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Growing Underground: London’s secret garden

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Many curious things are buried beneath London’s busy streets. The list includes disused tube stations, 17th century plague pits, and – if you believe that sort of thing – the ghost of an ancient Egyptian priestess. The future of farming may be another.

Growing Underground is a carbon neutral farm, a project of the venture Zero Carbon Food. It sits 33 metres underground, four stories below the Northern Line in Clapham, south-west London.

Currently open for investment, the project is housed in a disused second world war bomb shelter. Its vast network of unlit tunnels could protect 8,000 Londoners, and house 4,000 staff such as medics and cooks. 

After the war, the site passed through many hands. Now it is owned by Transport for London, from whom Zero Carbon Food rents the space on a 25-year lease. 

At the end of one of these tunnels, sheltered in plastic sheeting, glowing with a bright, pinkish hue – only slightly reminiscent of a scene from Breaking Bad – the experiment is taking place. 

Zero Carbon Food is currently testing its pioneering system by growing celery, mustard leaf, broccoli, wild rocket and other salads and herbs. The seeds are sown into a fabric made from recycled and low-carbon impact cleaned carpet samples, taken from the Olympic Village. 

A hydroponics system waters them, and the plants are then nurtured by 100-watt LED lights. All this is powered by locally sourced renewable energy, and the team talks of plans for new wind and solar PV installations aboveground.

“It is a fairly simple system”, says Steven Dring (pictured, right), a co-founder of the scheme who was named by the mayor of London as one of this year’s ‘London Leaders’.

“It’s like growing cress when you’re a kid; you get a damp tissue and put some seeds on it, you use a substrate, it gets wet and you stick it under lights. It’s exactly the same.”

Dring and Richard Ballard, the other half of the founding duo, soon plan to expand their range and grow miniature vegetables such as leeks, peppers and carrots for the restaurant market. All produce will be sold within the M25.

Already a variety of buyers have expressed an interest in their produce, and celebrity chef Michael Roux Jr endorses and advises the project.

A presenter on many cooking shows and a chef at the renowned London restaurant Le Gavroche, Roux said, “I thought they were absolutely crazy but when I visited the tunnels and sampled the produce they are already growing down there I was blown away. The market for this produce is huge.” 

The team’s first target was to raise £300,000 of investment through the crowdfunding site Crowdcube, offering 15% equity to potential investors. They have already passed this target with another two weeks to go.

Dring says the team is currently considering a variety of investment strategies, while in talks with the World Bank, the World Food Programme, a number of wealthy individuals and even a faraway government.

The benefits of growing underground that are generating so much interest, Dring explains, are many.

“Ultimately, there’s a lot of empty and redundant spaces under our cities, we’re running out of arable land and we’ll continue to run out of arable land as populations grow”, he says.

“This means we’ll have to import more, which means we have less food security.”

Then there’s the temperature. As anyone who has spent an extended amount of time on the Northern Line in summer can attest, at such depths temperatures are consistently warm. 

“It’s a constant 16C down here, so the residual heat from the lights brings the temperature up naturally to the 18-22C we need for salad crops”, Dring adds.

“Then there’s the fact we’re protected from adverse weather, we can use renewable energy, we’re shortening the supply chain and cutting food miles, and we can engage with the local community and show them where their food is coming from.” 

So far below ground, there is also a welcome shortage of pests, meaning the farm’s produce can remain pesticide free. Dring tells how the team kept an eye out for rats when they first came to the tunnels: “Then the guys from Transport for London came and laughed at us. They said there’s too much food on the surface for them to come down here. 

Concern over food production and security has made headlines in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the World Bank reported that as much as a third of all the food the world produces is wasted or lost.

Researchers have also warned that a decreasingly varied global diet will leave us all more exposed to crop failure, something we will all become more familiar with as climate change takes hold. 

Feeding the world sustainably through the coming decades, as space runs out and the global population reaches 9-10 billion by the end of the century, is one of the greatest challenges we face.

In December, a study backed by the UN found that even if we eliminated food waste and evenly distributed all the food produced in 2009 around the world, then we would still need to sustainably produce 974 more calories per person every day by 2050.

With this considered, the future surely looks bright for ventures such as Zero Carbon Food. We will need bold ideas, and farms in unusual places.

The idea that two entrepreneurs and a refitted second world war bunker can play a part, however small, in meeting the food challenge is a charming one. 

“When me and Rich put this together there was three elements, the social element, the sustainable element and there had to be a return for our investors”, Dring says. 

He describes a mooted five-year exit strategy that involves the expansion of the current location and the development of other London sites, followed by a possible sale to a fresh produce business.

“However, if we can pay the right dividends, and keep our shareholders happy, we just may continue to grow the brand”, he adds.

“We’ve had investors globally who have said, ‘We’d love to see you take this to Paris into the Metro, or into Germany, and scale it across the UK and Europe. You could make a global brand out of this’.” 

So is the sky the limit? “It is”, Dring says, before looking to the bombproof ceiling and the 100ft of London’s underbelly above it. “Or not, as the case may be.” 

