The farms of the future are growing underground

How Does Your Garden Grow? In a Bomb Shelter

Of all the crises threatening to consign humanity to the bins of history, few are as pressing as the very basic problem of food scarcity. As you’ll no doubt be aware, humans need to eat in order to survive – so what will we do in 30 years’ time, when we’ll need to produce 70 per cent more food than we do today to feed a global population rocketing towards 10 billion?

A compelling answer to this question is currently taking shape far beneath the streets of London. Steven Dring and Robert Ballard are the founders of urban farming startup Growing Underground, and are aiming to revolutionise global agriculture from their current base of operations in an old World War II bomb shelter.

“Richard first came across the tunnels in 2012, while scouting locations for a film about urban explorers,” explains Dring. “We discussed the idea in the pub then got in touch with Transport for London, saying we wanted to build a farm down there. I think at that point TfL  put their hand over the receiver and laughed, but ever since we met properly they’ve been extremely supportive.”

Today, Growing Underground is going from strength to strength, with commercial demand pushing the company from their first bomb shelter to a new one in Clapham Common. At 65,000 square feet, their premises could hold 8,000 people, were it not for the endless rows of hydroponically cultivated pea shoots, red basil, rocket, coriander and many more herbs and salad vegetables growing 120 feet below ground, tended to by a staff of 12.

“We’re expanding the first site this November, and a whole new second site will be ready in November 2019,” Dring says proudly. “We have such a demand from retailers and food service markets – it’s taken time to build but we’re ready to scale up. We’re sold in three of the five major grocery retailers and are talking to all of them about how our relationship can grow.”

The endorsement of the UK’s supermarkets is important. There was an idea that perhaps their lab-grown produce was a curio best suited to London’s top eateries, and you’ll certainly find their herbs in the kitchen at Le Gavroche, whose chef – the Michelin-starred Michel Roux Jr – is also a co-director of Growing Underground. There is too much potential to what Dring and Ballard are doing for it to remain a novelty, however. It’s difficult to put any kind of upper limit on how scalable their project is – where a farmer’s field might yield three crops a year, their lab can produce a crop every six days, all year round, regardless of the weather, using 70 percent less water. Dring estimates one square metre of his lab is 100 times more productive than a square metre in the average field. What Growing Underground seem to have isn’t something faddish and niche – it’s a model for the farms of the future.

“We have a finite amount of agricultural land,” explains Dring. “If new middle-class populations in huge economies like China are going to add to human demand for meat, we need to find a way to sustainably intensify our crop yields. What we’re doing in our labs is creating new fertile land, which frees up space to farm cattle and whatever else above ground.”

Not every way forward for us as a species is bestowed by god-tier tech advances. Growing Underground’s story owes just as much to human ingenuity – to imagination, business acumen, pub chats and endeavour. For the most part, Dring and Ballard have simply thrown together things that have been with us for ages – disused subterranean spaces, vertical farming theory, hydroponics – and that in itself provides reasons for optimism. Humans have caused the planet plenty of problems, but the planet has never known a species with such a flair for solving them.

By Kev Kharas

Photography By Tom Skipp