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One hundred feet below London, old World War II bomb shelters have been turned into a sustainable farm.

Author: Kristy

Feeding ten billion people means growing crops faster, smarter

By-Daniel Stone
Photographs and videos by Spencer Millsap
PUBLISHED APRIL 23, 2014

Light, seeds, soil, and water. The recipe for growing food out of the ground is among the planet’s simplest equations. Tweak the variables—less light, different dirt—and you can grow anything from feathery lettuce that’s lighter than air to a beefy jackfruit, the world’s densest fruit, which can weigh more than a hundred pounds.

So it’s strange that in the middle of the day on a recent Thursday we’re walking through a dark tunnel on the way to a farm. The facility is a hundred feet below the streets of London, 179 steps down, in an old air-raid shelter built in 1944 for protection from German bombs. During the blitz more than 6,000 people huddled shoulder to shoulder in this small tunnel. Today the only overnight occupants are a few green shoots of radish, celery, and spinach. They’re prodded to grow by a simple aquaponics system where water circulates through a series of trays that hold the crops. There’s no soil, only old carpet from renovated hotel rooms. LED lights powered by wind turbines on the surface emit a light pink hue, the precise mix of ultraviolet and infrared light that the plants need. Anything extra would be wasted energy.

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“We don’t know entirely what to expect,” says Steve Dring while we’re walking through the dark tunnel. Dring, along with his business partner, Richard Ballard, came up with the idea last year to build a farm underground, away from a natural source of water and far removed from the sun. Rent for the space was cheap as long as they could live with a few small water leaks in the 70-year-old tunnels. No one else was using the facility (a night club was turned away because there weren’t enough exits). Once Dring and Ballard had gotten a lease to grow crops, their lawyer admitted that he was curious about what the two men might actually grow in a dark, private space using artificial lights.

The novelty of an underground farm that grows spinach and garnish herbs for high-end salads isn’t lost on them. They know farming underground isn’t the key to feeding a global population. But the quirkiness of the idea could provoke questions about what tomorrow’s farms might look like. It also makes for good PR and fund-raising: Virtually every tech-news outlet has come asking for a tour, hoping to provoke its readers with a shocking headline about whether growing underground is the future of global agriculture.

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