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Basil and strawberries growing underwater: future farming and the case of Nemo’s Garden

Filled with 2000 liters of air each, tied to the seabed via ropes and weight screws, six biospheres contain 90 seedbeds and float between 15 and 36 feet below the seas’s surface


Nemo’s Garden is a research and development project based in Liguria, Italy, brought forth by the diving and snorkeling equipment company Ocean Reef Group. By creating the first underwater cultivation of terrestrial plants at Nemo’s Garden, the Ocean Reef group is pioneering an alternative agriculture system that could increase food security in coastal areas where environmental conditions, geological characteristics, and climate vulnerability make the pursuit of profitable and reliable local agriculture complex. Coming from an idea of Sergio Gamberini, founder and President of Ocean Reef Group, in 2012, during a conversation with friends in Noli, on the Italian Riviera, Gamberini wondered whether or not it would be possible to grow basil, the local herb, underwater. This idea may have sounded bizarre to many, but not to Gamberini, who was familiar with both diving and gardening. Converting such an idea into a reality was challenging, and they made missteps along the way. «Coming up with a functional structure for the biospheres was complicated, but it was also our biggest success. At first, we wanted to use an inflatable structure because we wanted something easy to move and transport. For physics reasons, that wasn’t ideal, as the structure was frequently damaged. My brother came up with the idea of making a rigid structure. We made it, and we haven’t looked back since», recounts Luca Gamberini from the Ocean Reef Group. 

Nemo’s garden underwater farm is composed of six acrylic biospheres, filled with 2000 liters of air each, tied to the seabed via ropes and weight screws. These clear pods contain 90 seedbeds and float between 15 and 36 feet below the water’s surface. In these pots, they have grown various fruits, vegetables, and herbs like thyme, marjoram, basil, tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce. «Nemo’s garden edible plants have a stronger taste compared to the terrestrial ones. The University of Pisa ran lab tests on our basil, and their research shows that Nemo’s Garden basil differs from the regular one from an organoleptic point of view». To maintain the ideal working condition and prevent diseases, data from the biospheres such as oxygen and carbon dioxide level, humidity, illumination, and temperature are monitored through sensors at all times. «Thanks to automation, we no longer need to fiscally check on the biospheres every day, as we had to do in the beginning. From land, we can see what is going on in the biospheres via cameras, check the data, set timers, or intervene in case of a sea storm. We are still trying to find a way to automatize the cleaning process, which is now carried out by our team either once a month or once every two weeks. In the future, we could implement artificial intelligence and machine learning to further improve and automate our farming». explained Gamberini. 

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The farm is composed of six acrylic biospheres

This project is located in the same area where Sergio Gamberini came up with the idea of underwater farming: Noli’s bay. Noli is a tourist destination for its beaches, castle, and promenade. The area also attracts scuba divers for its seabed morphologic structure and marine fauna. «We didn’t choose Noli’s bay for any particular reason, aside from our family’s own relationship with the area. That’s where my dad came up with the idea and where my family home has been for the last three generations. It seemed natural to start our project there. Noli’s bay doesn’t have the ideal environmental conditions for our projects. The sea there gets rough during winter, which has already damaged Nemo’s Garden twice. And the sun exposure is dissatisfactory during the coldest months. That said, the fact that Nemo’s is thriving in such an adverse environment shows that our system works and that if it was placed in a more appropriate area, the results could be even more satisfying»

The project aims to research and create an alternative, sustainable agricultural system, catered towards coastal regions that are affected by frequent droughts or where land is scarce, where such a system could revolutionize crop production. «Our project could be helpful in those areas where practicing agriculture is unfeasible or complex. Take the Maldives, for example. The Maldivian archipelago is made up of coral islands where the key resources for agriculture, fertile soil and water, are scarce. Implanting underwater biospheres in a place like that would cut carbon emissions as they wouldn’t need to import as much». Input-intensive, mechanized agriculture and irrigation have allowed the world’s agricultural production to grow between two and a half and tree times over the last fifty years. This growth, achieved in many areas through unsustainable management practices, has led to ecosystem deterioration, the loss of biodiversity and cultural heritage values, greenhouse gas emissions, land and water systems degradation.

