Two entrepreneurs have recently made London the home of a very creative architectural reuse for food production—underground.
Steven Dring, a former executive with Bunzl, an international provider of food-related products and services, and his friend and business partner Richard Ballard, founder-manager of a 10-year wholesale business, started the subterranean garden from scratch. They’ve rented space a hundred feet below street level from the London subway authority. The initial venture involves about six acres of tunnels originally built to shield thousands from the near-continuous air raids of World War II. The developers have transformed the spot into a hydroponic farm that will handily meet the food needs of inner-city customers and restaurants.
After two years of testing, Dring and Ballard are nearing their first harvest of fresh, sustainable, locally and renewably grown produce. And we’re not just talking iceberg lettuce. Initial crops include pea shoots, rocket, red lion mustard, radish, tatsoi, bok choi, and miniature broccoli. Neighbor Michel Roux Jr., gourmet chef and proprietor of the world-class restaurant Le Gavroche, and Neil Sanderson, the managing director of salad giant Florette, are on board, among others.
Once a science fiction attraction at futurist parks like Disney’s Epcot Center and Biosphere II in Tucson, hydroponic gardens—and their aquaponic (farmed fish with hydroponic crops) and aeroponic counterparts—are coming into their own as commercially viable farms. Controlled-environment production regulates everything required for plant growth—light, temperature, airflow, carbon dioxide, and humidity—to maximize outputs without genetic manipulation. Hydroponic farms now comprise the fastest growing sector of agriculture.
“Today, the technique of growing plants in a nutrient-rich solution instead of soil has potential to drastically increase agricultural output, particularly in areas such as deserts and cities that would not otherwise grow food. Hydroponic systems often give plants more nutrition and allow them to grow faster, while at the same time consuming less water, energy, and space. You can arrange the plants closer together, even stacking them on top of each other. What’s more, hydroponic plants can be shipped live, allowing for fresher produce.”
As well as bestowing the simple no-soil, very-low-water technology of hydroponics, the tunnel operation offers a 365-day growing season. As a closed system, it requires no upkeep through pesticides or herbicides. LED fixtures provide proven agricultural light. The farm also supports the city’s economy through both nearby quality products and local hiring.
“Between 2009-2012, food inflation ran at about 32%,” says Dring. “That’s because of issues with crop production and failed crops…. Down here we have no pests and a consistent temperature of 16C [about 61F]. Once we’ve put all the LED lights in they give off a little heat that will take us up to about 20C [68F], perfect growing temperature.”
Use of renewable energy offers another huge plus for Zero Carbon Food. Purchases from a renewable supplier currently power the enterprise. The managers have committed to aboveground wind and solar onsite, with the ultimate intention of self-powering and exporting to the grid. Waste biomass will recycle easily.
Without expending hydrocarbons and adding to costs through transportation, Zero Carbon can feed its current population hub practically onsite. The Covent Garden market, which wholesales food from rural farms around London, is only three miles from ZCF, easily accessible by EV truck. Proximity will enable the growers to ensure individual and restaurant customers both same-day freshness and a longer shelf life.
Because they offer a far greater return on acreage than traditional gardens, hydroponic facilities maximize use of available ground. Underground gardens (the near-exclusive province of mushroom growers and basement marijuana producers until now) literally double up on surface space. Three of every five people on earth currently live in cities, a number that’s expected to grow to four in five by 2050. Subsurface gardening will offer large, concentrated urban populations dedicated space to grow consistently high-quality local crops year-round.
”Eventually we’d also like to go beyond underground to grow vertically–use the tiny footprint of a high rise and convert it into a farm,” says Dring. Like underground cultivation, vertical (high-rise) agriculture has a tremendous space advantage. “Urban farming will be the farming of the future.”