Team:Newcastle/Human Practices

Alternative Roots

Human Practices


The need to feed increasing urban populations is placing unprecedented pressure on the agriculture industry. To secure higher productivity, the sector relies upon synthetic fertilisers derived from energy intensive manufacturing methods; the run-off from these fertilisers coupled with the food mileage required for crops to reach our cities is having a devastating environmental impact. In addition, for every 1 °C increase in atmospheric temperature, 10 % of farmland used for crop production will be lost [1]. This destructive cycle impacts consumers, farmers, and the environment.

In the coming decades, urbanisation is expected to increase considerably. Today, 54 % of the world population lives in urban areas. By 2050, this share is forecast to increase to 66 %. That equates to an additional 2.4 billion people living in urban centres [2].


One way of protecting our crops and the land we use for agriculture is by growing within controlled, contained environments. Growing indoors is already a well-established practice; greenhouses are widely used and guarantee a safer, and more predictable method of growing. By carefully controlling the parameters within these environments, we can artificially create the optimum growth conditions for a specific crop, maximising yield.

The need for sustainable agricultural solutions has never been greater. It is our contention that by combining these artificial and contained growth systems with the efficient use of space in our cities, we may relieve some of the pressure being placed upon the agriculture industry by increasing urban populations – leading the paradigm shift towards an urban future where sustainable agricultural solutions are commonplace.

Newcastle iGEM 2018 proposes an alternative route.

Human Practices

The Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm

Governments and local authorities are responsible for providing and upholding essential services for its citizens, this is especially poignant for the provision of food and protection of farmland.

Newcastle City Council has recently declared their bold plans to convert Newcastle into a ‘Smart City,’ claiming ‘the North East is setting a new standard for digitally enabled urban sustainability' [4]. To present a vision of what Newcastle could be like as a ‘Smart City’ the Newcastle Helix Project has produced a series of scenarios, these include: smart energy network, local energy supply, integrated transport and green flood management.

We saw an opportunity to contribute to these scenarios by producing a sustainable agriculture scenario, we felt this area of urban development has been neglected by the plans thus far. As a result, we decided to take on the challenge of designing a ‘smart agriculture’ solution for Newcastle, demonstrating how the city can shift towards a sustainable agricultural model – setting an example for other cities across the globe – in turn, beginning to tackle some of the global issues our iGEM project set out to solve.

To begin, we researched into areas of the city where we feel space is being under-utilised, and in which a sustainable food source would have the most impact. After studying the urban agriculture industry, communicating with stakeholders (see our timeline), and speaking with local academics we were informed of a space that gives access to locations across the city. Newcastle’s Victoria Tunnel; a disused tunnel that was once used to transport coal from the mines down to the river for shipment - as well as serving as a bunker during WWII. It runs beneath a variety of urban hubs that would benefit from fresh produce including: Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Royal Victoria Hospital, Student villages, and Business centres (see map ).

As part of our Human Practices we have conceptualised an architectural design project within the Victoria Tunnel that transforms it into an urban farm. This design exercise integrates / was informed by all elements of our project – stakeholder engagement, wetware, hardware, and safety.

Below is the journey we took to design the Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm:

Human Practices

Integrated Human Practices Journey

Step 1: Initial Project Considerations


Once we had decided upon the initial project idea, we knew that we would be working with plants; this led us to look for applications for our product within the agriculture industry. As a result, our project - if successful - would potentially involve releasing our genetically modified bacteria into soil microbial communities – but we were aware this may also have undesirable and unforeseen impacts on the rhizosphere.

To further our understanding of this topic, we began to look at existing legislation surrounding the release of GMOs and the environment. We read official documentation relating to the use of GMOs in contained environments (GMO Legislation).

Therefore, we highlighted early on the necessity to explore the use of our bacteria in contained environments – this way we comply with safe project design / responsible innovation standards.


When planning the wetware side of the project and determining what experiments would be required to reach our goals, it became immediately obvious that there would be the need to develop a device that enables high-throughput experimentation (as we are working with plants over a relatively short period of time). This led to the idea of making our own hydroponic system. (See Hardware)

Step 2: Stakeholder Engagement

Once we knew we were searching for applications of our bacteria within the agriculture industry, and that we would be doing so in the context of contained growth environments – we began to line up meetings with relevant stakeholders.

GrowModule365 - 03/08/2018

We were lucky enough to arrange an interview with GrowModule365. As a company, they produce shipping containers that contain hydroponics systems. Their concept adopts a new approach to farming, allowing crop production in unconventional places. The visit allowed us to see how traditional farming is being challenged and to gain an insight into hydroponics systems. We gained lots of useful information from the meeting; we learned which wavelengths are most effective for increased yields, the alternative growing mediums available, the market's perception to innovative farming and which control parameters are most important. Paul Brown (Director) gave us lots of useful contacts within the industry and seemed very passionate about our project, however, he did mention some areas of the market may be sceptical when it comes to eating produce that has been grown using genetically engineered microbes.

