treat our animals.

  • 11:43:50

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Bart. Let's go to Maggie in Fort Worth, Texas. Good morning to you.

  • 11:43:58

    MAGGIEThank you. Such a wonderful topic. I am an urban organic gardener. I have a half acre, which doesn't sound like a lot, but on a couple of a hundred square feet of that, I can grow way too much for just myself and I give it away, I freeze it, I can it. And there are a lot of good approaches. I practice little things around the yard. I have put in a little keyhole garden, which is great in Africa you hear about and I'm trying that. Mine is an edible estate. I do all this gardening in my front yard because my dogs would tear it up if I put it in the back, so I'm experimenting with a lot of these things, but what I discovered as an urban gardener is that I don't think Americans really understand the cost of our food. And when you grow your own, you know what goes into it and what involves healthy soil and all and kind of riffing back to the last hour, I think our whole economy is based on misunderstood costs and things. I think we're not spending enough on our food, good food, and we're spending more stuff -- we're buying more stuff from other places that are subsidized by other people. Do you understand what I'm saying? Our economy is kinda messed up and part of it is our food cost.

  • 11:45:22

    DESPOMMIERRight. Well, your -- I have to agree with you on many of the things that you've said. I think we -- we're a commercial food producing nation and we actually export about 80 percent of what we grow to other countries, so we are considered the world's bread basket. We actually import 80 percent of our seafood, however. So why do we have this disconnect between what you grow in the soil and what you collect from the ocean? And the answer is, of course, from agricultural runoff that we've produced based on all this farming, that we've now polluted our estuaries to the point that they're no longer harvestable. So we get all of our seafood from other places because we've despoiled all of this. And if you look around the world, the same thing's going on. So all forms of urban agriculture are viable, provided of course, that you have safe soil to begin with. And in inner cities, you know, with all the leaded gasoline that was used before they banned it, those soils are tainted. So you have to be really careful about what you do in terms of soil based agriculture.

  • 11:46:19

    REHMThere is another e-mail there...

  • 11:46:21


  • 11:46:22

    REHM...for you to read.

  • 11:46:23

    DESPOMMIEROkay. I'm gonna put my glasses on here (laugh).

  • 11:46:25


  • 11:46:26

    DESPOMMIERAnd this one says, "I heard the guest say that the Midwest is blessed with topsoil. Here in Illinois, the farmland has been planted with corn year after year." I'm sorry, "The farmland that has been planted with corn year after year is about five feet lower than virgin land, has to be enriched with fertilizer. And meanwhile, the corn subsidies have caused farmers to plant corn in lieu of other crops. And ways have to be found to use all that corn. This has to change." You know, I'm not gonna start attacking the commercial growers of this country. I think they've done a wonderful service for this country in terms of generating income for people and creating jobs and things like this. I also have deep empathy for people that are in dire need of fresh produce every day and I think there's no conflict here as long as we can solve the problem by moving some of the kinds of farming that produce food for people rather than cattle or rather than the value added products to places where we live. And we're living in cities, so why don't we move our food supplies closer.

  • 11:47:31

    REHMHow long do you think it's going to take for these ideas to really catch on...

  • 11:47:38


  • 11:47:38

    REHM...really make a difference?

  • 11:47:40

    DESPOMMIERWell, you know, that's interesting because I've been in discussion with countries. All right. And one of those countries is Qatar. If you go to the Middle East, for instance, this is a non-discussion point. They don't have any soil, so they're not concerned about soil erosion, because they don't have any soil. They have to import 90 percent of their produce from other places. They're very, very interested in something which they term food security. In fact, we're concerned about food security also. So you take a country like Abu Dhabi or...

  • 11:48:14


  • 11:48:14

    DESPOMMIER...Qatar or Jordan, particularly. I've actually been to Jordan as well. And all of those countries are very concerned about where their food comes from and how safe it is to eat. So they're all considering these other approaches. And of course, they have no water, either.

