Growing Fresh Produce Under the Sea: A Most Surreal Experience

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By Colleen McDuling – Science Correspondent to the Vegan Organic Network

It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel or film, but there really is an undersea farm. Situated 40 meters off the coast of an Italian town called Noli in the Italian Riviera, and at a depth of around eight meters below the surface of the sea, Nemo’s Garden is the brainchild of an Italian father and son duo.

Back in 2012, Sergio Gamberini, a passionate diver and an equally passionate gardener,  was walking along the shore with some friends. Gazing out over the ocean, he pondered, “Would it be possible to grow basil under the sea?” And the idea was born. After much experimentation, a pilot undersea garden was set up. By 2018, Gamberini and his son, Luca, and their team were successfully growing a multitude of fresh produce: Basil, Thyme, Sage, Mint, Oregano, Rosemary, Liquorice, Black Cumin, Marjoram, Tomatoes, Strawberries, Lavender, Calendula, Stevia, Aloe Vera, Lettuces and Radishes.

However, in 2018, the fiercest storm ever recorded in the history of the Mediterranean struck. It was a disaster. Nemo’s Garden was almost destroyed. In 2019, the undersea garden was rebuilt. But then came the pandemic where the team was not even allowed to travel to the site. The team never gave up and Nemo’s Garden is now a thriving undersea venture where plants grow prolifically and healthfully.

But how are they doing this? And what is the science behind it all?

It’s quite simple, really. Below the surface of the sea are six transparent domes called biospheres. One might expect that they would be filled with sea water, but that is not the case. Only the lower part is filled with sea water, the remaining portion of each biosphere is filled with air! These biospheres are anchored to the sea bed by strong chains, screws and other reinforcing devices.

In the middle of the six biospheres is the “Tree of Life”, an apparatus that holds the monitoring cables which are connected to each biosphere and which feed data to the control tower on the shore. Each biosphere is monitored 24/7 for humidity, air temperature, carbon dioxide, oxygen, pressure, sea temperature and light. Webcams are available so that the interior of each biosphere may be monitored and there is a webcam on the ocean floor to monitor the external aquatic environment. There are intercoms for the diving gardeners to communicate with one another as well as the control tower on the shore.

The rationale for this uniquely novel way of growing plants is that since these plants are grown in a controlled environment, there is no need for any type of agrochemical. Plants, being delicate, need constant temperatures, water, light and protection from harm. Unfortunately, in conventional terrestrial farming practices, this is not always possible. In these biospheres, all of these factors are carefully controlled. The sea provides a constant temperature, a lot of water, the right pressure, the right humidity in the biospheres and the right level of light filtering in from above. But what of the salt? Well, evaporation of the sea water occurs, condensation (minus the salt) forms on the inside of the domes, and this is how the plants get their water. There are no insects, terrestrial snails and slugs, small mammals or anyone else usually found on land, living in the sea. And so the plants are free from predation. Although, a few crabs and one or two octopi, have been known to visit the plants out of sheer curiosity. Finding them not to their liking, they have graciously exited the domes.

Most of the plants are grown hydroponically, and thus, by definition, are not strictly veganic. But this method of growing fresh produce fits in perfectly with the ethos of veganic farming. No harm is done to the environment, no agrochemicals are used, no manures are used and most certainly no artificial, chemical fertilizers which contain animal products are used. Those who have tasted the fresh produce say that their flavour far exceeds that of conventionally grown crops. Indeed, the team have used their basil and other ingredients to make a delicious Italian pesto!

Sergio and Luca Gamberini are hoping to make this way of growing plants scalable. After all, the conditions on Earth are deteriorating. And some areas of the Earth are simply not suitable for growing fresh produce in any significant amount. Thus far, this appears to be a sustainable way of growing much-needed and nutritious food for Earth’s burgeoning population. And it is all solar powered!

For those of you who are interested, please go to Nemo’s Garden on the internet. There you will see their website and many reports of this. There are videos on YouTube, Vimeo and other similar platforms describing this novel and revolutionary way of growing our food. You might even see seahorses gliding up the anchoring chains. And there is a livestream on their site which is also accessible on YouTube. But be warned, watching the livestream is mesmerizing and you might not get anything done for the rest of the day. Seeing fish swim around whilst these plants are growing is indeed surreal. And if you are lucky, you might see the divers enter the biospheres to do their gardening – without their scuba breathing apparatus which they take off once they are in air.

Yes, it is surreal. But who knows? This could be the future of growing at least some of our much-needed vegan food. Only time will tell. We wish the Gamberini duo and their team the very best in this sustainable and novel horticulture endeavour.