Soilless agriculture: Can soil-less cultivation help feed the world?

Growing enough food to feed the world’s population comes with an environmental price tag. Traditional farming practices can use too much water, cause deforestation and soil erosion, and lead to pesticide overuse. So how do we feed people sustainably? By combining a new study with an experimental program in St. Louis, WWF is investigating whether soilless alternatives to traditional agriculture can offer a more environmentally friendly system for growing our food.


In this soilless technique of growing crops, plant roots are submerged in nutrient-rich water.

Closeup of hydroponics system


Exposed plant roots are misted with nutrient-rich water in this offshoot of hydroponics.


Here, fish tanks are hooked into hydroponics systems, with the waste generated by aquatic animals nourishing the plants.

Illustration of farmers examining plants on vertical hydroponics frame


A recent WWF report found soilless agriculture can save both land and water. It can also sidestep soil erosion, reduce food loss through controlled conditions, and minimize pesticide use. Greenhouse hydroponics, for instance, uses only 10% of the water needed for traditional farming and uses significantly less land. Vertical hydroponics—growing crops in stacked layers—also uses far less land and water but requires energy-intensive lighting for the plants.


The study found that lettuce from traditional farms in California has a lower carbon footprint than lettuce that might be grown in a soilless agriculture system in St. Louis. But as lighting technologies and a more renewable energy grid evolve, soilless agriculture may become a more effective approach to producing food. Optical fibers could transmit sunlight directly to the indoors, eliminating the need for LED lights. And genetic engineering could create seeds optimized for indoor farming.


WWF has assembled diverse stakeholders that are partnering with vertical farms to launch a soilless agriculture facility in 2021. This unique collaboration will create a truly innovative farm, reusing existing materials from the area and working to achieve environmental and social goals. St. Louis will host the pilot program; the city has unused structures that can be adapted to indoor farms and also offers a wealth of plant science expertise.

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