Growing underground: the food revolution happening beneath your feet

Lucy Purdy

Just 33 metres beneath London’s streets a subterranean farm is taking root. Using the latest technology, micro-salad is being grown in a network of forgotten air raid shelter tunnels

Pass through a padlocked gate, descend a winding staircase and push open a set of heavy doors: the Northern Line rumbles ahead and the air carries an intangible scent of age, darkness and history. This is what London smells like 12 storeys down. It is also the unlikely home of the capital’s latest innovative farming project, Growing Underground. At one corner of the cavernous system of tunnels is hung some Breaking Bad-style plastic sheeting and behind that, incredibly, lie dimly-lit benches strewn with beautifully hued salad leaves.

The first crops to be grown here will include pea shoots, rocket, mizuna, broccoli, red vein sorrel, garlic chives and mustard leaf, as well as edible flowers and miniature vegetables. Founders Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, of Zero Carbon Food, hope it will become a thriving, commercial urban farm.

Though a disused bomb shelter may not sound like the most cheerful of growing environments, it actually means that light, temperature and feed can be carefully controlled, making possible predictable and tasty growing. There are no pests down here, Ballard explains, so no need for pesticides, and no battling adverse weather conditions, either.

“Our method uses virtually no food miles and no pesticides”

“Our method uses virtually no food miles and no pesticides giving you a longer shelf life, year-round availability and consistent pricing while delivering punchy, innovative flavours,” he says.

The project successfully achieved its £1m crowdfunding campaign, and construction work has begun on extending the tunnels from the initial test patch. Interest is strong. Celebrity chef Michael Roux Jr lives just around the corner and offered his backing after tasting some of the team’s leaves.

“When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy,” said Roux. “But when I visited the tunnels and sampled the delicious produce they are already growing down there I was blown away. The market for this is huge.”

So why this project, and why now?

“People mock us for being West Country bumpkins,” explains Bristol-hailing Ballard. “So we thought we’d live up to type, and set up a farm in central London.

“On a more serious note, global farming is responsible for a third of the world’s output of CO2. From the depletion of oil and water to agricultural run-off, it just isn’t future-proof. We are going to run out of oil, so society and the way we grow our food need to change. We wanted to make use of redundant spaces, to grow near our market and save on distribution costs. Bringing growing to the city makes it more sustainable in all sorts of ways.”

The pair teamed up with horticulturalist Chris Nelson to design their system. Most of the plants here are nurtured through a recirculating ebb and flow hydroponics system where the benches are flooded with water and then gradually drained over approximately six minutes. Both the pumps and LEDs are powered by renewable sources from a green energy firm, and the project is set to eventually become entirely carbon neutral and organic.

Water will come from surface rain water harvesting and directly from the water table via a sump system. The system uses about 70 percent less water than traditional open-field farming and all nutrients are kept within the closed loop system, so there is no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off. The tunnels naturally hover at 16C and will be warmed a few degrees more when the full complement of LEDs is in place: perfectly insulated for these kinds of crops.

Ballard and Dring hope construction will be completed by the beginning of 2015, which is when the project will open fully. New underground space may be sought in the future, depending on its success. They have pledged that produce will travel no further than the M25 and say leaves can be in restaurants within four hours of picking and packing. Wholesale and local restaurants will be targeted first, and eventually the retail market.

They are already in talks to supply local supermarkets and restaurants, and produce is being sold at New Covent Garden market. It sells out every time, I’m told. It is also used throughout Mayfair’s exclusive La Gavroche restaurant.

“We’d also like to grow vertically – to use the tiny footprint of high rises and convert them into farms”

“We’d also like to grow vertically – to use the tiny footprint of high rises and convert them into farms,” says Ballard, who sees urban farming as the key to feeding people in the future. He points to indoor growing projects such as those in Kyoto, Japan, where six million lettuces are grown each year at the windowless, LED-lit Nuvege farm, and supplied to the likes of fast food giant Subway. Then there are plans by US-based Green Spirit Farms to open the world’s largest vertical farm in Michigan. Covering just over three hectares on a single storey, it will be capable of housing up to 17 million plants on racks stacked six high.

Indeed, many more people the world over agree that vertical and hydroponic farming are viable solutions in the battle to feed an ever-expanding and ever-urbanising population. The United Nations predicts that 86 percent of developed world populations will live in cities by 2050.

And what to the human memories which hang so heavy in the air here, the Londoners who fled underground when the Blitz struck? The deep-level air raid shelter at Clapham North is one of eight London Underground stations with such spaces and carries its own particular sense of history.

“It can be eerie when you’re down here on your own,” admits Ballard. “But we received an email from a lady who sheltered down here as a child during the war. She had bad memories of the time but told us it was really good to see the space being used for something positive.

“We’ve had so much great feedback about what we’re doing, particularly the use of a redundant space. We just can’t wait to get properly up and running now.”

Photo title: Examining Growing Underground produce

Photo credit: © Zero Carbon Food

  • Irene Brankin

    What a fantastic idea and to bring it into fruition is even better – well done to them. I’ll look at the Underground with different eyes. Irene Brankin

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  • Tobi Kellner

    I am sorry, but this does not make sense environmentally.
    Using artificial light to grow food needs much more energy than transporting the food from where it grows naturally in daylight.
    Say you need 10W of lighting, active for 12h a day, to grow 1kg of food in four weeks. That’s 3.36kWh per kg, or 3,360 kWh per ton. It takes around 1kWh to transport one ton of material for one kilometer in a lorry, so you could transport food for more than 3,000 kilometers for the energy it takes to grow it in artificial light.
    Yes, your electricity can be renewable. But it would make much more sense to use that renewable electricity to meet other demands that are currently met by fossil fuel power stations, rather than meeting a demand that can be met by sunlight directly.

    If you want to grow food underground, grow mushrooms which don’t need light (at least for most of the process).
    If you want to grow food using renewable energy, grow it using sunlight.
    If you want to use renewable electricity to reduce CO2 emissions, feed it into the grid so it reduces demand for coal power.

  • Sebastian White

    It does say that the lights are powered by “renewable sources!”

    If you are determined to look for a problem, you’ll no doubt find one.

    This is a good article.

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  • therealjeaniebeanie

    They may be able to make it carbon neutral — bravo! — but hydroponics is not and never will be organic, which is based on preserving and increasing soil fertility. It is still not a sustainable system when all the nutrients must be supplied from external sources. But, clever use of old air-raid shelters.

  • therealjeaniebeanie

    Labeling something organic does not make it so. Tobi Kellner makes very good points. This is a sort of greenwashing, where it sounds superficially good to those not very familiar with the issues, but is not really sustainable.

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