Further reading:

Reliance on fewer crops will increase climate change food security threat

World wastes up to a third of produced food, says World Bank

Feeding the world sustainably means investing in better solutions

World needs to sustainably produce 70% more food by 2050

Environment

4 Common Items That Can be Reused Again and Again

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reuse reduce recycle plastic bottles etc
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Vanatchanan | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/vanatchanan%20buahom

As a society we are getting much better at taking our obligations to the world and environment around us more seriously. This is undoubtedly a good thing! The effects of climate change are beginning to manifest across the world, and this is turning the issue from an abstract threat into a very real danger. Trying to introduce some greener, more eco-friendly practices into your life isn’t just a great way of doing something beneficial for society and the world around you. It is a wonderful way of engaging positively with the world and carries with it numerous psychological benefits.

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Being a greener, more ecologically friendly person doesn’t require any dramatic life changes. Breaking or making a few small habits is all it takes to make your life a greener one. In this article we look at one of the easiest, yet most effective green practices to get into: reusing everyday items.

Jars and Containers

Glass and metal are widely recycled, and recycling is a good thing! However, consider whether any containers you buy, whether it’s a tub of ice cream or a jar of coffee, can be washed out and reused for something else. Mason jars, for example, can be used to store homemade pasta sauce and can be washed for future use. Once you start thinking about it, you will find endless opportunities to reuse your old containers.

Soda Bottles

An ice-cold soda is a wonderful treat on a hot day, but buying soda can get expensive, and the manufacturing and distribution of the drinks themselves isn’t great for the environment. However, by holding on to your old soda bottles and repurposing them as water bottles, you can save money on drinks, or use them to measure out water for your garden.

Plastic Bags

Most of the time groceries come in paper bags, which are better for the environment than the plastic alternatives, but they are less durable and thus harder to reuse. Whenever the store places your items in a plastic bag, hang onto it so you can reuse the bags again. If you want to take it one step further, consider looking into buying some personalized recycled bags. These bags are designed to last for a long time and are made of recycled materials. They look striking and unique, they’ll turn heads, and maybe even attitudes!

Seeds

If you’re a keen gardener, then you will already probably know how to reseed your plants in order to ensure a fresh crop after each plant’s lifecycle. If you have space in your garden, or haven’t yet tried your hand at gardening, then consider planting a small vegetable plot. Growing your own veggies means that you’ll be helping to cut back on the emissions generated by their transport and production. The best part about growing your own food in this way is that, by harvesting properly and saving the seeds, you can be set up with fresh vegetables for life!

Reusing and recycling common household items is an easy way to make your world a little bit greener. Once you start looking for these opportunities you’ll realize that they’re everywhere!

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Environment

These 5 Green Office Mistakes Are Costing You Money

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eco-friendly green offices
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Stokkete | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/cyano

The sudden interest in green business is very encouraging. According to recent reports, 42% of all companies have rated sustainability as an important element of their business. Unfortunately, the focus on sustainability will only last if companies can find ways to use it to boost their ROI.

Many businesses get so caught up in being socially conscious that they hope the financial aspect of it takes care of itself. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to go green and boost your net income at the same time.

Here are some important mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Only implementing sustainability on micro-scale

The biggest reason that brands are going green is to improve their optics with their customers. Too many businesses are making very minor changes, such as processing paperwork online and calling themselves green.

Customers have become wary of these types of companies. If you want to earn their business, you are going to need to go all the way. Bring in a green business consultant and make every feasible change to demonstrate that you are a green organization from top to bottom.

Not prioritizing investments by long-term ROI

It isn’t realistic to build an entirely green organization overnight. You will need to allocate your capital wisely.

Before investing in any green assets or services, you should always conduct a long-term cost benefit analysis. The initial investment for some green services may be over $20,000. If they don’t shave your cost by at least $3,000 a year, they probably aren’t worth the investment.

Determine which green investments will have the best pay off over the next 10 years. Make these investments before anything else. Then compare your options within each of those categories.

Implementing green changes without a plan

Effective, long-term planning is the key to business success. This principle needs to be applied to green organizations as well.

Before implementing a green strategy, you must answer the following questions:

  • How will I communicate my green business philosophy to my customers?
  • How will running a green business affect my revenue stream?
  • How will adopting green business strategies change my monthly expenses? Will they increase or decrease them?
  • How will my company finance green upgrades and other investments?

The biggest mistake that too many green businesses make is being overly optimistic with these forecasts. Take the time to collect objective data and make your decisions accordingly. This will help you run a much more profitable green business.

Not considering the benefits of green printing

Too many companies believe that going paperless is the only way to run a green organization. Unfortunately, going 100% paperless it’s not feasible for most companies.

Rather than aim for an unrealistic goal, consider the option of using a more environmentally friendly printer. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than the alternative.

According to experts from Doranix, environmental printers have several benefits:

  • They can process paper that has been completely recycled.
  • They consume less energy than traditional printers.
  • They use ink that is more environmentally friendly.

You want to take a look at different green printers and compare them. You’ll find that some will meet your needs as a green business.

Poorly communicating your green business strategy to customers

Brand positioning doesn’t happen on its own. If you want to run a successful green business, you must communicate your message to customers as clearly as possible. You must also avoid the appearance that you are patronizing them.

The best approach is to be clear when you were first making the change. I’ll make an announcement about your company‘s commitment to sustainability.

You also want to reinforce this message overtime by using green labels on all of your products. You don’t have to be blatant with your messaging at this stage. Simply provide a small, daily reminder on your products and invoices.

Finally, it is a good idea to participate in green business seminars and other events. If your community has a local Green Chamber of Commerce, you should consider joining as well.

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