Reaching new heights

Sebastien Sainsbury, founder of Crate to Plate, explains why he thinks hydroponics are the future of farming

The term ‘hydroponic farming’ may be an alien concept to many of us, but from the hanging gardens of Babylon and water gardens of the Aztecs to landscapes created in ancient China, hydroponics has been around for thousands of years.

More recently, with the Covid pandemic, people have been questioning where their food comes from and how it can be grown, produced and sourced closer to home. Businessman Sebastien Sainsbury, who hails from the famous supermarket empire, is the brains behind Crate to Plate – an innovative company that uses hydroponics to grow fresh produce, which is delivered to residents, restaurants and retailers across London. The farm, with its luminous space-age interiors and vertical growing plants, is located in an urban development in Canary Wharf, but Sainsbury has ambitious plans to grow the business across London. He is also developing urban farming solutions within EcoWorld Ballymore property developments, with community outreach programmes to educate people on healthy eating and sustainability.

TI: In a nutshell, what is Crate to Plate?
SS: Crate to Plate is an urban hydroponic farming business that uses controlled environment agriculture to grow fresh produce that we deliver direct to local people’s homes.•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate.jpg

“It is thought that the first example of successful hydroponics dates back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon built in the sixth century”

Sebastien Sainsbury, Crate to Plate•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate2-768x1007.jpg•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate3-768x1007.jpg

How does hydroponic technology work and how is it good for the environment?
Hydroponics was coined in the 20th century by Professor William Gericke, from the University of California, Berkeley, when he suggested that people could grow vegetables and leafy greens in water using nutrients. Initially, people were very sceptical but he’s probably the first person who grew tomatoes back in the 1920s and 30s when he was a professor of plant biology.

Long before that though, it is thought that the first example of successful hydroponics dates back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon built in the sixth century, which relied exclusively on the Euphrates River as the source of irrigation, as no soil was available in the desert. In the 10th century, the Aztecs reportedly used floating gardens in lakes, and the Chinese employed hydroponics for rice fields devoid of soil in the 13th century.

Now, advances in hydroponic technology have allowed us to bring it to consumers. The greatest advantage is the controlled environment, as we manage to control the PH of the water, the nutrients the plants get, and how often they get water. We can control temperature, humidity, and we can mix nutrients that are ideal for particular types of plants, whereas typically a farmer would use fertilizer, which could contain chemicals, and it would be more generic, not tailored for specific plants.

Through our biotechnologist, John Sticker, we have specially designed nutrient mixes that benefit the plants we’re growing. We separate the plants according to varieties, so we can also perfect the way they grow and taste, and create the perfect environment for them. Everything we’ve grown has been in one hydroponic farm, but separating it creates a better environment and the produce tastes a lot better than what people find on shop shelves.•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate4.jpg

“We plan to create 50 farms spread around London, where anyone who buys the produce is within a mile, or a 15-minute walk, of where it’s grown”

Sebastien Sainsbury, Crate to Plate

What inspired you to start this venture and why at Canary Wharf?
I started doing some research back in 2007, and I read papers from the United Nations and World Health Organisation about population growth and world food shortages and they were saying we need to increase our food production by around 80 per cent to meet the growing population by 2050. I was intrigued by this, as I’m a great advocate of organic food and against GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Then I went to the World Fair in 2015 in Milan, and the US Pavilion was a hydroponic farm. I was blown away that you could grow lettuce vertically. I was fascinated by the idea that you could grow a greater volume of food in a smaller space, and I did more research and came across some container-based systems, and then I happened to meet our biotechnologist, John, who is from Wisconsin, but who now lives in Florida, with a background in plant technology and hydroponics.

In September 2015, we bought a farm in Orlando, where John spent three and a half years doing research and development, as well as selling produce, as we are all about zero waste. He wanted to see what grew well and didn’t, and how we could create the best nutrient mixes, as temperature, PH, light and humidity all affect the plant.

We did our first fundraiser in 2019 and the farms arrived in the UK at the end of that year and we ended up getting offered a space in a car park in Canary Wharf. I used to work there as an investment banker, so I know the area well, and as the crow flies we are 300 yards from all the big banks and people in their offices that need to eat healthy food. For residents of EcoWorld Ballymore developments in the locale, they can order our produce and receive boxes of freshly picked fruit and vegetables delivered to them by an electric van.

Do you think that people are increasingly aware of sustainability and how their grocery shopping and eating habits affect the environment?
I think, following the pandemic, we all appreciate nature more, and we saw animals roaming the planet again. John and I started talking about the concept of ‘15 minute cities’ several years ago, but for me the main thing is getting people away from eating fast food, and making sure they have access to fresh produce that’s got a high nutritional content, as it hasn’t had to travel for days.

We have a small building in Elephant and Castle which is going to be a click-and-collect point for customers, and it’s also going to be a classroom, where local school children can come once a week to learn about the sustainability side of food production, food shortage and food wastage – things, which are important to us as a company.•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate5.jpg

What kind of businesses do you supply?
Our customers include Ollie Dabbous, chef patron of Michelin-starred restaurant, Hide, and multi-award-winning chef and restaurateur Alexis Gauthier, as well as independent grocers such as The Notting Hill Fish Shop and Andreas of Chelsea Green. We are also working closely with EcoWorld Ballymore, with the aim of being able to deliver our fresh produce to residents weekly, and we are also planning farmers markets and pop-up farm shops.•-LCI_website_July_CrateToPlate6.jpg

Sebastien Sainsbury, founder of Crate to Plate

Can you tell us a little about your plans for Crate to Plate in the near future?
We have two developments that will be in place by the end of August/early September, in Bermondsey and Stratford, and we are also looking at a barge with EcoWorld Ballymore, next to the Wardian building at Canary Wharf, that used to house workman’s offices. I thought it would be brilliant to build a farm on top of a barge and to move to London City Island. We have five farms currently in production, and the aim is to have 15 by the end of this year, and a further 22 next year. We plan to create 50 farms spread around London, where anyone who buys the produce is within a mile, or a 15-minute walk, of where it’s grown.


To find out more about Crate to Plate, visit the website at


Words by Jemima Wilson

Photography by Buster Grey-Jung