Q&A with Steven Dring, Co-founder of Growing Underground
Q: What makes you stand out?
A: There is no other farm in the UK that grows fresh produce underground using hydroponics and the latest LED lighting. Covering 1 hectare, we will grow the greens with no pesticides, 70% less water than open-field salad growing, and produce no nutrient run-off in our closed-loop system. We will only deliver within Greater London, so very low food miles compared with those imported from the continent, and we are regenerating urban space; the bomb shelter under Clapham has not been used since 1946. We also use less energy than like-for-like greens grown above ground and all our electricity comes from renewables.
Q: Why do you care?
A: My co-founder Richard and I are concerned about how we transition away from a carbon-based economy, for all the obvious reasons. Starting a new business that depended on fossil fuels didn't make sense, not least because the energy market is so volatile. Richard was even going as far as asking whether we should be profiting from growing food. But if you accept investment, you can accelerate change, and we wanted to make sustainable food production a viable investment.
Q: Is being responsible good for business?
A: There’s more brand value in retail than in catering, although provenance is important to chefs and restaurants too. The fact we’re an underground farm is irrelevant; it’s primarily the quality and nutritional value of our produce that matters. Because we can get our greens onto the chopping board within 4 hours, the produce is fresh and has therefore retained its nutrients. Once they’ve been cut, greens start to degrade. I struggle to imagine why someone wouldn’t factor sustainability into their business. If you’re not a responsible company you’re certain to lose customer support at some point too.
Q: Has the business changed you?
A: Before we set up our company I wondered what on earth I could do to change anything; the classic bystander effect when you let someone else will deal with things. But there's a lot of disruption going on out there, including in agriculture. I’ve definitely become a more positive person; it’s great to be a part of this ‘disruption’ and we’re constantly meeting similarly positive people with extraordinary outlooks on the future. In terms of my consumption patterns, I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I still sometimes use convenience stores. But you try your absolute hardest.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: When I quit my office job where I’d been for 17 years, I burned all my suits in an oil drum. And now I’m master of my own destiny, thinking about my legacy and how at the end of it all, I can say that I had a go.
Q: Plans for the future?
A: We decided on our company name ‘Zero Carbon Food Limited’ (although we trade as Growing Underground) to be provocative. But we do want to be carbon neutral and offsetting is a key part of this. We are also hoping to transition to an organic nutrient (fertiliser) in the near future. Continuous improvement is built into our business model.