Coupling vertical farming with desalination: a win-win local farming option

Each day, there are 7.5 billion mouths to feed, and this number is set to increase to 10 billion by 2050. In parallel, the quantity and quality of farmable land is gradually threatening humanity’s ability to continuously secure the nutrients required to grow the food tomorrow’s world will rely on. Certain regions are already facing constraints due to poor soil, lack of freshwater or insufficient land.
Our reliance on global supply chains increases the carbon footprint of foods (from raw commodities to transformed products) due to specific packaging and refrigeration conditions required to preserve the nutritional content as food-miles increase. To address this energy-intensive farm-to-table situation, two separate practices can, in certain viable situations, help shorten the circuit and contribute to a more sustainable food sourcing solution.

How does each technology work?

Desalination is a method that processes saltwater and makes it fit for human consumption. The ocean provides a renewable energy source providing a high quality, edible, by-product (sea salt) and a suite of energy-related outputs such as electricity generation or heating. Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers, using soil-free and environmentally controlled plant growth techniques. When you combine the two, freshwater generated from the desalination plants can be funnelled directly into the farms, alleviating water supply issues and providing the electricity and energy needed to create that sensitive temperature and moisture environment plants need to grow in.

Benefits of vertical farming

While desalination is relatively energy-intensive and costly, vertical farming can be performed in spaces as small as shipping containers. However, when scaled, large vertical farms can improve product performances up to 160%. Indeed, vertical farming has the potential to produce 250 times more yield per square metre than traditional agriculture, using much less water. Comparatively to traditional agriculture, vertical farming emissions are also drastically reduced due to shorter transport delivery distances to local urban consumers and inexistent fertilizer use which are normally associated as having high global warming potentials. The energy emissions related to storing commonly internationally transported goods are also greatly diminished, as are those associated with the packaging created to transport foods to markets.



Where can these solutions have highest impact?

Desalination plants make a lot of sense in coastal regions prone to water scarcity, like California whose intensive agriculture is slowly depleting water tables, and in areas further afflicted by geopolitical uncertainty like the Middle East, where decade-long water tensions have prevailed.

Places with land shortages such as islands or densely populated shoreline cities with vertical skylines can also benefit from both systems, considering the proximity of ports or industrial complexes acting as nearby hubs likely already connected to logistical networks.


Both technologies are set to continue growing over the coming decades, catering to a rising demand for reducing freshwater footprints and creating shorter food-to-table circuits. While vertical farming has proven effective with edible greens, it could be further deployed for other plants, for instance in cosmetics and medicinal industries, contributing to the soaring multi-billion-dollar agriculture and food tech industry. Therefore, when planning for the installation of a desalination plan and given a suitable location, it is well worth considering the implantation of an integrated vertical farm system as the combined technologies have the potential to make impactful differences to populations’ health both locally, thanks to fresher
lower-carbon footprint produced foods, and more broadly, considering the emission reductions linked to the closed loop renewable energy systems and reduced transport.