The food revolution happening beneath your feet
by Lucy Purdy
London Transport Museum: copyright Transport for London
Lucy Purdy, journalist and enthusiastic gardener with a keen interest in food-growing and environmental issues, investigates a new project to farm underground:
Just 33 metres beneath London’s streets, under Clapham’s cocktail bars and relentless traffic, a subterranean farm is taking root. Using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology, micro-salads are being grown in a network of forgotten air raid shelter tunnels, the leaves destined for the plates of the capital’s top restaurants. Not convinced about your food being grown underground? The entrepreneurial duo behind Growing Underground believe it’s a sign of things to come -the “agricultural revolution” of the future.
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 old dark and of history. This is the smell of London 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 being grown here are pea shoots, rocket, mizuna, broccoli, red vein sorrel, garlic chives and mustard leaf and these will soon be joined by edible flowers and miniature vegetables. Founders Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, of Zero Carbon Food, hope this is the beginning of what will become a thriving, commercial urban farm. For although a disused air-raid 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, no pesticides – giving you a longer shelf life, year-round availability and consistent pricing, while delivering punchy, innovative flavours,” he says.
The project is still in its test phase, with a £1 million Crowdfunding campaign currently at £500,000, but interest is strong. Celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr lives just around the corner and offered his backing after sampling some of the produce.
“When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy,” he said. “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 how did they come up with the idea?
“People mock us for being West Country bumpkins,” explains Ballard from Bristol, “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 re-circulating 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 become entirely carbon neutral and organic eventually.
Water is supplied from rain-water harvesting from the surface and directly from the water table via a sump system. The system uses about 70% 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 16°C and will be warmed a few degrees more when the full complement of LEDs is in place – perfect insulation for these kinds of crops.
Ballard and Dring hope to be commercially operational by October and to eventually employ about 25 members of staff, expanding through these tunnels before seeking new underground space. They have pledged that produce will travel no further than the M25 and claim 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.
“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 in Kyoto, Japan, where six million lettuces are grown each year at the windowless, LED-lit Nuvege farm, and supplied to the likes of Subway. And to plans by US-based Green Spirit Farms to open the world’s largest vertical farm in Scranton. 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.
Many more 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% of developed world populations will live in cities by 2050.
And what of 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.”
Images courtesy of Zero Carbon Food