Tom Klare

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Underground Growth

Andy Lynes - April 2014

London—If you want to find the future of agriculture in the United Kingdom, or at least one sustainable version of it, you’ll need to look beyond the 75 percent of the country’s surface that’s managed by Britain’s farmers. One of the most innovative growing initiatives is happening more than 100 feet below the streets of London in the less than glamorous setting of a disused World War II air raid shelter in Clapham.

Inspired by Columbia University professor Dr. Dickson Des­pommier’s vertical farming project, Richard Ballard and Steven Dring launched Zero Carbon Food in 2011 as a way of addressing the problem of future food shortages. But instead of farming in skyscrapers, they headed in the opposite direction.

“We looked at the price of real estate in London and realized it was too expensive, so we went subterranean,” explains Dring. “Richard had done a project about underground London as a student, so we knew that the space existed. We went to Transport for London, and they gave us the keys with no money changing hands, and now they’ve given us a four year free rent period.”

Once they had the site, the first job was to establish if the horticulturists, experts in hydroponics (farming in water and without soil), and Finnish horticultural LED lighting specialists who all had said, “Yes, this will work,” were actually right. An initial test run using a version of hydroponics called “nutrient film technique,” where a very shallow stream of water containing all the dissolved nutrients required for plant growth is recirculated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight gully, resulted in a successful crop of red oak leaf lettuce.

“The guys from Finland came over and said we were getting a better product in terms of the color and density than greenhouse-grown equivalents,” says Dring. “We then scaled up and tested the ebb and flood hydroponic technology that we would be using going forward. Water containing nutrients floods into the growing bench and seeps into a substrate made of hemp that feeds the plants. It’s basically a fancy way of growing cress. We keep it propagated for four or five days and then under the lights for three to five days.”

Commercial production beginning later this year will include arugula, pea shoots, red oak lettuce, and micro herbs. They will be sold wholesale through New Covent Garden Market and will later be made available for direct delivery to London restaurants.

Although, between them, Dring and Ballard had business and operational expertise (not to mention a shared passion for food), they recognized the gaps in their knowledge. Enter Neil Sanderson from Floret bagged salads, bringing fresh produce and market experience; horticulturist Chris Nelson, who has set up hydroponic farms in the Middle East and the Seychelles; and the culinary kudos of Michelin two-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche.

“The shoots are as powerful and flavorful as any traditionally grown that I’ve tasted,” says Roux, who lives in Clapham and was aware of the existence of the tunnels from growing up near the area. “I was skeptical about growing stuff underground. I’m a classicist and renowned for my old-fashioned outlook on most things, but I’ve just gone fully to induction in the Gav­roche kitchen, so I embrace modern technology and techniques. They just have to be worthwhile and work, and this is viable.”

Despite hydroponically grown produce suffering from a bad image in the 1990s when Dutch peppers were branded tasteless by at least one high profile food writer, Roux says that’s all in the past. “Hydroponics have come a long, long way. It ticks all the green boxes for sure. This is truly local, and we’ve had a lot of interest from restaurants around Clapham who’ve visited.” A number of retailers and wholesalers have also expressed interest if the price is right. Dring says the plan is to grow larger salad leaves and mix them with the micro herbs to make a retail product. “And that’s where Michel’s palate comes in.”

Future developments could include baby vegetables for the restaurant market (growing to full size underground is currently uneconomical), and additional sites in London, the United Kingdom, and abroad have already been proposed.