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Underground Green Farming

According to the United Nations, food production around the world currently accounts for 40% of land use, 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70% of freshwater consumption. With respect to feeding the growing world population, however, another point becomes a major problem: Earth has lost over a third of arable land in past 60 years. Currently, 40% of the world’s landmass is arid, and rising temperatures will turn yet more of it into desert. At current rates, the amount of food we’re growing today will feed only half of the population by 2050. Water scarcity is another impending crisis. 28% of agriculture lies in water stressed regions. At the same time, the population is constantly increasing - currently about 80 million people per year and thus the demand for food. Consequently, we must find new ways to feed the world, develop new technologies, but also open up new spaces.

The SCAUT project 'Underground Green Farming' focuses on the development challenge of food security. It offers the opportunity to produce food locally in urban areas – exactly where the demand is. Consequently, there is no need to ship food all over the world. Underground spaces offer constant climate conditions – extensive cooling during summer or heating during winter is therefore not required. Furthermore, by applying sustainable closed recirculated technologies most of the water can be recycled. Considering these aspects, the CO2 footprint is significantly lower compared with conventional farming above ground or in greenhouses.

Together with industry partners, SCAUT has developed and commissioned the first 'Underground Green Farming' prototype for a sustainable food production by using aquaponics. Aquaponic systems combine aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment. The system works in a cycle: water from the fishponds is fed to a hydroponic system and then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

The project focuses on an interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach. It addresses the Global Goals for Sustainable Development and the concept of Circular Economy. Core is the idea of integrating urban needs and uses within underground space, thereby reducing impact on the urban environment. The concept is a prime example of new ways to use urban underground space. It can enhance current uses by linking these to the new concept.

An overarching reason for underground green farming is to find new ways to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition for mega cities and urbanizing regions. Potentially it could be implemented in remote rural areas where surface farming is no longer feasible through extreme climate conditions. Its underground production location makes it safe against impacts of climate change, extreme weather, earthquakes, flooding and other geohazards, maintaining thus a suitable ecosystem.

Underground green farming has the potential to tangibly impact social, economic and environmental dimensions. In economic terms jobs can be created in the city and the costs of food production are not influenced by large logistical and distribution distances. Furthermore, the sheltered concept prevents economic impacts through extreme weather events. At the same time the urban integration we aim for is an application of the concept of circular economy. The zero carbon, zero waste and zero land-use goal of our project is a clear demonstration of impacting across social and environmental dimensions.

The project has already caused a stir internationally and was awarded the ITA Award in the category 'Innovative Underground Concept of the year' by the International Tunneling and Underground Space Association (ITA) in 2019 (see News for more details).

A next step in the project will consist of using excess heat from an underground data center prototype to heat the fish tanks and other crops that require a higher temperature environment. This will further reduce energy demands. This will further reduce energy requirements. In a further phase, the possibility of expanding the cycle and scaling up production will be investigated.

Watch the video pitch on 'Underground Green Farming' to learn about the concept.
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