Whichever way you look at it, it's dire straits for conventional farming. Scientists believe that we've only got 60 years left of topsoil, which is the mainstay of growing, and a lot of it is already pretty much unusable. Climate change makes it difficult to predict growing conditions of the future and there's the ever-looming threat of water-shortages and the rise of massive global urbanization. Oh, and there's a rapidly expanding population. In short, we need to have a long, hard think about how we grow and feed the planet.
Enter Steven Dring and his business partner, Richard Ballard, who have taken baby steps toward working out how to do this with a radical farm called Growing Underground. Located 179 steps underneath the street in Clapham, London, approximately four stories deeper than the Northern Line Tube track, is a small seed of hope in the race to develop sustainable urban farming.
Big environmental questions are at the heart of the operation. The underground tunnels, maintained at a constant temperature of 16 degrees Celsius (about 61 degrees Fahrenheit), with fans going to help the plants grow strong, allow year-round growing. The hydroponic technique used doesn't involve soil at all, and relies on matting and water pumps to supply the seeds with the nutrients and moisture they need. LED lights play the role of the subterranean sun.
Oh, and Growing Underground isn't just a practical idea—it's also cheffy as fuck. Dring and Ballard began by growing salad greens and micro-herbs, but ultimately hope to grow peppers and eggplants in the 65,000 square feet of dark, eerie tunnels. The project's even supported by the owner of La Gavroche, Michel Roux Jr., who is also a two-Michelin-starred MasterChef pro. He's there primarily as a visiting palate, to taste when the herbs need to be picked and when the flavor's best, but he routinely grabs stuff from the gardens to put in his dishes at Le Gavroche.
The project's been going for around two years and the herbs and salads routinely sell out when they're put on the stalls of New Covent Garden Market in London. Dring and Ballard aim to properly launch in early 2015. "We're the freshest herbs on the market at New Covent Garden Market, and people like that so we want to keep that up," says Dring. "Remember, we're just a young business—we haven't even started the full farm yet. This is a test area." The prepared salad market, he notes, should reach £1 billion (about $1.6 billion) this year.
Sure, there are plenty of customers for greens—but why farm underground? "Initially the project was sparked by ideas of vertical farming, how we adapt to a changing climate, urbanized population, water scarcity, energy, and renewables. These conversations developed into the business," Dring says. "We knew you could grow where you didn't need light, when hydroponics and LED light would do it instead. From then on, we found an LED supplier in Finland; we knew of this tunnel and it was just a case of getting the keys for these tunnels from our landlord, Transport for London (TFL), which they handed over really easily."
The tunnels were just sitting there, totally unused and ready to be developed right away. They were built as air raid shelters during the Blitz in World War II and had been empty since 1945. They were going to be built into a new train line, but that never happened.
The result is incredibly creepy. After descending the 179-step-strong exposed-concrete spiral staircase down (the elevator's broken) you're plunged into near-constant darkness. Dring turns a flashlight on and it's just the two of us down in 65,000 feet of dark, graffiti-covered tunnels.
I ask him if he ever gets scared down here. "When you're down here on your own, it certainly plays with your mind a little bit. There are noises, and when you're on your own it's not entirely pleasant, but you know the site's secure…" he drifts off. "I was worried about people living down there at first."
After a couple of break-ins by "youths" and urban explorers, Dring persuaded TFL to invest in proper doors and gates. But the early days weren't without incident—graffiti saying "this is my home" and "do not go beyond here" appeared, which rattled Dring and Ballard.
However much Dring insists that it's not all that bad down here, as we traipse through the tunnels it kind of feels like anything could happen. "Are you going to murder me?" I dramatically ask as his flashlight points to his face, like he's telling a ghost story and we're a couple of 13-year-old girls at summer camp. He looks at me pityingly. "No. I haven't killed anyone so far!"
I ask if he missed the outside world, having spent so much of his summer below ground. "I think we spend maximum half a day down here every day, and I've never thought I miss the sun, even over the summer," he says. "It's constantly 16 degrees down here, so when it's too hot it's a nice break, and when it's pissing it down with rain, it's good to spend time here too." The time not spent in the pits is in a little caravan outfitted with desks, chairs, and a "douchebag jar" full of change.
Once Dring and I get out of the dark stretches of tunnel that haven't yet been developed, the subterranean micro-garden area really is a nice place to spend time. Steven shows me mustard frills, wasabi arugula, mustard, two different kind of pea shoots, and parsley, all of which are under the careful supervision of the full-time gardener, Gabriel "Gabe" de Franco, and the pink glow of LED lights. The mustard is peppery and juicy, and all the herbs explode with the kind of flavor you just don't get in supermarkets. As de Franco's explaining the hydroponic pump system, a Tube rattles past close by and a rack of young cilantro shoots shake vigorously.
Dring is optimistic that his produce will end up in supermarkets soon. "If chefs on TV are seen to be using it, then it usually transfers over to home chefs, but that kind of food scene is probably more of a middle-class thing. Fortnum & Mason and Harrods stock," he says. "That then translates into high-end supermarkets and then it trickles out to mainstream stores."
The benefits of micro-herbs should be nothing but a boon to customers. "There's information coming out in the States saying micro-herbs have six times more nutritional value than the stuff you get in normal herbs," Dring says. "It's a load of flavor without putting a load of product on the plate at the same time."
There are many good intentions here, but I wonder how much reclaimed land can be used this way. "The percentage of how much of our day-to-day produce could be urban-grown is a moving number at the moment. We expect this kind of scheme will be a lot more common in the future. Planners and architects are building this kind of scheme into cities as they change them," says Dring. "The cities of the future will have food integrated into them."
If techniques to grow micro-basil become the means to creating sustainable food for the planet, you can't argue with that kind of optimism.