KWS Seeds - 17/08/2018

We had a Skype meeting with Chris Tapsall, Research Director, at KWS Seeds.KWS one of the top five biggest seed producers in the world. The meeting was eyeopening, we discussed consumers views towards the use of GMOs in crop production and how some markets may be more accepting of our product than others. For instance, retail would not be willing to use GM products because of the stigma attached, but governmental bodies may be more accepting as it could be used to address food related issues in harsh environments. We learnt about certain EU regulations, and methods in which a manufacturer could apply our engineered bacteria to a seed. Chris was passionate about our project and forwarded our information to other researchers in KWS.

Growing Underground - 24/08/2018

We were lucky enough to visit Richard Ballard and Steve Dring, the owners of Growing Underground. This innovative company gave us lots of inspiration for our Human Practices. They are an indoor farm operating 33 meters below the streets of Clapham in London. They grow in tunnels that were formerly used as bunkers during the Second World War. We got the chance to tour their facilities, taste their produce, learn more about the equipment they use, the processes they had to go through to legally grow in the tunnels and finally we were able to pitch our project to them. Richard mentioned that they are currently in the process of establishing a research and development department, they are planning on conducting research into farming with the aid of biological processes. We both saw parallels between the work we were doing, and Richard was passionate about future collaboration.

Nafferton Farm - 29/08/2018

Newcastle University have two farms where they conduct agricultural studies (Nafferton & Cockle Park Farm).We thought visiting the farms would be an excellent opportunity for us to understand more about the context our product would be used in. Touring the farm we were shown different research sites on both conventional and organic farm land. Dr Ankush Prashar is our main contact at Nafferton. We have also spoken to the Newcastle University Farm's Director, James Standen, he was able to provide very useful statistics relating to the farms operations, specifically data on fertiliser usage. We were also given feedback on our project from a grower's / farmer's perspective. All in all, everyone at the farm seemed excited about the prospect of our project.

GrowUp Urban Farms - 29/08/2018

Tom Webster, CTO at GrowUp Urban Farms gave us a Skype call. GrowUp Urban Farms use hydroponics to provide fresh produce within urban environments. They are committed to sustainable agriculture and providing fresh food year round in ways which are positive for both communities and the environment. During our Skype call we introduced our project and asked Tom about the control and containment parameters they use in their systems. GrowUp used to use Aquaponics, a method of growing that uses fish and their waste to provide nutrients in a conventional hydroponic system. We asked him about how consumers respond to this method of growing. He mentioned that many demographics were adverse to this style of growing as it involved living animals, the advice he gave was to be transparent in your marketing and to be prepared for negative reactions and make sure your audience have the correct knowledge to make an informed judgement on what your using.

Victoria Tunnel - 18/09/2018

To strengthen the idea behind our concept we organised a trip to the Victoria Tunnel to get first hand experience. We wanted to talk to the guides and see if what we were actually proposing could work. We learnt that there had already been attempts to farm in the tunnel, in the 1920s locals tried to farm mushrooms. Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful. This does not mean that we could not grow in them now, it is clear from talking to previous stakeholders at GrowUp Urban Farms and Growing Underground that we now have access to technology fit for the job. The tour took us through the Tunnel's rich history from 1842 when it was built, through the Victorian era, into the Second World War, and then to the present. The visit highlighted the scale of the Tunnel and helped to strengthen our concept.

Food Nation - 20/09/2018

We met with Nicola Cowell from Food Newcastle, a partnership of businesses, organisations and individuals with an interest or remit around various aspects of good food. The goal of the company is to create a healthier food culture in Newcastle whilst helping to protect the planet. We wanted to talk with them as they aim to make Newcastle a sustainable food city by building networks, connecting people and promoting sustainable food initiatives. We felt our Human Practices would work well within this framework. We discussed the issues that Newcastle currently faces with regards to food, such as, rising obesity, food poverty and health inequalities. Nicola told us about 6 key issues Food Newcastle is trying to address: Diet-related ill health and access to food; Good food for all – tackling food poverty; Building community food knowledge, skills, resources and projects; Strengthen the local sustainable food economy; Transforming catering and food procurement; Environmental sustainability – reducing waste and the ecological footprint of the food system. After outlining our project we both agreed that there were many aspects of our project that would fit into the model responsible for addressing these issues.

