This hidden farm under London might radically change how we grow food

“The population is growing, demand for food will only increase, and we’re running out of farm land. We think finding alternatives that make the best use of unused land is the future.”

When you imagine visiting a farm, pictures of rolling countrysides, tractors, barns, and sunny skies pop into your head. Old mineshaft-like industrial elevators do not, but for my farm visit, one was essential. Why? Because this farm is located 11 stories, or about 33 meters (108 feet) below the streets of London.

Growing Underground is the world’s first underground eco-farm and there isn’t a tractor in sight. Instead, it’s a cross between the sci-fi movie Silent Running and the public’s idea of what an illicit cannabis growing operation probably looks like. The place has built in air raid tunnels from the 1940s that once held bunk beds for up up to 8,000 people. Today, a different kind of bed lines the tunnel walls.

Stacked, 2×1-meter trays house a variety of micro herbs, from mustard to pea shoots, all of which are grown in a tightly controlled, completely artificial environment. Aside from the herbs, and the small Growing Underground team, nothing else fills the tunnels. No rats, no moles, not even spiders. Before the farm took up residence, data storage companies used it to house paper files. Threats of terrorism, and fear of a locked down city, have seen data storers move — rather ironically — out into the countryside.

Mass agriculture is damaging the environment

Deep under the city is the last place you’d expect to find a farm, but the argument for putting one there is compelling. Steven Dring, who looks after the business side of the farm, said “The population is growing, demand for food will only increase, and we’re running out of farm land. Mass agriculture has a big impact on the environment. We think finding alternatives that make the best use of unused land, and not ripping down rain forests, is the future.”

Richard Ballard, co-founder of Growing Underground, explained how he came across the tunnels quite by accident, after conducting research on a documentary about hidden London. Starting an underground eco-farm was the furthest thing from his mind at first, but it turns out, an underground farm not only has a tiny impact on the environment, it is also ideally suited to growing certain crops and shockingly cost effective. One square foot of tunnel space costs little more than £1 ($1.55), while above ground at central London rates, that same plot could cost up to £130 ($201.05) per square foot.

Once I descended to the depths, I was shown around the tunnels. They stretch for more than 500 meters (1,640 feet), the atmosphere stays at a constant 50-degrees, and the air has a distinct taste to it. It’s not unpleasant, nor dusty, and there is natural ventilation throughout; but the air’s density makes you very aware of the unusual surroundings. Large fans keep the air circulating, an essential piece of the puzzle for growing crops deep underground.

A sci-fi environment with considerable future implications

Without trying, the team has created something straight out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The tunnels seem to go on for miles; the futuristic pink, white, and blue LED lighting bathes everything in bright light; and the feeling of isolation is uncanny. Trains running along the nearby London Underground tunnels rumble their way past, providing a vibration you feel through your feet, and a bass throng you feel in your stomach. If you didn’t know, it could be the machines waging war on the surface. I bet those hiding from the Blitz may have felt something similar.

“Four years ago, from a technical standpoint, none of this was possible.”

It’s a considerable technical challenge to maintain a farm that’s completely removed from the sun, water, and moving air. The solution is to use existing agri-tech products in unconventional ways. Strips of custom LED lights replace the sun, and are mounted a set height above the crops. After testing five different versions, models from a Finnish manufacturer were chosen. Surprisingly, the lights can affect the taste of the growing crops, as can tweaking the spectrum of light produced, Chris Nelson, co-founder and horticultural expert told me. “Four years ago, from a technical standpoint, none of this was possible,” he said.

The farm isn’t connected to the main water supply, and instead uses huge water tanks and a custom built irrigation system to water the crops. Each tank is bathed in blue LED light, and banked by blinking red indicator lamps. The steel walls curve over the top, valves and timers scatter the floor, and a tangled framework of pipes send the water to plastic tubes that run across the top of the growing benches. The water is recycled, cleaned, and checked before going round again. Fertilizer and and an antibacterial treatment is used, and the whole system only occasionally needs a top up.

While the water and artificial sun are cheap to maintain once up and running, they both require electricity, which is the farm’s biggest cost, and one which it needs to get from the world upstairs. Growing Underground takes its power from Green Energy, which provides clean power from wind and water. The temperature is raised and controlled to around 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), mainly through recovered heat produced by the LED lights.

Going from the brightly lit linking tunnels to the vivid pink growing room, then the alarming total darkness of the water pump room with only the din from the water pumps for company; it was, again, easy to imagine being aboard a spacecraft. I asked if a farm like this could, theoretically, be used by astronauts or on other planets. The answer is yes, because the entire farm is almost completely self contained. In fact, not only could it be used in space, but also in a submarine, or stored in a crate and buried beneath the desert. All the while still consistently producing fresh food.