  • 11:48:28

    REHMI was about to say...

  • 11:48:30


  • 11:48:30

    REHM...they're gonna have to import that...

  • 11:48:33

    DESPOMMIERThat's right.

  • 11:48:33 well.

  • 11:48:34

    DESPOMMIERWell, if you drilled deep enough, you can find water, but you don't have enough to supply an outdoor farming...

  • 11:48:40

    REHMI see.

  • 11:48:41


  • 11:48:41

    REHMI see.

  • 11:48:41

    DESPOMMIERBut you do for the hydroponic farming because it uses 80 percent less water to begin with.

  • 11:48:46

    REHMAnd because it gets recycled.

  • 11:48:48

    DESPOMMIERAnd you recycle. That is exactly right, so -- and these countries, many of them are not poor. Jordan is an exception to that, but, of course, Qatar has one-third of the world's natural gas sitting underneath it, so it can afford to switch its agricultural initiatives from importing food to one of hydroponic indoor farming and they're very serious about considering doing this.

  • 11:49:09

    REHMSo how long before you think you might see something in Qatar?

  • 11:49:16

    DESPOMMIERSure. Well, I think very soon, as a matter of fact. I think within the next two to three years, you'll see initiatives.

  • 11:49:21

    REHMInteresting. All right. Let's go now to Wendy in Stillwater Township, N.J. Good morning to you. Wendy, are you there?

  • 11:49:35


  • 11:49:35

    REHMYes, go right ahead, please.

  • 11:49:39

    WENDYHello, this is Wendy.

  • 11:49:41


  • 11:49:42

    WENDYOh, I'm sorry, I couldn’t understand you. I'm sorry. Yes. My name is Wendy Blanchard and I run a program called Arthur and Friends. We have three hydroponic greenhouses in northwest New Jersey. We have one in Orange, one in Hackettstown and one at the New Jersey state fairgrounds. We've been operating these for two and a half years. We employ 37 disabled individuals. We selected this as being a social entrepreneurship program to provide employment and training for the disabled and at the same time, address the needs of urban food and localized food.

  • 11:50:15

    WENDYOne of the outcomes that we have found is that we, in a 1500 square acre greenhouse, are able to grow the equivalent of seven acres of fuel-grown produce. We've been incredibly successful with selling it to restaurants and to consumers. Our produce is excellent. We say, try our lettuce, you'll never forget us. It's quite exceptional. And we have received funding through the Kessler Foundation. We will be putting in three greenhouses in Newark. We will be putting in an additional one at the Orange school district. We have one going up next year, 20,000 square feet, at Ruckers University in New Brunswick, all of which will be run by disabled individuals. We're using an NFT system and -- which is a nutrient film technique and we have found absolutely no drawbacks. We use no pesticides, no herbicides and we use 10 percent of the water and we have no runoff.

  • 11:51:12

    REHMThat sounds just terrific. Your comments, Dickson.

  • 11:51:18


  • 11:51:18

    REHMYeah, isn't that terrific?

  • 11:51:20

    DESPOMMIERNo, that's great. And I...

  • 11:51:21

    REHMTry our lettuce, you'll never forget us. I love it. Good for you, Wendy.

  • 11:51:27

    DESPOMMIERSooner or lata you'll try my tomata (laugh).

  • 11:51:29

    REHMYeah. Thanks for telling us about that. And let's go now to Hartford, Conn. Good morning, Todd.

  • 11:51:39

    TODDYes, good morning. Thanks for the program. I'm C.T. Blossom and I've been growing for over 30 years using hydroponics, which means it's working water and that's why the roots don't rot 'cause there's oxygen mixed in. And I worked in poor cities. Hartford's one of the poorest cities in the country in the richest state and building solar green houses. And those are all actually free 'cause -- or even profitable because if you need a new roof, you can put a solar greenhouse on there. And you can also do what's called integrated where you use -- grow fish as well, which has only a one to one feed ratio, so it's very, very efficient and, you know, very, very clean and I've developed some organic techniques as well and even a little suitcase garden, which I've made over 100 of them for just $150, I do free shipping and I sell, you know, to schools and individuals and they can just grow their own. Throw a bunch of water cress, a bunch of seeds and come back a month later and just start picking.