In summary, we asked our stakeholders about their values and the overwhelming response was a commitment to sustainable agriculture: GrowUp Urban Farms and Growing Underground wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of the agriculture industry, GrowModule365 wanted to increase accessibility to fresh produce - all of this within the context of feeding our growing urban populations. Inevitably, we felt our bacteria solved the issue of reducing carbon footprint by reducing the demand for fertilisers – but we still needed to find a way in which it could be used to feed the increasing urban populations, and increase accessibility to fresh produce.

More detailed information about how the conversations with stakeholders influenced our project can be seen in Step 3.


Step 3: Implementation of Stakeholder Feedback

Once we had consulted the relevant stakeholders and felt we had gathered sufficient information we began to feed this in to the design and execution of the project.

Nafferton Farm Visit

Newcastle University have two farms where they conduct agricultural studies (Nafferton & Cockle Park Farm).. We thought visiting Nafferton farm would be an excellent opportunity for us to understand more about the context our bacteria may be used in. Touring the farm, we were shown different research sites on both conventional and organic farm land. We were given feedback on our project idea from a growers & farmers perspective, they were quick to raised concerns about releasing genetically modified organisms into their soil and insisted upon contained growth environments.

All in all, everyone at the farm was excited about the prospect of our project, especially as it has to potential to reduce the costs and environmental impact associated with conventional fertilisers.

Hardware Development

The Legal and social considerations of the project highlighted in Step 1 drove the development of NH-1, a low-cost, small-scale and programmable hydroponic system tailored to overcome experimental limitations faced by many plant scientists, such as high-throughput combined with variations of light within a singular space. The development of this system prompted our visits to GrowModule365 and Growing Underground, as well as our Skype call with GrowUp Urban Farms (all of which grow fresh produce hydroponically). The conversations had with these stakeholders gave crucial insight into how hydroponic systems function with regards to achieving optimum conditions for maximum output. We then returned to the Engineering lab to install these conditions into our own hydroponics.

For example, GrowModule365 told us they use purple light in their hydroponic systems as it is the most cost effective, we then took this information and confirmed this and set this as standard in our hydroponic system.

Building a hydroponic system also prompted the theoretical exploration of future deployment techniques for GM bacteria within contained environments. It is at this point that we began thinking about how our GMOs could be used to enhance sustainable crop productivity at a local and accessible level.

Growing Underground grow fresh produce in unused WWII bunkers under the streets of Clapham, London. We loved the idea of taking neglected spaces within the urban environment that once provided a service and repurposing them. On return from our visit to their facilities, we were made aware by one of our supervisors of a disused tunnel that runs under Newcastle – The Victoria Tunnel. Directly inspired by Growing Underground, we began to envision using our own hydroponic system to grow fresh produce that is locally accessible under the streets of Newcastle. Growing Underground made us aware of the following advantages of growing in contained environments within our cities:

  • Providing cities with fresh produce all year round.
  • Reducing the carbon footprint of crop production due to reduced food millage.
  • No agricultural run-off.
  • Limited need for pesticides and herbicides.
  • Safer crops as there is less risk of contamination.
  • Reduced spoilage due to shorter transportation times and reduced handling.

Wetware Development

Seed coating:
Initially our project involved providing farmers with a preserved culture of the adapter bacteria for roots to be inoculated by wounding (a common method in microbiology) [6]. When presenting our project to GrowUp Urban Farms, the ability and willingness of commercial farmers to use these methods while achieving the desired effect was questioned. Tom Webster highlighted that farmers may consider the time taken to inoculate the plants more costly than applying fertiliser and recommended we consider using our product as a seed coating.

This influenced our wetware as from here our focus switched to coating sterile seeds with our bacteria in order to inoculate the seedling as it grows.

Endophyte Isolation:
Talks with Tom Webster (CTO at GrowUp Urban Farms) highlighted concerns about the localisation of the endophyte within the plant. We had not considered the issues with the GMO being present in the leaves/fruit of the plant.

This impacted our wetware in that we no longer attempted to re-isolate endophytes from just the roots, from this point we cut roots and leaves separately to re-isolate endophytes. In the event of the endophyte being present in the fruit it is possible for future work to engineer the bacterium to remain localised in the root.

Safety Considerations

We had a Skype meeting with Chris Tapsall, Research Director at KWS Seeds. KWS are one of the top 5 biggest seed producers in the world. The meeting was eye-opening, we discussed consumers views towards the use of GMOs in crop production and how some markets may be more accepting of our product than others. We also talked about the importance of transparency when it comes to marketing a product in relation to the use of genetically modified material.

We learnt about certain EU regulations and alternative applications for our bacteria (i.e. methods in which a manufacturer could apply our bacteria to a seed). Chris was passionate about our project and forwarded our information to other researchers in KWS.

