EarthTalk® | October 2015

Dear Earthtalk: What advantages do so-called “vertical farms” have over traditional gardens and farms? — Sylvia Pleasant, Washington, DC

When Dickson Despommier’s book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, was first published, there were no vertical farms. Now, it’s an exciting movement in U.S. food production, providing pesticide-free leafy greens and herbs to a fast-growing population.

Indoor vertical farms use LED (light emitting diode) lighting for efficient photosynthesis in place of sunlight, and can grow plants year round — in half the time and with far less water compared to outdoor, open-field farms. There’s also no risk of genetically modified (GMO) seed contamination or crop failure due to weather conditions like drought.

“On average, we’re growing in 16 days what otherwise takes 30 days in a field-using 95 percent less water, about 50 percent less fertilizers, zero pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” says David Rosenberg, chief executive and co-founder of AeroFarms. “People don’t want chemicals on their food. And we’re able to offer them a residue-free product with no pesticides.”

Aerofarms is currently constructing what will be the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. The $30 million, 69,000 square-foot complex in a former steel mill in Newark, New Jersey’s Ironbound District will grow up to two million pounds of kale, arugula and other greens annually. At the groundbreaking ceremony in July 2015, New Jersey Acting Governor Kim Guadagno said: “By 2050, there will be nine billion people who need to eat every day. And the solution is right here on the property you’re standing on.”

Vertical Harvest’s three story, 13,500 square-foot vertical farm is also now under construction in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With an average annual snowfall of 450 inches, one might not equate the mountainous region with year-round local food, but Vertical Harvest’s tiny 1/10 acre lot next to a parking garage aims to grow up to 100,000 pounds of tomatoes, herbs and greens annually. It would take a traditional outdoor farm five acres, or 50 times the land area, to grow that much food. “We’re replacing food that’s being grown in Mexico or California and shipped in,” explains Penny McBride, a Vertical Harvest co-founder. “We feel like the community’s really ready for a project like this. Everybody’s so much more aware of the need to reduce transportation, and people like to know their farmer and where food’s coming from.”

In 2013, FarmedHere opened its vertical farm in an abandoned warehouse in the industrial Chicago suburb of Bedford Park. The farm, which was the first of its kind to receive USDA national organic certification, has been successfully distributing its produce to an extensive array of grocers within the Greater Chicago area, including Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Shop & Save and Pete’s Fresh Market. FarmedHere reuses 97 percent of its water, uses no herbicides or pesticides, and takes advantage of indoor growing technology to create optimal-tasting plants.

“The plants have better nutrients, better growing conditions, and actually, we can tweak the taste with lighting and with nutrients, with temperatures, with turning lights on and off at certain times of the day and with humidity,” said Paul Hardej, who founded FarmedHere with his wife, Jolanta. “We have conducted a lot of blind tests with the best chefs in Chicago and we found our products to be a winner.”

CONTACTS: AeroFarms,; Vertical Harvest,; FarmedHere, Photo above: Montreal’s Lufa Farms grows red cocktail tomatoes and lots of other crops on vertical walls.

The paperless office is still a dream for many businesses, organizations and institutions. Credit: Terry Freedman, FlickrCC
Dear Earthtalk: My company talks the talk when it comes to the environment but could do so much more to reduce paper use. Do you have any tips to help get the higher-ups on board to reduce paper use company-wide? — Elena Sepulveda, White Plains, NY

Cutting back on paper may seem “so 1990s” given the current focus of environmental organizations on climate change and related global issues. But reducing paper use is still one of the best ways companies, government agencies and institutions can help the environment during the course of day-to-day activities.

Getting a handle on just how much paper your entity could save is the first step. The non-profit Environmental Paper Network (EPN) — an umbrella group launched in 2002 and made up of more than 100 organizations working to reduce paper production and consumption and clean up the inefficient, yet still expanding, paper industry — makes it easy with its Paper Calculator. The free online tool compares the environmental impacts of competing paper products and assesses the larger impacts of paper use.

According to EPN, some of the tangible results of its work include legal protection for millions of acres of endangered forests, significant increases in the number of paper-related certifications and forest acres certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a marked increase in the number of large companies developing environmental paper policies, vastly increased availability of genuine environmental papers for consumers, and increased demand for, and use of, recycled fibers.

EPN also makes available easy-to-read reports outlining the benefits of making more sustainable paper choices. Showing companies the economic advantages of reducing their paper usage and greening other aspects of operations has been key to building EPN’s membership and expanding its influence overall.

While joining EPN may be more of a commitment than some entities are willing to make, there are plenty of other free resources to help reduce paper use and green business operations. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offers up a plethora of tips on responsible paper consumption via its Greening Advisor program. A few examples include more double-sided printing and the use of smaller type fonts, eliminating paper coffee cups, and e-billing (invoicing clients via e-mail instead of paper).

NRDC also emphasizes that saving paper helps the bottom line: “A typical office disposes of about 350 pounds of wastepaper per employee per year…Identifying ways to reduce paper use can save money.”

Yet another great resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) WasteWise program, which offers free information and assistance for corporate environmental sustainability efforts. Hundreds of companies have already partnered with the EPA on the program. One of the biggest WasteWise partners, Bank of America, has saved upwards of $1 million annually since syncing up with the program.

