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London’s First Subterranean Farm Bringing Its Sustainable Produce to Market

Image credit: Zero Carbon Food

London’s first subterranean farm will begin selling produce to its first commercial client later this month, marking a breakthrough for the city’s urban farming.

Zero Carbon Food, the startup behind the Growing Underground venture, uses a sophisticated lighting and irrigation system to cultivate herbs and vegetables 12 stories under the city in abandoned railway tunnels. Crops are grown in a sealed clean-room environment with a tailored ventilation system, LED lighting and an irrigation system that enable the farm to produce crops with very little energy. The company says energy for operations is sourced entirely from “green suppliers,” as it aims to deliver fresh produce without adverse effect on the environment, and its hydroponics system uses 70 percent less water than traditional, open-field farming.

The farm is the brainchild of West Country entrepreneurs Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, in partnership with Michel Roux Jr., the Michelin-starred chef.

“Why are we doing it?” Dring asks in a London Live video segment. “We are bringing food production back into the city. We face a lot of challenges with population growth, and obviously we have a finite amount of farmland out there…We’ve shown that you can grow in adverse environments, underground, with the use of agricultural technology, hydroponics and LEDs, we can grow herbs and micro-herbs and salads, and lots of other produce, as well.”

Growing Underground’s farm sits in an old World War II tunnel beneath the city’s Northern Line at Clapham. Last year, the farm successfully completed a crowdfunding round that attracted huge interest from consumers and retailers, as well as scientists and urban planners worldwide.

The first phase of the farm is in the final stages of preparation; it plans to begin selling to County Supplies London, a produce wholesaler, this month. A consumer offering will follow in the near future.

“Phase one represents more than £750,000 investment in sustainable urban farming for London and we’re delighted to be fulfilling our first orders within weeks,” Dring said in a statement.

The farm’s first crops include pea shoots, several varieties of radish, mustard, coriander, Red Amaranth, celery, parsley and rocket.

“We’re delighted that our first shoots will be delivered to the surface in the next few weeks,” Ballard said. “After 18 months of research, development, growing trials – and tribulations – we’re about to start supplying into the market.”

Even local government is behind the idea. Mayor Boris Johnson was a supporter of Growing Underground from the beginning with his London Leaders business startup program.

“This is a fine example of the dynamic startups that are helping London lead the world in green business innovation,” Johnson said. “I want even more entrepreneurs to help create these brilliant concepts that are delivering thousands of jobs and boosting London's green economy to almost £30 billion a year. I wish Growing Underground every success.”

Growing Underground’s work mirrors recent Stateside innovations in urban agricultural systems, including advancements from MIT, which have the potential to cut water use by over 90 percent; and Royal Phillips, which partnered with a Chicago-area commercial grower to develop one of the U.S.’ largest indoor commercial farms using LED grow lights, which require 85 percent less energy than traditional growing techniques. 

Brynn is an Insight Development Associate and a principal writer for Sustainable Brands.

[Read more about Brynn McNally]

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