What comes to mind when you imagine a farm? Never-ending rows of green separated by thin aisles of brown soil? Tractors and red barns? What about urban buildings and LED lights? Chances are, these last two are not what you traditionally associate with farming. However, they are key to vertical farming, a new way to produce more food in less space.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report How To Feed the World 2050 states that to feed the estimated 9.1 billion people who will be living on earth in 2050, food production needs to increase by 70% between 2005/07 and 2050. The report clarifies that there are “still sufficient land resources to feed the world population for the foreseeable future.” However, much of this land is in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and challenges, such as a lack of infrastructure, must be addressed before the land can be used.

This is where vertical farming steps in. Vertical farming is a way to produce more food without using large swaths of land or having crops travel thousands of miles from farm to fork. In 1990 the modern interpretation of vertical farming, which involves growing plants indoors in vertically stacked layers using trays and pipes, emerged. The main benefit of vertical farming is that since crops are grown in layers in the same amount of space, vertical farms can grow more food than traditional farms. Additionally, because vertical farming takes place indoors, a farmer can control growing conditions. The temperature, humidity, nutrients the plants receive, and even wavelengths the LED lights produce can all be adjusted to maximize yields.

Furthermore, vertical farms don’t require large fields and have been constructed in buildings, including abandoned meat packing facilities and offices. This means that food can be grown in the same community where it is eaten. Given that “transporting ingredients and food products accounts for nearly one-fifth of all carbon emissions in the food system,” according to a July 2022 Nature article by Freda Kreier, vertical farming has the potential to make food production significantly more sustainable. Additionally, when food doesn’t travel as far, it is less likely to be damaged, reducing food waste. Furthermore, the decrease in travel time and the ability to grow food year-round mean people will have access to fresher foods.

The environmental benefits of vertical farming don’t end there. Most vertical farms don’t use soil. Instead, they rely on hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics. All three of these systems use less water than traditional agriculture and virtually eliminate the risk of fertilizers leaking into the environment. Indoor farms are also less affected by pests, reducing the need for pesticides.

However, vertical farms do have a major drawback: they need electricity. Powering the LED light banks, watering systems, and other technology can rack up a high bill. And it is not just the cost that is a drawback: most electricity is produced with fossil fuels. As described by Stacey Shackford in an article for the Cornell Chronicle, Louis Albright, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, argues that vertical farming systems will result in “food production with high cost, large energy use, [and] a giant carbon footprint.” Albright goes on to explain that generating the amount of electricity needed to grow a single head of lettuce would result in “enough CO2 to fill three 55-gallon drums.” Albright emphasizes that to understand food’s CO2 footprint, the entire production process—not just how far the food travels—must be considered.

While vertical farms are still working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, they have found a solution to the high cost of growing plants indoors. In the BBC article “How Vertical Farming Reinvents Agriculture” by Chris Baraniuk, Chief Executive of Urban Crops Maarten Vandecruys explains that to be cost-effective, vertical farms should grow “quicker-growing crops that yield a high market value.” For this reason, vertical farms often focus on herbs, edible flowers, and baby greens.

Despite its limitations, vertical farming has become increasingly popular due to the desire to find sustainable alternatives to traditional agriculture. New Jersey is home to Oishii, a vertical farming company that produces Omakase Berries. These specialty strawberries cost about $1.80 each and can be found at high-end retailers. Chicago is home to Wilder Field, a company that transformed an abandoned Target into a vertical farm and whose greens are in cafes and restaurants across the city.

This trend isn’t limited to America. Belgium is home to Urban Crops, a vertical farm built inside a former carpet factory. The Pasona Urban Farm in Tokyo, Japan, is inside the Pasona company headquarters. The farm is integrated throughout the building, allowing Pasona employees to pick fresh veggies and benefit from the farm’s indoor rice paddies and fruit trees.

Vertical farming is also spreading into the home. Neofarms is a German and Italian startup developing vertical farming systems for the kitchen. Each system is about the size of a fridge and provides consumers with fresh veggies and peace of mind, as they are intimately involved in producing their own food and know exactly what went into it.

There isn’t just enthusiasm behind this movement: there is also money. AeroFarms, the company behind the world’s largest indoor farm, reports that in 2017 they raised $40 million in Series D financing, with backers including the Ikea Group. Bowering Farming, another vertical farming company, has investors that include GV (formerly Google Ventures) and celebrities like Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake.

Vertical farming isn’t the perfect solution to all our food production problems, and it has its drawbacks. Hopefully, with vertical farming’s increasing popularity, the time, money, and research invested in it will allow it to grow into an important tool for a sustainable future.

Taskeen Khan has a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology and a minor in sustainability, energy, and the environment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is passionate about science education and communication, as well as research.