The company was founded in 2012 by Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, two childhood friends from Bristol. Prior to setting up the business together, Steven worked in PLCs in London for most of his professional career while Richard ran his own high-end sustainable furniture import business for 10 years. In 2009 Richard stopped importing furniture and moved to London to undertake a film degree at Middlesex University. Finding themselves both living in London, Richard and Steven began to meet regularly for a drink or two.
By this time, the pair had become engrossed by and regularly discussed the ideas of two influential academics at that time: Dickson Despommier & Jeremy Rifkin. Richard was particularly taken by Rifkin’s 2010 publication, titled “The Third Industrial Revolution” a conceptualisation of the demise of the carbon economy and the transition towards a post-carbon world. Richard even managed to interview Rifkin as part of his final film project. That same year, Dickson Despommier published his own outlook on the future with his book ‘The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century’. The latter’s blueprint for a sustainable agricultural model made a strong impression on both Richard & Steven and came at a poignant time coinciding with a UN report forecasting that there would only be about 50 years of decent harvests left worldwide. This forecast seemed even bleaker when considered alongside demographic data predicting that there would be an extra 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050, requiring a 60% increase in global food production. The pair subsequently began to research how they could turn the ideas of Despommier & Rifkin into a functioning business that could help make a difference, and it wasn’t long before the pair began discussing the possibility of working together and to do something that would have a lasting and positive environmental impact.
Farm smart, save water, help the earth repair itself and keep our blue planet green.
The idea they settled on was to adapt Despommier’s concept of vertical farming into a working urban farm model with the aim of producing carbon neutral food within a post-carbon economy. The company was aptly named Zero Carbon Food. After initial calculations, the pair realised that London’s costly rental landscape would make it challenging to achieve profitability with the high-rise approach for urban farming envisioned by Despommier. Instead, the pair concentrated on the climate control side to Despommier’s concept and delved into the specifics of Controlled Environment Farming. By drawing on Richard’s prior interest in London’s ‘hidden’ spaces, they opted to investigate the possibilities of establishing a controlled environment farm underground. Derelict underground spaces offered an opportunity to remain within the urban centre while avoiding the high costs of rent or the cost of building a multi storey high-rise farm.
Securing an underground space however, proved harder than was anticipated. Eventually, after several false starts, TFL agreed to their proposal and gave the pair access to a site in South London. Without any prior experience in farming of any kind, Richard & Steven subsequently recruited the help of agronomist and hydroponics expert Chris Nelson to guide them in their trials. Collectively they succeeded in growing their first crops in a small meter-by-meter R&D facility in a disused air raid shelter, 33 metres beneath the streets of London.