Futuristic food systems proved so interesting for Richard Ballard and Steven Dring that they began thinking how they could begin creating something similar themselves.
RICHARD BALLARD & STEVEN DRING
Founders of Growing Underground
Now 8 years later, with the help of £3.2m of investment, and some subterranean WWII tunnels built underneath London, they have created an innovative new business model that has supplied super fresh micro herbs to leading businesses.
Here, they reveal their story, and the exciting prospects for food in the future including an innovative idea for producing ‘a farm in a box’.
Growing Underground was born out of the interest we had in understanding and utilising the space around us. Located below ground in former World War II shelters that were built to accommodate 8,000 people, we have an abundant amount of space in the heart of London.
The underground space, currently owned by Transport for London (TfL), provides us with the opportunity to grow micro herbs and move incredible ingredients, previously reserved for Michelin star restaurants into the retail space;
made accessible for all, through our partnership with major UK retailers.
Using this space allows us to control the parameters that ensure we can harvest our crops all year. With heat from the LEDs and some air movement within the tunnels, we control the temperature to get the perfect balance between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius. This is something traditional farmers can only do with the use of expensive equipment, whereas we don’t require that, which allows us to be energy efficient.
We want to gradually expand and consider other innovative ways we can explore the intrinsic link between food and space to help us tackle food-related issues, such as food waste as a result of imported goods.
Most of the food in the UK is imported, which means long journeys and shorter shelf life. This is an issue that can be resolved by ensuring the proximity of farms and food production facilities. This concept called ‘proximity farming’ means sitting your ‘farm’ next to the processing facility. With our technology, we can move to spaces where food can be grown and produced next to each other, something that will have a knock-on effect on food waste. For us, we can start by expanding on our underground site in Clapham so we’re closer to the retailers and distribution centres we directly supply.
Our business model tackles some of the major issues that contribute to carbon emissions in the agricultural industry, such as powering buildings, resources to grow crops and transport. By using redundant space and powering it with renewable energy, and growing crops with limited resources through recirculated water and nutrient systems and by being close to the point of consumption and reducing food miles, we’re ensuring that the environmental impact is reduced, something that we feel all businesses should be doing.
The agricultural industry is responsible for a third of the world’s carbon emission and finding ways to reduce that has been a priority for us. When we were starting Growing Underground, we came across two very interesting figures who explored concepts that ended up being vital to our farming venture. The first was Dickson Despommier who introduced the concept of vertical farming in the early noughties by using excess energy within cities to power these farms. As the number of people living in urban environments grows, it’ll reach a stage where Despommier approach will be considered vital to sustain and feed the growing population.
The second was Jeremy Rifkin, who explores infrastructure in relation to the third industrial revolution and using large scale renewable energy to power our future cities, something he feels we will have in abundance in the coming years. If this idea of an abundance of renewable energy that is very cheap or even free becomes a reality, then a lot of people will have the capacity to produce crops the same way we’re doing now.
As adverse weather conditions worsen and affect the agricultural industry it’s imperative we explore alternative ways to feed the future. If we look at Spain, the major food producer for the UK when the English season ends, they’ve had 100 years worth of weather events in the last 5 years alone.
We’re quite confident that in the future we could be growing a range of crops in this environment, especially if businesses prioritise tackling their environmental impact and aim for sustainability and efficiency. Food waste and disruption to places like the Amazon rainforest for production purposes could be a thing of the past.