So far in this series we've talked about the challenges faced by urban farmers of today, with space being the key concern. We've seen how companies in the US are capitalising on the under-utilised rooftops of our urban fabric and how organisations across the world are turning to indoor vertical farms, making use of abandoned and under-valued buildings around our cities where space comes cheap. In this week's case study, we're going one step further... underground.
Humans have been obsessed with making use of the space beneath our feet since we started to live in cities. From the first sewage systems built by the Romans as far back as 800BC, to to the first underground train network which has operated in London since 1863. But more recently, in our cities, humans are coming up with more and more effecient ways of using the sub-terranean world to our advantage.
Take Tokyo for example, where bicycle parking has been taken underground through the use of a system devised by engineering firm Giken Seisakusho, which can store 144 bikes in a space just 7m wide. Use of bicycles is on the rise in Japanese cities, where air quality from automobiles is a serious threat. With urban populations far exceeding that of other cycling cities such as Amsterdam, Tokyo needed more than just multi-tiered bike stacks on the street. By utilising the underground, bikes are stored out of the way, with only a deposit system at the surface.
"We have a growing population and a finite amount of land"
Those who understand the looming issue of a growing urban population combined with an unsustainable food supply chain, know that there is an opportunity here that's hard to ignore:
"We have a growing population and a finite amount of land. We've got to find other spaces to grow in” - Steven Dring, Wired, 2017
Having built a hydroponic vertical farm in Clapham, London: Growing Underground is one of the only new agri-tech companies to start subterranean growing: based in one of a network of 7 tunnels built as a bomb shelter under the Northern line stations at Clapham between 1940 and 1942.
Now if you're thinking that the concept of an underground farm amounts to nothing more than a marketing quirk, then let me stop you there. Growing Undergound's success is making serious waves in the sustainable food game. So much so, that GU has caught the attention of many high street supermarkets, who they now supply leafy greens: Marks & Spencer; Waitrose; Wholefoods; Planet Organic; & Ocado to name a few. The company has also had the quality of their produce attested by celebrity chef and now partner in Growing Underground, Michael Roux Jr.
Bringing these names into their supply chain has some exciting implications, as it starts to shift the focus of high street supermarkets towards thinking about new and more sustainable supply chains where possible. Studies show that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products nowadays, but they are also demanding more from businesses to strive for sustainable practices.
"we've taken a more pragmatic, perhaps more British approach"
So how has Growing Underground managed to go from relative obscurity to now supplying some of the most reputable retailers on the high street? I caught up with one of the two founders, Steven Dring to find out what sets GU apart:
"What differentiates us is that we are focusing on the end user & consumer. We could've started with the technology first but we've taken a more pragmatic, perhaps more British approach and made sure that we had the customers in place and the demand to drive expansion in the future."
Whilst we've talked about how new technology is aiding the development of sustainable food systems, what's key that Dring has picked up on, is that the business of supplying zero-carbon food has to sustainable in itself. Growing Underground may be the only underground farm in the world today, but it isn't the only vertical farm using hydroponics to grow in a city. However, they are the first UK-based supplier to successfully penetrate the high street markets, and their pragmatic, Biritish approach to business has clearly been instrumental to their success.
So has their success had any affect on the market?
"We've had a number of people interested from the investor side, and on the customer side that we wouldn't have expected at the start of this journey. Even the high street burger chains are now looking a few years down the road to make sure that they have a sustainable supply chain in place for the lettuce in their burgers. We're inevitably going to see more entries into the marketplace for vertical farming in the UK, but I think you'll be surprised by who will enter the picture in the coming years."
The Challenges of the Future
As with many other forms of vertical farming, the idea of growing food underground faces the same challenges as indoor farms. For example, the current operational focus predominantly yields leafy greens and micro greens. What this means is that bulkier crops are then expected to then be grown above ground, in other methods to vertical farming. However this is merely a limitation of today's standards, as Dring alludes to:
"The plan for the immediate future is all about scaling up towards rapid expansion to meet the growing demand... but we will definitely end up in multiple markets, looking at new products. The R&D industry for sustainable food presenting a big opportunity. Probably one of the biggest challenges for the next 5 years will be keeping up with demand. Most big retailers are already starting to think about fresh, sustainable produce, but they want to see that there is a 20 year supply chain in place."
Growing Underground have shown unequalled shrewdness in how they've entered the UK's sustainable food market, let alone the vertical farming industry - by securing key customers, before driving expansion of technology and diversification of produce. They've also highlighted a unique opportunity that subterranean space in our cities afford. Is this approach the answer to mitigating all of the road blocks to sustainable urban farming the industry has already faced? Although Growing Underground are the first major player to begin to answer this question, there are some new and novel projects underway that may have their own part to play in the industry.
In 2018, another new development in the currently small market of underground growing may have already started. Prof Saffa Riffat, chair in sustainable energy at Nottingham’s faculty of engineering, is working with research fellow Prof Yijun Yuan, a specialist in mining engineering, on a 2-3 year project, focusing on opportunities in the UK and China.
The Nottingham-based pair have managed to secure a patent for their system, which includes the construction of deep vertical shafts to house growing chambers, which could then be connected to existing tunnel networks. These are the types of projects that 5 or 10 years ago would have been laughed out of existence as the mere workings of an over-active imagination from a sci-fi fan... However in 2019, when Growing Underground are proving that there is a sustainable commercial model to underground farming, why not push the conversation beyond if it is possible, to what exactly is possible when it comes to this burgeoning new industry.
If you're in London, and want to see what an underground vertical farm looks like in practice, then head over to Growing Underground's eventbrite page to book a tour.