World’s first underground farm grows sustainable vegetables

  • The world’s first underground farm, 33 metres below London, UK, is growing salad and vegetables for the city.
  • The farm claims to use 70% less water than a conventional, above-ground farm.
  • It’s one of the solutions being proposed to feed our growing population and combat the threat of climate change.

At the height of the Second World War, the British government built eight huge shelters deep under London. They protected Londoners from bombs, and now one of these bunkers has found a role in a new battle – the fight against climate change.

Thirty-three metres below the streets of Clapham, in south-west London, lies what was claimed at its launch to be the world’s first subterranean farm. It uses the latest hydroponic technology and LED lighting powered by renewable energy to produce fresh vegetables.

image of crops ripening in the London underground farm

Crops ripen in the London underground farm.

Image: Growing Underground

Growing Underground is the brainchild of two friends, Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, who set up their company Zero Carbon Farms in 2015. Today they have a hectare of underground growing space producing leafy greens, herbs like Thai basil and garlic chives and pea shoots.

The growing process is soil-free – plants are grown on recycled carpets – and the farm can produce up to 60 harvests a year, six times the output of a conventional outdoor farm. It uses 70% less water than growing similar crops in soil and is pesticide-free.

Focusing on supplying local people and businesses, the farm says that its produce goes from farm to fork in less than four hours. Growing Underground also supplies food retailers and doorstep delivery services.

The United Nations estimates there could be two billion more people on our planet by 2050 and global food production will need to increase by 70% to feed them. Ballard and Dring say underground farming is a good way to feed growing city populations.

Vertical farms using closed-loop hydroponics allow food production to expand even as rising urbanization causes water shortages, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They also play a key role in delivering nutritious food to the poorest in society, the FAO says.

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

As well as reducing food miles by growing food where people live, underground farms are also immune from the impact of seasonal changes and weather events.

Agriculture and Forestry account for almost a quarter (23%) of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That’s something Zero Carbon Farms is determined to change. The underground farm is certified carbon neutral.

The World Economic Forum’s report, Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation, warns that a major change in the way we produce food is needed to establish an inclusive, efficient, sustainable, nutritious and healthy food supply for a growing global population.