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Myth: Vertical farming will save our food system

Tilapia tank at FarmedHere in Chicago

Tilapia tank at FarmedHere in Chicago

TRUTH:  It’s official – vertical farming won’t save our food system right now.  But it could in the future.  This week, the country’s largest vertical, aquaponic (soil-free) farm opened in Chicago, IL.  The process by which FarmedHere is growing plants (using the excrement of tilapia to create mineral-rich water that is cycled through stacked plant beds) has been used for years at NYC’s Food and Finance High School, but it hasn’t be done on as large a scale, as FarmedHere has created.

Their goal?  Produce 1 million pounds of chemical (including herbicide and pesticide) free leafy greens.  They’re creating 200 jobs in their newest facility (they already have 2) and their produce will retail at local stores such as Green Grocery (and maybe Trader Joe’s).

So what’s the total energy and environmental impact?  It’s not yet the most efficient process.  Overall, vertical farming’s….

  • Pros – less pesticide, herbicide, insecticide use, can produce a lot of food indoors (using greenhouse-style windows), can produce more food in urban areas (reducing transportation costs)
  • Cons – costly to build, much more energy intense if using grow lights indoors (which still need to be used with greenhouses if you want to produce food on a large scale

But how much energy can using a few light bulbs use when you have a greenhouse, you ask?  A lot. The Economist reports that Thanet Earth, a 90-hectare facility that opened in Kent, Britian in 2008, provides 15% of the British salad crop but requires its own mini-power station to provide 15 hours of light daily during the winter.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t jump off the top of the vertical farm yet.  As we find more renewable energy sources, the energy cost of vertical farming can be reduced and we can continue to keep pesticide, herbicide and insecticide use low.  For now, vertical farming can be great for in-home, small scale use and great for education in classrooms.


  1. The Economist: Vertical Farming: Does it really stack up?
  2. The Wall Street Journal: The Future of Agriculture May Be Up

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