Watercress, rocket, sorrel, amaranth, pea shoots… tiny plants whose look of delicate freshness recalls stretches of green lands and the scent of the sun. Nothing could be farther from the ideas conjured up by a wartime bunker, with its kilometres of underground galleries in which the most concealed element is light itself and the forms of life with which it is associated.
In the heart of London, where it is all happening, the two images merge. Their synthesis goes under the name of Growing Underground, a project that has taken shape thanks to crowdfunding, together with other investors, who are ready to bet their money – over one million Euros – on the cultivation of salad varieties and greens in the deep-level air raid shelters of the “Big Smoke”. Yes, you read correctly: for decades now, the capital of the UK has lived, cried, laughed and done business whilst treading the streets above those tunnels dating back to the ‘40s of the last century, without even sparing them a thought, let alone thinking up a new way of using them.
In the meantime, Steven Dring and Richard Ballard came up with the idea of growing and selling micro greens on a commercial scale in an urban farming context. They were looking for a space to rent and had found one that was very, very unusual indeed… To be precise, their underground farming takes place in the tunnel excavated underneath Clapham High Street, a busy former Roman military thoroughfare in the eponymous south-western district of the metropolis. How, one wonders, can basil possibly grow 33 metres below ground level? Thanks to the revolution accomplished by LED technologies which, with their pinkish glow – and specific inventions to adapt them to bunkers – illuminate and warm these tiny plants to perfection. Not forgetting the progress made by hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil.
This is a computer-controlled environment: light, air, temperature and nutrients…Not only does it work, it is also amazingly eco-friendly, so much so that the firm can rightly claim to being 100% “carbon-neutral”. In the first place, hydroponics use around 70% less water than open field farming. Wherever possible, recyclable materials are utilized such as the mats on which the plants are grown. Not to mention pesticides and pollution: here they are simply inexistent. The atmosphere is incredibly free of all those pests that can attack fruit and vegetables farmed in the open air and the “laboratory style” processes are specially studied to avoid any “contamination”. The real cherry on the cake, however, is that the food miles of this type of produce are practically zero: in the space of just four hours, “Sangria radicchio”, parsley or celery may be delivered to customers who, needless to say, comprise starred restaurants and celebrity chefs. One of these, Michel Roux Jr., actually partners the project.
All of which comes at an extremely competitive price when compared to what grows “above”. The underground “farmed fields” fear no seasonal changes or quirky weather and can produce between 5,000 and 20,000 kilos of edible greens per annum, with a potential turnover of 1.8 million Euros. In the bowels of London there are six more waiting to be put to use: the firm has already implemented another round of crowdfunding with the intention of expanding its business and this round of the “agricultural revolution” seems to be going ahead most successfully.