The use of advanced technologies to produce food without soil, and with reduced reliance on water and fertiliser, will make it possible to grow food in new areas. Soil-free agriculture presents an opportunity to save water and give tired soils a chance to regenerate. The opportunity space includes a range of supporting products like LED lighting and renewable energy technologies.


Soil-free agriculture (also called soilless) presents one of the strongest opportunities for scientific, economic, and technological advancements in the field of agriculture of the last 200 years. Originally invented to produce out-of-season crops, this technology can help to regenerate soils in times of land pressure and degradation. Soil-free agriculture offers higher yields than traditional agriculture, uses water more efficiently, and provides alternatives to toxic soil sterilisation, decreasing risks of soil-borne diseases.

Even more promising, soil-free agriculture can take the form of indoor or vertical farming, and is suitable for dense urban environments. The benefits of soil-free agriculture are manifold. It permits more food to be grown locally, lowering emissions from transport and reducing food moving costs. A more stable food supply will help reduce price fluctuations and food waste, while allowing a variety of foods to be produced any time of year.

Products and services in the soil-free agriculture market include the necessary input into production, including alternative growth media; LED lighting for indoor cultivation; technical and advisory services; and advisory for soil-free agriculture. Products also include towers to grow plants vertically or shelves to maximise the space for production, both of which can be acquired with built-in LED lighting.

Renewable energy is an important component in this market, as it lowers emissions from lighting used in indoor soil-free farming. Products in soil-free agriculture include solar panels that provide power to submersible pumps. As solar-powered systems continue to drop in price, the costs of operating an indoor soil-free garden will also decrease, making these technologies even more attractive.

A number of factors are driving soil-free agriculture. First, global urbanisation is driving demand for more locally produced food. Second, the increasing rate of extreme weather events coupled with decreasing soil fertility are creating demand for producing food in more controlled environments. Third, there is a growing movement around self-sufficiency, which brings food production into areas without land available for cultivation, such as cities.

On the whole, alternative soil solutions are becoming a real business opportunity. Aquaponics alone is estimated to be worth 1 billion USD by 2020. The worldwide market value of food produced without soil (this covers both soilless and hydroponically produced food) will show sustained strength with a 6.5 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2013-2018, beating the IMF estimated growth forecast of 3.6 percent for 2014. Producer value will increase from 17.7 billion USD to 24.3 billion USD.

Key Numbers


up to 80% decrease in water use for some hydroponic crops compared to traditional farming


more productivity per square foot with AeroFarms than a commercial field farm


tons produced annually in one LED fitted indoor commercial farm


SDGs - Conflict free natural resources

Solutions for this Opportunity

Farming in the desert

In a climate not suitable for vegetable growing, 10 Mile Farm will produce 1.8 million marketable heads of produce per annum in its G CUBE chambers in old warehouses.
Location: USA See this solution

Large-scale local farms for supermarkets

BrightFarms finances, designs, builds and operates greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain.
Location: USA See this solution

Smart hydroponics

AeroFarms technology is a closed-loop system that recycles water and nutrients with virtually zero waste to grow plants without sunlight, soil or pesticides.
Location: USA See this solution

Large urban farms for business

UrbanFarmers develops and builds large scale urban farms using aquaponics technology for the use of commercial producers and supermarkets.
Location: Switzerland, Benelux, Germany and UK See this solution

Hydraulic driven vertical farm

Sky Greens is world’s first low carbon vertical farm. Using green urban solutions to achieve production of safe, fresh and delicious vegetables, using minimal land, water and energy resources.
Location: Singapore, China, and Thailand See this solution

Mushroom production on waste coffee grounds

GroCycle uses nutrient rich waste coffee grounds to grow mushrooms soil-free while helping divest coffee waste from landfills.
Location: Global See this solution

LED optimized indoor vertical farming

Philips is optimising indoor vertical farming in its City Farming labs by using LED lighting which provides the optimal light spectrum for indoor growth.
Location: Global See this solution

Your own farm

VÄXER from IKEA is a kit to grow herbs and salads in stone wool in a designer looking mini greenhouse all year around in your apartment.
Location: Global See this solution



The financial sector is ready to play an active role in developing the market for soil-free agriculture, as leaders in this field believe there already exists a substantial capacity to grow this market. Leaders in this sector also believe the market will create positive change.
Globally, leaders rank this opportunity 9th out of 15. Europe is the region where the market is most ready to mature, as leaders here place it 3rd on the overall opportunity ranking. The same goes for the countries belonging to the very high Human Development Index category.

Capacity to Grow the Market

Leaders in China are confident their country has the capacity to develop this market. They rate this opportunity second highest
with respect to economic capacity and also high on the political capacity parameter (4th), while they rate the technological capacity lower (9th).

Respondents in most other regions do not believe the capacity is in place to pursue this opportunity. In particular, leaders in India and Other Asia (Japan and Russia) indicate there does not yet exist sufficient capacity in their regions to pursue the market for soil-free agriculture.

Opportunity Business Case

Globally it is one of the opportunities with the weakest business case in the eyes of all the leaders asked.
Regionally, leaders in the water-scarce MENA region believe the opportunity will have the most positive impact. However, at a global level, the data points to a need to incentivise business to become actively involved in developing this market. Business in China is the exception to this global trend, where leaders rate the business case higher than in the rest of the world.

Sector Impact

The soil-free agriculture market does not appear to be high on the agenda of civil society, or politicians. However, the strongest advocates are found in China.


Perceived benefits from pursuing this opportunity (x), and capacity to do so (y), World and geographic regions. Scale goes from -10 to +10.



Across geographic regions. Scale goes from -10 to +10.


Across business sectors regions. Scale goes from -10 to +10.

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