Sustainable salad being grown in urban shipping containers by Sainsbury’s dynasty member

Each batch of 600 lettuces needs only the equivalent of a household dishwasher’s worth of water.



round the corner from the traffic-choked roundabout at Elephant and Castle, south-east London, are two unassuming shipping containers full of lettuce. In each, there are around 600 “heads” of various types. They grow vertically, lined up in rows, and are bathed in bright LED lighting which shifts between red and blue.


Next to me are green forest romaine, a bulbous lettuce with billowing leaves often used in cheeseburgers or paired with fried chicken. Further along are green butterheads, which have a flatter shape and are popular in those uneconomical salad bags you might find in supermarkets. Elsewhere there is surat, red romaine, and green and red oak tenderly growing.


All are cultivated by Crate to Plate, a new urban farming company with designs on building sites across the UK. The company uses hydroponic technology to grow food in cities – close to where it will be consumed – in 40ft shipping containers.


Unlike in traditional vegetable growing, which is a thirsty business, each batch of 600 lettuces needs only the equivalent of a household dishwasher’s worth of water each day, according to Crate to Plate’s co-founder Sebastien Sainsbury.


“The plants go into what we call ‘plugs’, made from organic peat moss from The Netherlands,” Mr Sainsbury explains.


“When you plant salads and vegetables using traditional methods, the soil absorbs about 80 per cent of the water. We use 95 per cent less than soil-based farming.”


The produce can be delivered to customers in central London with, it is claimed, a zero carbon footprint.


“We’re also working towards using coconut-based ‘plugs’ – we’re doing all we can from a sustainability point of view.”


Crate to Plate was founded in 2020, emerging during the pandemic with vertical farms popping up across London. There are now three farms on the Isle of Dogs and two in Kentish Town in addition to this one in Elephant and Castle. Mr Sainsbury says the next project will be in Stratford, before work begins to expand to Birmingham, and then Manchester.


“This month we’re putting five [containers] down in Stratford, just 100m from the Olympic Stadium,” he says.


The idea, Mr Sainsbury says, is to produce “sustainable” salads, herbs, and greens in major cities, distributing them “efficiently” to restaurants and consumers by way of electric van or bike.


Already, Crate to Plate has been selling to kitchens from Fortnum & Mason to the newly reopened fine-dining restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill, and from Francesco Mazzei’s Mayfair restaurant Sartoria to the Andreas greengrocer in Chelsea Green – a favourite of Nigella Lawson.


In these climate-controlled containers, growing can take place year-round. Mazzei tells i he’s been buying Crate to Plate’s basil and rocket, which he would otherwise have to source from Italy, thereby racking up extra food miles. The foods might not be of the same quality as herbs and leaves grown in the sunshine, next to the Mediterranean, he says, but it’s as close he can get in the UK, out of season.


“It is hard to get true, excellent produce here in the UK year-round,” Mazzei says while smelling a handful of leaves.


“This basil, trust me, is exceptional – it reminds me of home and works in my dishes. The rocket has a beautiful flavour – a proper peppery kick that you cannot get elsewhere. And the cavolo nero is a very seasonal product. It is hard to grow here. I need it to sing of Italy.”

The chef goes on: “I like these products because I cook Italian food – I am reliant on ingredients. I need the best. But I also see the value in sourcing food close by. You have to think about sustainability more and more.”


Although Mazzei sticks to the salads and herbs associated with Italian cuisine, other chefs have been making use of the Thai basil, the curly kale, and the pak choi. In the firm’s other urban sites there is parsley, coriander and dill, and soon, as the business expands, sorrel and nasturtiums will follow.


Mr Sainsbury’s ambitions aren’t restricted to energy usage and water consumption. He also wants to reduce food waste, and says demand tallies up with harvesting, so little or no food is ever thrown away.


“In summer, in the UK, lettuces take about eight weeks to grow in normal sunlight,” he says. “We can cultivate around 600 ‘heads’ every week irrespective of weather, and we can harvest and send out to chefs and customers as they need them. They can survive in the peat plugs for some time, with comparatively little water, and in a temperature-controlled space.


“We tend not to waste any food because of the shorter timeframe. Any excess produce harvested is given to homeless shelters.”


Crate to Plate’s leaves are more expensive than those found in supermarkets and local corner shops. While some restaurateurs can justify the extra cost, most British shoppers are looking to save money, not spend more of it, at a time when the cost of living is soaring.


A nine-item “Mixed Bag” veg box costs £15 before shipping is added. Mr Sainsbury concedes that prices are higher than at many other retailers. He says he’s about to start a subscription-based home delivery service deal, and as he scales up, he says the cost will fall.


“This farming method isn’t the cheapest option currently. We know that. But sustainability comes at a cost in whatever industry you go into. We’re trying to improve standards and be economical.


“We want to be across the UK supplying fresh produce to local consumers, and eventually, we want to have large-scale farms, which would bring prices down.


“We’ve had enquiries from supermarkets, some of which have come to visit. And we’ve also spoken to some bigger chains. Everyone wants to cut down on food waste and energy use, so I do think this is the future, or at least part of it.”


Source: Agritech Future