Underground farming is the practice of farming underground, and aims to create a stable environment consistently to sustainably grow food. It creates opportunities for agriculture to expand without impacting land use. It is thought to have started over 30 years ago in Bolivia to maintain food security.
Zero Carbon Farms
In a south London World War 2 air raid shelter 30 m below ground, Zero Carbon Farms created its first underground farm; a design reminiscent of vertical farming. They have since expanded, doubling their growing area to over 1,000 meters squared. Due to the farm’s location, there is built-in insulation from the cold and “virtual private wiring” that the company had installed, bringing in energy from renewable energy sources. Here the seeds are sewn on carpet offcuts, using 70-90% less water and 95% less fertilizer than a conventional farm aboveground.
Zero Carbon Farms is also BCorp Certified, meaning that they meet rigorous standards in terms of sustainability. According to BCorp, they have achieved a score of 90.7, and an ordinary business would earn a score of 50.9. They can operate on renewable energy, maintaining farming productivity using less space, time, and water and reducing their food waste and carbon footprint.
This farm grows microgreens and baby leaves which successfully provides organic produce for many restaurants and cafes nearby as well as major UK retailers. Many consumers have praised the farm and its products due to the sustainable production. It is also praised for the freshness of the product as it can make it to the diner’s plate within two hours of harvesting.
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota
In the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, near the southern border, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe created their underground farm or “walipini”. On the reservation, about eight underground greenhouses have been constructed with the hope to improve access to affordable and nutritious food. The reservation has faced challenges with this due to their experiences with the climate crisis, with the hope that these farms will be the solution. According to the residents, intense rainstorms, heatwaves, and flooding have affected everyone in the community, flooding roads and damaging schools and residential buildings. The effects of COVID-19 have also recently increased challenges with accessing affordable and nutritious food.
Different underground farms use various techniques to construct and maintain the farm. Using a greenhouse-style roof where the roof is slightly above the ground, they can use a “passive solar system”, in which heat is still absorbed by the sun to maintain warmth. These greenhouses also use geothermal energy to maintain a steady temperature during the colder months. Some use salvaged materials and even dirt-filled tires to build the greenhouse. These greenhouses have been able to feed hundreds of people in the community, now able to receive local, fresh produce.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Underground farming creates the potential to farm anywhere, even in harsher climate conditions. The main concern would be maintaining a stable environment below ground. It also creates an excellent opportunity for agriculture in a city by reducing land use, lowering delivery emissions, and increasing the likelihood of stable fresh produce to retailers and consumers nearby. As shown in the Zero Carbon Farms example, these underground farms also decrease the amount of food waste, use less water and less pesticide than a conventional farm. This is all due to their design, allowing for more control over the environment and its products.
The main disadvantages with underground farming include the expensive upfront cost and the specialized education needed to successfully operate these systems. Depending on the underground farm environment, making it suitable (and sanitary) for growing produce could be difficult and expensive. It can also be costly to fund renewable energy entirely upfront. Invested money can be made back through energy savings in the long run, but more support from the government and educators could help this type of farming become mainstream and accessible for communities.
BCorporation. (2022). Zero Carbon Farms Ltd T/A Growing Underground. https://www.bcorporation.net/en-us/find-a-b-corp/company/zero-carbon-farms-ltd-t-a-growing-underground
Golden, H. (2022, December 3). An Indigenous reservation has a novel way to grow food – below the earth’s surface. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/03/south-dakota-reservation-food-desert-residents-transforming-crop-oasis
GreenForges. (2022). The Benefits and Challenges of Underground Farming. https://www.greenforges.com/blog/the-benefits-and-challenges-of-underground-farming
Young, S., & Nulty, A. (2022, November 28). Food of the future: London air raid shelter to underground farm. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/food-future-london-air-raid-shelter-underground-farm-2022-11-28/
Zero Carbon Farms. (2022). The world’s first subterranean urban farm. https://zerocarbonfarms.co.uk/clapham-farm/