Agriculture is one of the most water-demanding human activities, making up for more than eighty-five percent of human water consumption. The daily food needs of a person take about 3,000 liters to produce and, by 2050, the global food production demand is expected to increase by seventy percent. Because of the crucial role water plays in crop production and food security, humanity needs to produce more food while using less water. To raise this challenge and make the best of our limited water resources, we need to implement resource-efficient agricultural models. By utilizing only water obtained through the desalination of seawater, Nemo’s Garden is a self-sustainable system that implements elements of circular economy. «One of our research’s main goals is to evaluate whether a system like Nemo’s Garden can help to solve the problem of agriculture’s water overuse. Evaporation in our system is natural: no resources are used to favor it. The demineralization of saltwater is also natural. What happens is in our biospheres is a small-scale version of the evaporation of our seas. Thanks to the sea temperature stability and the high humidity within the pods, the seawater inside the biosphere evaporates and condenses on the internal surfaces of pods, which are cooler than the air inside them. The water obtained through this evaporation-condensation process has the same physical-chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the standard irrigation water, so we can use it for our plants. Getting the water from the sea, we avoid irrigation. This way there is no risk of leaking chemical fertilizers or pesticides into the soil, from where it can leak into river water and groundwater». Luca Gamberini said. 

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Nemo’s garden edible plants have a stronger taste compared to the terrestrial ones

Pesticides are meant to protect plants by preventing or controlling harmful organisms and diseases. Its unregulated use has led to the declining health of honey bees, degrading soil quality, and a decline in biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems, as shown by the decline of farmland birds and insect populations. «Greenhouses should be more sustainable than regular fields in this regard, but they still need temperature regulation, in particular those that are located in cold climates, which leads to greenhouse gases emissions. The sea has a high thermal capacity; thanks to which, its temperature changes much slower than the air’s. The consequence of this phenomenon is that sea areas, like the Mediterranean coastline, have a milder climate. At Nemo’s Garden we can utilize this naturally-occurring circumstance to keep a stable, mild temperature in our biospheres, as our farm is placed underwater». Nemo’s Garden underwater farm poses no threat to the surrounding marine environment and related ecosystems, thanks to its minimal interaction with it. As a non-toxic structure, its presence has supported the surrounding marine areas’ repopulation.

«Like so many structures that are placed underwater, Nemo’s Garden has a positive effect on the surrounding environment. The soil of the area where our biospheres are located is made up of sand, pebbles and mud. It is almost a desert due to beach nourishments, which are quite common along the coastline. Often, the materials chosen to replace the lost sediment, like waste soil from mining, aren’t optimal and this practice ends up destroying marine life by essentially burning it. Our biospheres can host small marine animals, like big rocks do underwater. This repopulation attracted even more animals, and now thanks to our biosphere, the area has seen a 150 percent marine population increase. A phenomenon such as this is not uncommon. When a structure that doesn’t release toxic chemicals is placed underwater, it can have a positive impact on marine life». Ocean water covers more than 70 percent of the Earth, it contributes to keep Earth’s climate habitable, and it absorbs carbon dioxide. Despite the role it plays in sustaining human life on Earth, before the London Convention, humans have thrown in it millions of tons of petroleum products, industrial wastes, acid chemical wastes, and sewage sludge. For all of the regulations that have been implemented worldwide, the marine environment is under threat by pollution. Chemical pollution caused by pesticides, fertilizers, detergents, oil, and industrial chemicals is affecting marine wildlife and creating dead zones. «Projects like ours raise awareness and help people to realize how the ocean is crucial for our species and how we need to put it to good use».  

IMAGE GALLERY

Nemo’s Garden is a project that uses underwater transparent bubbles (biospheres) that house edible plants. The idea is to expand agricultural efforts in areas where surface-farming would be difficult due to economical, geographical or natural factors. The system is almost fully self-sustainable. No pests can wander in, nor can disease spores be brought in by the wind. Fresh water is available 24/7 through desalination. All biospheres have a dome-like structure where only the bottom part is immersed in seawater. This design ensures much-needed fresh water for the topmost area with plants: When salt water evaporates within the biosphere, it condenses on top of the dome, then trickles back down, salt-free, and nurtures the herbs and vegetables. As for sunlight, domes are transparent, and the sun’s rays increase the internal temperature

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