A microgreen-fingered hydroponic hero is proving that ‘zero km’ is possible – in London’s disused bomb shelters.
With his groundbreaking subterranean farm Growing Underground, Richard Ballard demonstrates how plants don’t need sunlight and that urban agriculture can help tackle food scarcity. Located 100 feet (33 metres) under the streets of London in a disused World War II air raid shelter, he produces salad greens sustainably using the latest LED technology.
The tunnel visionary loves to see people’s faces when they come down and visit: “It’s brilliant. I still get the same buzz from showing people around today as I did three or four years ago when we had one square metre growing. I love doing the tour and telling the story.”
Richard started this agricultural revolution with business partner Steven Dring in 2012, and the duo have since been joined by British two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux and won the BBC Future Food Award 2017. Today they deliver fresh hyper-local produce within just four hours of picking to the London wholesale markets who supply the city’s top restaurants and retailers – sustainability feeding the city from within the city.
Obsessed by all things green tech and the future of cities, we talked to the ‘pea shoot whisperer’ about hydroponics, data, vertical farms and competing with traditional methods. (Did you know that there are over 100 types of broccoli?)
The days of the sprig of parsley on the side of the plate are over. Microgreens are very new. A lot of very high end restaurants are now using them, not for garnish, but for flavour. So chefs are really interested in what we’re doing – though no one else is doing a retail pack, as far as I know.
We use hydroponics plus LED lighting. It’s a method of growing plants where the nutrient is carried to the plant in water rather than soil. Depending on the crop grown, it can use up to 70% less water than conventional agriculture. LED technology is in its infancy, so who knows in 20 years what we’ll be growing?
My co-founder Steve and I grew up in the suburbs of Bristol. Steve is a big foodie. Friends from school, we were around farming communities, but had very little knowledge or real experience of the land. We used to talk about business ideas, and the idea of growing food in this way stuck.
Steve had a lightbulb moment when he got his pension letter. It said that his pension would mature in 2037 or something! He knew he wanted something different. We both felt for the second part of our lives we wanted to do something meaningful. That really drove us, and still does to this day.
The financial crash of 2008 awakened my desire to push boundaries. I was angry with the system and how it worked. I lost the business I had been working on for ten years – a high-end garden furniture import business.
I moved to London and embarked on a film degree. My friends thought I was having my mid-life crisis, much to their amusement, but it’s something I always wanted to do.
I was always interested in sustainability, tech and the future of cities. Through my studies I found the work of Jeremy Rifkin and his work on the democratisation of energy and it got me really excited. So I started making a film about the future of food: how we feed and power future generations with a growing population.
I became aware of tunnels underground. I made a film about ‘hidden London’ and as I investigated I discovered air raid shelters that were built during World War II.
Dickson Despommier came up with the concept of a vertical farm. It was in the early noughties with his class of students at Columbia University. I realised you could grow food without the aid of natural sunlight, purely under LEDs, and I thought about those tunnels I had seen.
We can compete with traditional methods. Although we have a higher bill for LED lighting, we don’t have to put heat in the tunnel. We have a year round temperature of about 13-15 degrees, the LEDs take that up to about 25 degrees. With ventilation and movement of air, we can optimise the environment. We grow pea shoots in six days under lights year round – that’s much better than anything a farm above ground can achieve consistently through the year
We use data to work out the optimum environment for growing. We monitor yields every day when we cut. Cambridge University’s Engineering Department provided us with sensors that read the temperature, humidity, CO2 and air velocity throughout the tunnel. A platform with machine learning capability collects the data from all the sensors and alerts you to any anomalies. It gives us access to the sort of technology being used in big agricultural projects, but that would be too expensive for us to put together.
There are about 100 different varieties of broccoli! Growing in this kind of environment enables us to look at reintroducing heritage crops that haven’t been grown for a long time or that are sat in seed banks.
It was a big moment when we passing our BRC and Field to Fork certification. To have built something from just experimenting in a tunnel to something that meets the standards of big retailers like M&S is exciting. We got an A grade for BRC, which is unheard of for a new company and tells us we are doing something right.
We are looking at other locations. We currently only use 20% of the 65,000 square feet of space we have, so I’m planning to increase our growing area by about five times.
Urban agriculture is not going to totally replace farming. In the next 20 to 30 years I don’t see many farmers worrying about their potatoes or root vegetables being taken over by urban farming.
We don’t need to fly things across the planet. We can create perishable crops all year round, even in the northern hemisphere where it’s cold.
We will get to a point where energy becomes very, very cheap if not free. The democratisation of energy, and the way we are going with renewables, means you can produce the staples like wheat, soy and maize. You can start building vertical farms on the outskirts of cities – that could stop the sort of deforestation we are seeing in Brazil for soy.
This works as well in cold countries as it does in hot countries. Sometimes there’s too much sun and you have to protect a crop from that. Digging the tunnels where they don’t exist, in places like the Middle East, would create a great growing facility.
We are supportive of overground controlled environment growing too. Greenhouses on top of a city building or warehouses are still a sustainable option as it reduces food miles.
Big multinationals are changing – slowly. As a new company we can choose to work towards a low carbon economy or to adopt the sustainable development goals from the beginning.
The impact of everyone making small changes makes a huge difference. Each generation comes through with new ideas and a new understanding of the system, and can re-educate older people (like myself!)
We have about 12 people that work for us. Seeing their motivation and their dedication is amazing. We have a great team working in the farm and the office. Without them we wouldn’t have anything.
We keep waiting for the day when… someone would say “you can’t do this because…” but it has never happened!
If I could have a FuturePower… it would be to be able to see the future of cryptocurrencies!
Listen ► Richard Ballard was talking to Cathy Runciman. Feel the joy as the Atlas co-founder talks about the most creative Atlas project and the most moving. (Spoiler Alert: includes sheep and vultures!)
Watch ► Richard appeared at Atlas of the Future’s Barcelona conference: ‘Fixing the future: adventures in a better tomorrow’. Check out the video here.