  • 11:52:37

    REHMTodd, you're just a genius, clearly. You're doing wonderful work. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Naples, Fla. Good morning, John, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:57

    JOHNYeah, thanks a lot for taking my call.

  • 11:52:58


  • 11:52:58

    JOHNI just wanna say thanks to everybody that you've talked to this morning who's doing such a great job working on this issue and trying to make an impact and I couldn't say how appreciative I and a lot of other people are of that, but I wanna talk to the two-thirds of America that's either overweight or obese and I wanna talk about the Twinkie and it seems to me like the Twinkie at one point was nutrition. At one point, it was plants and other pieces of nutrition that was put together into this piece of poison that's now killing our country and there's a million examples of it, but the Twinkie's just an easy one because not only of the corn and the food that you took and you poison, but then we had to truck it here and fly it here and get it here. I just think individuals in our country, if they could just make a couple healthier choices, try to get in better shape, try to eat right, try to eat in a healthy, lean fashion and then the people of the marketplace will start buying all these products that your wonderful guests and callers have been talking about all day. So I just want people to know that turning food into poison is a big part of the problem, too.

  • 11:53:59

    DESPOMMIERWell, this is -- sounds like you could help me teach my course (laugh) in medical ecology. I mean, that's the big point is that the longer the shelf life of a product, the probability is that it doesn’t do much for your nutrition except to add a few more calories to an already over-caloried diet. Michael Pollan, again, harking back to him and people like Alice Waters as well for the slow food movement, for pushing the idea of at least eating organically. And that's a loaded term, too, because if you go to the USDA website, they can't tell you what organic means. It's got about 15 different definitions, but when you're controlling everything in an indoor farm with all the nutrients that you know are sitting there in front of you and you add them to the water and you give them to the plants, there's nothing else in that plant except what you know. In fact, you can do a chemical analysis afterwards to prove that there's no harmful heavy metals or pesticides or things like this that we really don't have a readout on in the food that we have to buy now. We have to trust the farmers and we get a lot of food produced from other places in the world, too, so we're not really sure of what's going into our food, to be honest with you.

  • 11:55:02

    REHMIt's interesting that First Lady Michelle Obama...

  • 11:55:07


  • 11:55:08 her very example, is trying to help people understand the importance of growing nutritious food.

  • 11:55:18

    DESPOMMIERAbsolutely. Yes. I couldn't agree more with that, in fact. I'm a big fan.

  • 11:55:22

    REHMShe's doing a good job. And finally, let's go to Rolla, Mo. Good morning, Andy.

  • 11:55:32

    ANDYHi, Diane. Thanks for having me on.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMVery quickly, please.

  • 11:55:36

    ANDYSure. I just wanted to highlight the importance on this -- with this topic that as we're talking about the farmers and maybe being unwilling to change their habits of farming, that a lot of this comes -- you know, it's a rough economy out here. And especially with growing produce, the labor costs are just unbelievable and that really detracts from it. And this technology like we're talking about here is very, very important to get the extension program from universities to get this technology into the hands of farmers so they can use this type of thing. But with the current economy right now, you look across the state and the extension program from the universities is kinda -- it's the first things to go, such as being dismantled. And it just seems really important that as our agriculture does need to be changing, that we're losing the ability to change it because this information isn't gonna get from the researchers to the growers.

  • 11:56:32

    DESPOMMIERI totally agree. I think the United States needs to develop a national program for urban agriculture and vertical farming figures into that very prominently, I think.

  • 11:56:41

    REHMDickson Despommier, he's author of "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century." Good luck to you.

  • 11:56:52

    DESPOMMIERThank you very much.

  • 11:56:53

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:56:56

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, Podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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