Subterranean salad producer Growing Underground, which grows microgreens 33m below London streets, has landed the prestigious Future Food category at the BBC Food and Farming Awards.
Designed to celebrate cutting-edge innovation that could influence how food will be grown, distributed and sold in the future, the award celebrates novel methods of food production.
Located in World War II air raid shelters below the streets of Clapham in south London, Growing Underground is a hydroponic farm dedicated to growing salad leaves and microgreens under LED lighting. After trialling 40 different types of plants, 10 are now being grown on a significant scale. Crops include peas, purple radish, coriander, fennel and garlic chives.
Plants are germinated underground on propagation mats before being raised under pink LED lights. The crops are grown in a closed ebb and flood system in liquid fortified with nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, without the need for pesticides.
So far this year, the business has signed a contract with Ocado and is about to launch a salad range with Marks & Spencer.
Co-founder of the business Steven Dring recognised that underground farms would never replace conventional agriculture. But they could make a significant contribution to cutting the length of food supply chains in an age when global megacities are proliferating, he added.
"We are careful to use the word 'complementary' rather than portray the business as a replacement for farming," said Dring. "In the future, we envisage a lot of areas [underground] growing salad products."
The other Future Food category finalists were Islander Rathlin Kelp and the Seed Co-operative. Based on Raithlin Island, off Northern Ireland, Islander grows kelp to make a range of food products. Harvested kelp is blanched, to bring out its vibrant colour and to remove salt, before being cut into noodles and tagliatelle. Minced and whole leaves are also used to make pesto.
The community-owned Seed Co-operative is dedicated to promoting open pollinated vegetable and crop seeds that everyone can afford, grow and save. Based in south Lincolnshire, the organisation works with growers and farmers nationwide to protect the genetic biodiversity and accessibility of seed stocks.
Judges of the Future Food award were John Vincent, co-founder of the upmarket fast food chain Leon, and Food Manufacture's group editor Mike Stones.