Micro herbs are just the start

How much food, and what kind, you ask? At the moment, Growing Underground produces 10 different micro herbs, which will be sold to traders at the New Covent Garden Market before ultimately gracing the dishes made by chefs at many of London’s best and biggest restaurants. The hospitality trade is the target at the moment, but consumers could be catered for in the future. The crops have been chosen because demand is high, and outstrips what the farm can currently produce.

Once built to protect the city’s population during war, the tunnels are being given an entirely new and exciting life.

Take mustard, as an example. It’s about seven days between planting and harvesting, and the farm can produce 700 wholesale cases each day, seven days a week, 365 days per year. That’s using the 90 meters (295 feet) of beds that are currently operational. The maximum size of the facility is more than 540 meters (1772 feet). There are no seasons, it’s never too hot or too wet, the days start when the team wants — it’s ‘day’ is between midnight and 6 p.m. in the farm at the moment, to take advantage of cheaper energy rates — and the results taste the same, if not better than anything grown on the surface. It’s fresher too, because the mustard is seeded and harvested once each day, and reaches the market in a matter of hours, not days. Eating some straight from the growing bed, it tasted pretty good to me.

The 10 herbs are just the start. The capacity is there for hundreds of varieties, and the farm could expand to grow anything from micro vegetables, edible flowers, super foods, or plants that are used for medicinal purposes. Growing Underground will officially begin production, and start selling produce, by August. At this time the growing rooms will be isolated, and visitors will need to wear special clothing to enter. It’ll be less like visiting Zion from the Matrix, and more like hanging out on the Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Emerging back out onto the streets of Clapham, south London, after my tour concluded made the Growing Underground farm’s existence seem almost impossible. It’s surreal that next time you dine out in London, there’s a chance the herbs that complete each dish originated in tunnels dozens of meters below the streets.

Once built to protect the city’s population during war, and after storing bits of paper for years, the tunnels have an entirely new and exciting life. It’s one that’s fuelled by innovation and environmental concern, and made possible by creative use of modern technology. While diners at expensive restaurants will get the benefits for now, the implications of the Growing Underground project — a self-contained, zero-emission, fully working farm that can operate almost anywhere on or off the planet — are tremendously exciting.

Smart Home

4 small appliances that have changed the way we cook food (for the better)

These are exciting times for home cooks seeking to advance or simplify their technique in the kitchen, thanks in part to four small appliances that have made a splash in the past few years. Here’s why you should consider buying them.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in December, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to 'Roma'

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Emerging Tech

Photosynthesizing artificial leaf may be the air-cleaning tool we’ve dreamed of

Engineers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have invented an artificial leaf which could both clean up our air and provide a cost-effective type of fuel. Here's how it works.

Having enough RAM is important, but stick to these guidelines to save some money

Although not quite as exciting as processors and graphics cards, RAM is one of the most important parts of your PC. Not having enough can hurt performance. So, how much RAM do you need?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

Here’s how Facebook taught its Portal A.I. to think like a Hollywood filmmaker

When Facebook introduced its Portal screen-enhanced smart speakers, it wanted to find a way to make video chat as intimate as sitting down for a conversation with a friend. Here's how it did it.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s space observatory will map the sky with unprecedented detail

NASA is preparing to launch a cutting-edge space observatory to create the most detailed map ever produced of the sky. Doing so will involve surveying hundreds of millions of galaxies. Here's how it plans to do it.
Smart Home

No strings attached: This levitating lamp uses science to defy gravity

Now on Kickstarter, the Levia lamp is a cool industrial-looking lamp which boasts a levitating bulb. Looking for a table light that will dazzle visitors? You've come to the right place.
Emerging Tech

The Great White Shark’s genome has been decoded, and it could help us end cancer

In a significant step for marine and genetic science, researchers have decoded the genome of the great white shark. The genetic code revealed a wealth of insight into what makes these creatures so successful from an evolutionary standpoint.
Emerging Tech

‘Guerrilla rainstorm’ warning system aims to prevent soakings, or worse

Japanese researchers have created a "guerrilla rainstorm" early-warning system aimed at preventing severe soakings, or worse. The team hopes to launch the system before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Barbie’s Corvette ain’t got nothing on Sphero’s fully programmable robot car

Sphero is known for devices like the Sphero Bolt and BB-8 Star Wars toy, but now the company is back with another addition to its lineup -- the Sphero RVR. The RVR is a fully programmable robot car that can be expanding with different…
Emerging Tech

Japanese spacecraft will collect a sample from asteroid Ryugu by shooting at it

The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 will soon touch down on the asteroid Ryugu, where it will collect a sample by shooting a bullet into the soil. The sample will be returned to Earth in 2020 to learn about the formation of asteroids.