CONTACTS: Environmental Paper Network,; Forest Stewardship Council,; NRDC Greening Advisor,; EPA WasteWise,

Cook+Fox Architects’ office in New York City incorporates many of the attributes of biophilic design referenced by Stephen R. Kellert.
Dear Earthtalk: What is biophilic design in architecture and where can I see it implemented? — Winston Black, Newark, NJ

Biophilia is defined as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature. The moral imperative of biophilia is that we cannot flourish as individuals or as a species without a compassionate and considerate relationship to the world beyond ourselves of which we are a part. Biophilic design, an extension of biophilia, incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment.

According to Stephen R. Kellert, author of Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, humans may have evolved in the natural world, but the habitat of contemporary people has largely become the indoor built environment where we now spend 90 percent of our time. The result has been an increasing disconnect between us and nature. However, the emerging concept of biophilic design recognizes how much human physical and mental well-being relies on the quality of our relationships to the natural world.

“We put people in windowless offices and give them a computer and a desk and think they should be able to work just fine because they’ve got all the obvious things they need, like air to breathe, artificial light to see by and access to all kinds of information,” Kellert says. “But we find that they don’t actually work all that well in those kinds of environments. They are more likely to experience fatigue, lack of motivation and higher rates of absenteeism. If you just put certain aspects of nature into these environments, it actually results in improved well-being and productivity.”

Current low-impact design, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, emphasizes avoiding pollution, eliminating chemical toxins, minimizing waste, increasing energy efficiency and decreasing water use. However, due to rapidly evolving technological advances, energy-efficient solar collectors and other low-impact design features quickly become outdated. Biophilic design’s aesthetic, sensory-rich fusion with nature, along with its health benefits, make it the missing link in most sustainable design, Kellert says, and only development which incorporates both biophilic and low-impact design can achieve true and lasting sustainability.

Furthermore, Kellert says. “…you need to create a sense of affiliation or attachment to these structures that motivates people to want to sustain them over time, which is just as important as reducing harmful impacts. We’ve done ourselves in the environmental field a disservice [by] only focusing on the negative impacts and forgetting the root of the environmental movement, which, whether it’s Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Aldo Leopold, was very much a celebration of our connection to the natural world and how it’s fundamental to who we are as individuals and as a species.”

Recent biophilic design can be seen in structures like Yale University’s Kroon Hall, the Bank of America Tower and the Cook+Fox Architects office in New York City, Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, and more. Kellert says one of the most satisfying projects he worked on last year was an elderly health care complex in Indiana. By incorporating biophilic design into the complex, it created a less alienating, more positive, therapeutic environment for people with memory loss.

CONTACTS: Stephen R. Kellert,; USGBC LEED Program,; Cook+Fox Architects,

These days California’s redwood trees occupy only about five percent of their original range, and researchers worry that the epic drought there might push the iconic trees over the brink.
Dear Earthtalk: Are the California redwoods in danger because of the drought? — Jesse Pollman, Seattle, WA

California is home to two of the three redwood tree species: coast redwoods and giant sequoias. The coast redwood is the Earth’s tallest tree, growing more than 360 feet tall, with a trunk that can extend to 24 feet wide. The “General Sherman” giant sequoia tree at Sequoia National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountain range is the “undisputed King of the Forest,” being not only the largest living tree in the world, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. General Sherman is 2,100 years old, 2.7 million pounds, 275 feet tall and 100 feet wide at its trunk.

Redwood forests offer shelter to many animals, including mountain lions, American black bears, Roosevelt elks and mountain beavers. According to the National Park Service, approximately 280 species of birds have been recorded within the boundaries of redwood national and state parks. Just over 800 bird species occur in all of the United States, so that equates to approximately one third of the country’s birds.

“Redwoods are an iconic key species,” said Anthony Ambrose, a postdoctoral researcher with the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. “They’re the tallest, oldest, and largest trees in the world. Everybody around the world knows about them. People love them, even if they’ve never visited them. They’re beautiful forests and beautiful trees.”

For the past four years, California has been suffering a grueling drought. Agricultural economists at UC Davis recently calculated that the drought will cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015. Drought can reduce tree growth rates and may even lead to tree death. Coast redwoods receive up to 40 percent of their water supply from fog, which is created from warm, moist air rising from the cold surface waters of the Pacific. Giant sequoias grow in mountain habitats where an abundant winter snowpack recharges the groundwater they depend upon and use in the summer. However, during the past two winters, much of the giant sequoia range has had little to no snowpack. As a result, groundwater levels have dropped, sometimes below the roots of immense giant sequoias that are greater than 1,000 years old, says Todd Dawson, a UC Berkeley Professor of Integrative Biology who’s been studying redwood ecology and physiology for over 25 years.

For the coast redwood, the drought impacts are not as severe as they seem to be for the giant sequoia. Trees at the edges of the coast redwood range, including the southern end of the range in the Santa Lucia Mountains south of Big Sur, seem to be the most affected. Here, young trees have lost a lot of their leaves, and have not grown very much, if at all, Dawson said.

“Many trees are experiencing the highest levels of water stress we’ve ever measured. We’ve not seen much tree mortality, but many trees have thin crowns and do not look healthy,” Dawson said. “Our biggest question is just how far can these trees be pushed? If the winter does not bring good rainfall and a normal snowpack throughout the state, I am not sure how our state trees will do. We are likely to see some mortality as we are seeing in some of the pines and firs in California. But how bad this will be — only time will tell.”

CONTACT: Save the Redwoods League,



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