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Soilless farming: agriculture goes vertical

April 2018

Growing crops without the use of soil can help feed a growing world, at a time when the amount of arable land is shrinking.

In Europe, it is a familiar sight to see a tractor drive across the fields.
Vertical farm
Source: Dickson Despommier «The Vertical Farm», Zoubeir Azouz Architecture, Technologist Magazine 2015

Within the 28 EU-countries, almost half of the total land area is agricultural land1. However, the likelihood that there is no soil at all used in growing your vegetables is steadily increasing, as soilless farming is on the rise.

Although soilless farming is only now gaining more publicity, the concept has been around for quite a long time. As early as the 19th century, scientists indicated that plants may be able to grow without the use of soil. Even they weren’t the first as the Aztecs built floating farms in the sea and in the 13th century the Chinese did the same with gardens.

With the right techniques and equipment, it is possible to grow plants in water or even in a mist. By applying a nutrient solution directly to a plant’s roots in a controlled environment, a farmer can ensure that the plant always has an optimal growth2. This makes the plant more productive.

Hydroponics, a common method of soilless farming, is mostly used to grow tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers and herbs. However, theoretically, the technique can be used to grow any crop.

Less arable land, more mouths to feed

An important driver behind the rise of soilless farming is the decrease in arable land. Over the last forty years, the earth has lost about a third of the total area which is suitable for agriculture3. Erosion and pollution are the main reasons for the loss of farmland, both of which have been attributed to global warming. Despite increasing efforts to combat global warming, it would take years to reverse the loss of arable land.

However, by developping better agricultural techniques, farmers have managed to increase the volume of their agricultural production. This is particularly important given the growing global population. The United Nations predicts that the world population will rise from around 7.6 billion today to 8.5 billion in 2030 and, by the year 2050, will be almost 10 billion4. ‘Soilless farming can play a significant role in feeding the growing number of mouths’, says Marie-Laure Schaufelberger, Product Specialist for the Pictet Nutrition strategy.

Soilless farming can play a significant role in feeding the growing number of mouths. – Marie-Laure Schaufelberger, Product Specialist

Growing importance in the food chain

One of the main advantages of soilless farming is the possibility to go vertical and thus save on space. By stacking several layers of plants above each other in special planters, yields per square meter are much higher than with traditional farming. Also, pests and diseases could be less likely to become a problem.

Greenhouses can be set up almost anywhere, unlike in traditional farming with its environmental limitations. ‘Initiatives on a small scale are increasing’, says Schaufelberger. ‘However, it is the large projects that will have a major impact on our agricultural economy. Last year, the largest vertical farm in the world opened inside a warehouse in New Jersey, USA. It has the potential to harvest almost 1 million kilos of fresh greens a year, without the use of soil, pesticides or sunlight. The knowledge we will gain from these projects will make it possible to build even larger facilities – and allow soilless farming to play a significant role in the food chain.’