It is not often that a new venture with an unbelievable, yet-to-be-proven concept is overwhelmingly backed by investors. Zero Carbon Food (ZCF) is just such a venture.
Throwing conventional wisdom aside, the company's Growing Underground SW4 project has set out to grow food underground, away from the sun and fresh air.
The brainchild of childhood friends Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, the project began like many startups do, with brainstorming over lots of beer.
“We drank a lot in pubs, argued a lot,” Dring recalls. “It was either something to do with water scarcity or food or democratization of energy — those were the three areas that we were looking to start a business in.”
And once they settled on food, they decided they wanted to try and grow food in an abandoned World War II bomb shelter 33 meters below the ground, so they approached the authorities at Transport for London. For two years, the team experimented in the tunnel beneath London's Northern line to grow leafy greens, herbs and microgreens with the aid of low-energy LED lights and an integrated hydroponics system.
The company has leased the space from Transport for London for 25 years and the 2.5acre 'farm' will start commercial production this fall, with its first produce expected to be available by October or November. The company will begin with a “one customer, one product” approach, says Dring, focusing initially on herbs and salad greens.
Though the project is still in its infancy, the buzz around it has not only attracted the attention of eager investors — the Mayor of London named Dring one of this year's London Leaders, a program that celebrates and cultivates innovative startups tackling sustainability challenges in the city and beyond.
“The immediate benefit for Londoners is reduced food waste through increased shelf-life, bringing employment to inner cities and helping to achieve the reduction in the carbon footprint of the capital,” the company says on its website.
According to ZCF, the other benefits of growing food underground include:
- 70 percent less water usage when compared to traditional, open-field farming;
- using less energy than a typical greenhouse;
- immunity to seasonal weather variations, making produce available throughout the year; consistent taste;
- pesticide-free crops that reach markets within 4 hours of harvest — a reduction of food miles for retailers and consumers; the produce stays within M25, a 117-mile motorway that nearly encircles Greater London;
- sourcing energy from a local, renewable energy supplier to ensure that it is truly carbon-neutral.
While specially designed structures were taken down into the tunnel to house the three-layer growing platforms, the tunnel's depth keeps temperatures steady at roughly 16 degrees throughout the year, and special filters in the tunnels eliminate the need for pesticides.
Dring worked in marketing and Ballard in films, far removed from their rural Bristol roots, and it soon became clear that they lacked experience in growing. Fortunately, the company has attracted some heavyweights who are backing it with their expertise. One of the first and perhaps most critical team member was Chris Nelson, an agricultural consultant with experience growing crops under harsh conditions.
“What this man has forgotten about growing isn’t worth knowing. He is a growing genius,“ says Dring.
As Michelin starred celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr, who joined the team as Director, says in the video, "When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy, but when I visited the tunnels and sampled the delicious produce they are already growing down there I was blown away,” and adds that “the market for this produce is huge.”
In a sign that the industry is taking this seriously, the company also has Neil Sanderson, the MD of salad giant Florette, as a non-executive director. Ballard says, “We’re confident that investors of all sizes will see a significant return on their investment. Integrating farming into the urban environment makes a huge amount of sense and we’re delighted that we’re going to make it a reality.”
Even though the team has successfully shown that it is possible to grow herbs and vegetables underground, there are limitations to it. “It gets uneconomic. You can grow an apple tree down there and it'll be the most expensive apples that you've ever eaten,” Dring admits.
But if scaled, alternative food-production models such as ZCF’s could feasibly take a bite out of the destructive impacts of industrial farming. According to Dring, “Global farming is responsible for a third of the world's output of CO2, the depletion of oil and water resources and the use of phosphorous, which just isn’t future-proof.”
With its mission of “Feeding the Future,” Zero Carbon Food seems set to begin a food revolution below your feet.
'Startup Growing 'Zero Carbon Food' in London Underground Tunnels Has Investors Clamoring' originally appeared in Sustainable Brands on May 22nd, 2014.