Vertical farming

Vertical farming is a revolutionary and potentially more sustainable method of agriculture than regular farming, lowering water requirements and saving both space and soil. Together with a growing trend for urban agriculture based on more traditional agricultural approaches, vertical agriculture will be an important source of food for a growing urban population towards 2030 and beyond.

In vertical farming food is grown in vertically stacked layers using hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. Hydroponics involves the growth of plants in water with solutions of nutrients that are essentially free of soil, whereas aeroponics involves the growth of plants in an air/mist environment with no soil and very little water. The process uses up to 95% less water than traditional agriculture, no pesticides, while boosting yields by up to 70%. Many systems also use anaerobic bacteria to compost organic material, thus reducing waste to a minimum.

Demographic changes towards 2030 and beyond will have a large impact on both food production and logistics. Today about half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2050 two-thirds are expected to do so.2 As people move to cities, they move farther away from their food source, so getting large amounts of fresh nutrient-rich food to large urban areas while tackling environmental challenges will fuel the need for vertical and urban farming.

As an example, Mirai Corp in Japan, the largest indoor farm in the world uses 45% less power, 95% less water and produces 80% less food waste than outdoor fields.1 The technology can be integrated into buildings as vertical green houses or plantscrapers. One example of a plantscraper is the “World Food Building”, an office tower that contains giant indoor farms with the aim of producing 550 tons of vegetables annually – enough to feed around 5,500 people each year.2

There are also several examples of modular systems that have the ability to produce healthy and fresh plants virtually in any climate and anywhere in the world. The technologies use precision agriculture to generate ideal conditions for the plants by continually monitoring growth conditions. Data is used to provide the plants with the exact appropriate amount of required light, nutrients or purified water.

Turning deserts into farmland

One interesting concept is to combine vertical farming technologies with solar thermal energy and saltwater evaporation technology to produce food in deserts. One such example is the Sahara Forest Project which is designed to utilize abundant resources like deserts, saltwater and CO2 to produce scarce resources like food, freshwater and energy in saltwater-cooled greenhouses located in arid areas3. Similar technologies can also be used to grow high value crops in the desert and sequester CO2 through revegetation.

Opportunities, risks and market impacts

Vertical agriculture can be part of the solution for future food security by providing fresh, organic food in urban and arid areas. Important co-benefits include employment, recycling of waste and strengthening resilience to climate change by ensuring stable food supplies. Urban growers also spend less on transport, packaging and storage and can sell directly through food stands and market stalls.

The global vertical farming market was valued at USD 1,782 million in 2017 and is projected to reach USD 10,246 million by 2025.3

Vertical farming is both capital and energy intensive but can be a viable option when there is a surplus of cheap energy. Several of the technologies are in a developmental phase. The top impacting factors for 2016 compared to those expected in 2025 are shown in the figure below.


Main author: Marte Rusten

Contributors: Sharmini Alagaratnam; Erik Andreas Hektor; Bente Pretlove

Editor: Per Busk Christiansen

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