It has been estimated that the UK’s population will reach 76 million by 2045. With issues of food insecurity already rising in the UK, there is growing concern on how we will feed our future population. Current intensive agricultural methods used within our globalised food system to feed the UK have devastating environmental consequences and with more people to feed, increasing food production through our current farming strategies will only worsen these environmental effects. Our growing population puts further pressure on our already limited arable land resources needed to produce food, causing concern over food security. To tackle these agricultural issues and ensure food security for the UK, it has been suggested that we grow our food underground, specifically in the thousands of abandoned coal mines in the UK as shown on the map.
What’s wrong with the UK’s current food production strategy?
The majority of food that feeds the UK population is grown above ground, using excessive amounts of water, toxic fertilisers and pesticides and soil degrading techniques that damage biodiversity and fresh water supplies and emit high greenhouse gas emissions. Also, 50% of the UK’s food is imported from other countries, adding a hefty carbon footprint in the form of food miles to our food. The way in which we currently produce food requires masses of land to do so. Globally, land coverage the same size as South America was used to provide food for the world’s population in 2009. According to recent projections, agricultural land that is at least the size of Brazil would need to be acquired by 2050 to feed the world’s population if we continue our current agricultural system of growing food above ground.
Vertical farming for UK food security?
An alternative food production strategy to tackle the environmental and limited land issues associated with traditional farming methods is vertical farming. Vertical farming (pictured left) involves growing crops on top of one another using hydroponics (growing crops without using non-renewable soil but with a water-nutrient feed) within a skyscraper. Its atmosphere is mostly controlled by technology, such as LED lighting as well as natural sunlight use to allow for efficient crop growth and more annual harvests in comparison to traditional farming. Vertical farms are often found in urban areas, as can be seen in Tokyo’s vertical farm named Pasona and allows for urban residents to have quick access to fresh food with low food miles. Not only does vertical farming boast an efficient use of vertical space and ability to grow food crops quickly to satisfy demand, it also uses significantly less water and energy in comparison to traditional farming
However, vertical farms such as Pasona (pictured right) often require new skyscrapers to be built in urban areas where land is expensive and limited, creating a land access challenge for this agricultural strategy. Also, the temperature within the building can be affected by extreme weather events, meaning a high amount of costly energy is used to cool and heat the atmosphere to maintain the perfect growing temperature, therefore increasing the strategy’s carbon footprint and energy output.
An opportunity underground for UK food security?
Professor Riffat argues that the UK has thousands of redundant coal mines that provide perfect underground agricultural spaces to feed our future population. Her vision (pictured left) uses the same methods as vertical farming with stacked crops grown using hydroponics within a controlled atmosphere to provide higher yields of fresh food per year with lower food miles to the UK’s residents in comparison to traditional farming. But this will occur under our feet, addressing the issue of limiting arable land resources for food production. This would allow for land above ground to be used for housing or animal agriculture. Farming underground also uses even less energy than vertical farming, allowing for underground farming in coal mines to be a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective food security strategy. This is achieved due to the insulating, subterranean nature of the coal mines allowing for a consistent temperature to be sustained as they are less affected by temperature fluctuations above ground, meaning the only heat energy used to maintain optimum growing temperatures is from the LED lamps. Carbon capture systems would be used where the carbon dioxide produced is stored underground, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. The underground shelter of coal mines also promotes food security as crops will be protected from terrorism and war, allowing for food supplies to be maintained during times of political volatility.
A successful example of farming underground that could be a model for coal mine farms can be seen in Clapham, named Growing Underground (pictured right). Growing Underground is an abandoned World War 2 bomb shelter that has been transformed into an underground farm, providing London with fresh food. Unlike vertical farms that acquire energy from fossil fuels, Growing Underground uses renewable energy during off peak electricity timings and uses 70% less water compared to traditional open farming. A benefit of developing agriculture in coal mines is the potential for increased employment and green economic opportunity in areas where the coal mining industry collapsed in the 1980s, such as in areas of Yorkshire where residual deprivation exists.
What’s the problem?
Although less energy and therefore cost would be required to maintain a controlled climate underground, the technology needed, such as LED lights and hydroponics, are still expensive. Although this farming vision is successfully developing in wealthier countries, such as the UK, China and France, the scalability of this strategy is limited to those who can afford to implement it.
Growing crops in abandoned coal mines provides an opportunity for the UK to further its food security whilst farming with more sustainable, cheaper practices that use less water and energy than traditional farming methods. A successful model has already been achieved in Clapham, where residents have access to fresh foods within hours of their harvesting. There are approximately 1,500 unused coal mines in the UK that would provide perfect spaces for agriculture, so what are we waiting for?