I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at each other, people’s heads are down as they walk quickly to an office or home and barely anyone notices a padlocked gate to an off round building set slightly back from the road.
But it is here that a revolution in farming is starting that could help bring agriculture from the leafy countryside right into the heart of our noisy cities.
There is no obvious bell to ring – so I shout and a friendly face pops out from a Portacabin. The face belongs to Steven Dring, who together with Richard Ballard has built a farm 33 metres below street level in the dark and damp tunnels of an old municipal bomb shelter. Their company is called Growing Underground.
We pull open the metal doors to the stairwell and take the long walk down the spiral staircase. It looks like a disused railway station but Steve tells us it was a shelter for VIPs during the war. The locals got annoyed that they couldn’t use it and persuaded the authorities to open it to everyone. However it took so long to build, no one is sure that it was ever actually used.
At the end of one of the tunnels they have constructed a tent in which they can control the lighting, hearing and circulating water supply. To the background sound of the rumbling tube trains which seem to be all around us, they are growing salads for use by restaurants. One of their backers and customers is Michelle Roux Junior – the Michelin starred chef and owner of the restaurant La Gavroche – which sits the other, distinctly more upmarket, part of town.
We have lots of filming to do, Steve says there is a phone linked by cable to the surface, so we can call him if we need to find our way out. With that, he leaves us to our own devices whilst he heads top-side to sell more salad.
We wondered around with the square LED battery light we use for filming and occasionally turn it on under me face to add to the ghoulish feel of the place. It wasn’t long before we got lost. Every tunnel looked the same. Endless damp tubes seemingly leading to no-where.
Getting lost was funny then it was worrying. I can get lost when I’m in central London and can jump on a bus to get me home – so down here with no obvious way out – it was clear I should never have gone far from the phone connection to the surface.
The crew were more confident of finding our way back and did eventually get us back to the tunnel being used to grow salad. I picked up the phone to say we could do with a guide to find our way back to the exit stairs – only to find that wasn’t working.
Well at least we wouldn’t starve. We had a tunnel full of salad to keep us going until someone noticed we were missing.
This underground farm is a curious world within a world. A world of opposites – dark, damp and un-light brick tunnels hosting a brightly light tent, smelling of fresh herbs and the sound of filtered water being pumped round.
But this underground farm isn’t meant to be just a novelty. Food miles accounts for a huge amount of wasted energy in the food industry. Transporting food from farm to fork involves a lot of transportation, packaging, pollution and waste. Bringing food production nearer to where it is consumed can help dramatically cut the waste and pollution.
The company I’m visiting, claims its food can be picked and in a kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packed. By using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology, their crops can be grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment.
Because it has total control over their environment, they can create a consistency that helps quality control.
Their hydroponics system, they say, uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, and because all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system they say they run no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off.
Bringing food production closer to the market is serves is an appealing notion. Whether it can be a significant contribution to world agriculture, is another matter. But who knows, maybe one day the cities will be home to hundred of underground farms where city inhabitants need only reach below their feet to pluck a carrot and a nice sprig of rosemary.