Please see our Safety Page for more information on how we designed our urban farm to comply with safety standards.

Consumer Views

When eating at a local restaurant, one of our team members noticed the small print at the bottom of the menu (see below). The small print assures customers that none of their food products contain ‘genetically modified materials.’ This made us question whether consumers would want to eat food grown with our bacteria.

Products grown within our proposed urban farm would be different to the traditional genetically modified crops in the sense that our crops wouldn’t be genetically modified at all – but the bacteria that colonise the roots would be. As a result, we think that this would make consumers more comfortable about eating products grown in this way.

To further our understanding about consumer views and how best to market our product we invited Food Nation to visit us at the University. Food Nation is a social enterprise based in Newcastle with a vision to inspire people about good food, they have extensive knowledge about consumers views on food products.

Listening to Food Nations story and learning about the good food initiatives they’re involved with led us to re-evaluate the values of our own project. The food companies we visited prior to Food Nation (GrowModule365, Growing Underground, GrowUp Urban Farms) were all commercial enterprises – but we loved Food Nation's approach to social enterprise, promoting initiatives owned by local communities and businesses, any profits of which go back into the community. Prior to this, our proposed economic model for the tunnel would have looked something similar to that of the commercial enterprises; however, we began to see the potential of the Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm as a resource that could be owned and maintained by the communities that use it: an educational tool, an accessible source of fresh produce, or perhaps even a food bank.

If we take this project further after the Giant Jamboree, Food Nation have the contacts to enable us to conduct thorough public consultations as well as the relevant contacts within the local council who could potentially make a concept like the Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm possible. By engaging with Food Nation we have started a conversation locally about the adaptive re-use of the Victoria Tunnel as an urban farm.


Our thorough approach to stakeholder engagement has had a huge impact on the outcome of our project. The Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm concept was our way of bringing it all together: stakeholder engagement, safety, hardware, and wetware. Moreover, it gave us the opportunity to demonstrate our vision of what a sustainable urban future may look like for Newcastle – a future that uses land efficiently, a future that reduces the pressure on the agriculture industry to use synthetic fertilisers... a future for sustainable agriculture.

Human Practices

Step 4: Victoria Tunnel Urban Farm

A trip to the tunnels demonstrated their size and potential as a growing environment and we began to consider the possibility of our design becoming realised.

The Victoria Tunnel is 3.9 kilometres in length and runs under many urban 'hubs’ that could utilise an urban farm (For example: Newcastle and Northumbria University campuses & The Royal Victoria Infirmary). See the Key for more urban hub examples.

Human Practices

Architectural Representations

The east context city section shows a fraction of the Tunnel running underneath the city. With a maximum depth of 85 feet (26 m) it drops 222 feet (68 m) from entrance to exit. It remains largely intact. Isolated environments such as the tunnel would pose little risk to the public as they are far removed from the civilian environment. [4]

This section shows how deep the tunnel lies below the Newcastle University campus as it runs along Claremont Road - where there is an existing entrance. Having a food source this close to the University could provide students with fresh food all year round. It could also be a pioneering project that the famous Agricultural School could manage. [5]

The plan shows the design of a facility which we envision being present underneath the urban hubs identified in the Victoria Tunnel Map (see Map). By being present only at desired points along the tunnel it would reduce the cost of starting up such a scheme. This facility would allow for the safe access / maintenance / farming of the tunnels and was designed in compliance with the guide to growing in contained environments - to ensure responsible innovation standards, see our safety page.

This axonometric diagram demonstrates how the tunnel may operate. You can see farm workers tending to the hydroponic stacks. The stacks themselves may be moved around on a track system to reduce the energy intensiveness of the harvesting process. (much like the tracks the old coal wagons used to move along).

This visualisation gives some context to how an artificial growing environment may look in the Victoria Tunnel.

References & Attributions

Attributions: Will Tankard and Chris Carty
Visualisations by Chris Carty
Stakeholder Procurement/Engagement by Will Tankard

1. Despommier D (2011) The vertical farm: Controlled environment agriculture carried out in tall buildings would create greater food safety and security for large urban populations. J fur Verbraucherschutz und Leb 6(2):233–236.

2. (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].

3. Airbus (2018) Current and Future Megacities Available at: [Accessed September 27, 2018].

4. Newcastle Helix. (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 04 Oct. 2018].

5. (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 04 Oct. 2018]

6. Purwati R, Hidayah N, Sudjindro, Sudarsono (2008) Inoculation Methods and Conidial Densities of Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense in Abaca. HAYATI Journal of Biosciences 15:1-7.