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Will a Sustainable Future for Agriculture Take Us Underwater?

Nemo’s Garden is growing plants in underwater biospheres — a hydroponic, multi-beneficial ag solution that could provide coastal communities with fresh food and water, while promoting marine life.

Located in the waters of Noli, on the Italian Riviera, is an underwater oddity. Nine biospheres hover in the shallow depths, with an eerie blue glow evoking imagery of alien settlements. But, rather than extraterrestrial life, these biospheres house a research project providing underwater sanctuaries for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, known as Nemo’s Garden.

“When I first had the opportunity to dive underwater and see Nemo’s Garden’s biospheres, I felt like I was on another planet,” said Giacomo d'Orlando, a photojournalist who spent several months documenting the project. “It was amazing to see what human beings can achieve. Nemo’s Garden has changed my perspective [of possibility], pushing me to pursue more projects involving marine and coastal environments.”

The project started with an idea: Is it possible to grow food in underwater greenhouses? This concept was conceived by Sergio Gamberini — a chemical engineer and the president of the Ocean Reef Group, a US-Italian company specializing in scuba diving equipment — who now runs the research project.

Founded in 2012, the Nemo’s Garden project aims to explore the possibilities of novel agriculture, test the viability of underwater greenhouses and offer a sustainable way to grow food. This process of underwater cultivation is particularly important in the face of climate change, which is already adversely affecting and reducing arable land on a global scale.

“We have created Nemo’s Garden to provide an alternative way for agriculture, especially in the parts of the world without arable land and fresh water. With our technology, we can provide people with the tools to grow food and collect food in a completely self-sustained way,” Federico Giunto, in charge of marketing for Ocean Reef and Nemo’s Garden, told Sustainable Brands®.

Positioned around 10-12 meters under the ocean surface, the biospheres are tended to by a group of scuba divers. Each dome is filled with approximately 2,000 liters of air and sits close enough to the water's surface so that sunlight can naturally penetrate them, providing both light and warmth to the plants.

Shaped like optical lenses, the lightweight, plastic domes are designed to float. Once installed underwater, they are guided into position, flipped right-side up and chained to the ocean floor. The divers then pump in air from scuba tanks, displacing the water in the domes and enabling the domes to float. The domes can then be equipped with the necessary technology and supplies, which are brought in waterproof boxes.

The domes are equipped with hydroponic technology, plant seeds and air-circulating fans, which are all powered by solar panels. Growing plants this way eliminates the need for soil, which is replaced with an inert substrate that supplies the plants with the necessary nutrients. Outside the domes, the temperature remains fairly consistent throughout the day and night — a valuable asset for sustainable growth.

“The domes provide a closed system for the plants. There are no parasites or insects; so we’ve eliminated the need for pesticides, and the plants are irrigated with water that is actually collected from inside the domes — from the condensed water in the inner part of the biosphere,” Giunto explains.

This closed system has a multitude of benefits: Nemo’s Garden produce is 100% organic, since pesticides and insects are eradicated from the dome; and, research conducted by Pisa University found that basil grown in the domes has a higher concentration of essential oils, antioxidants and polyphenols. The plants in the dome reportedly also possess purer, more intense flavors. These benefits suggest multiple applicational uses for the research; one biosphere is currently being rented out for experiments and tests.

Image credit: Nemo's Garden

“Sustainability is very important to us; we’re constantly thinking of ways we can be sustainable and use the ocean's energy without impacting the environment and only having positive impacts,” Giunto says. “We are even collecting the algae that grows on the chains of the domes to see if we can use the nutrients to feed the plants.”

The garden has also been found to improve the surrounding marine ecosystem, acting as an artificial reef to house an array of marine life.

“We set up the pilot project near Genova, where the marine life was very low. Once we set up the project, we saw an incredible explosion of marine life, sea horses, cuttlefish, octopuses — thousands of things,” Giunto exclaims.

For now, Nemo’s Garden is being used solely for research, due to limitations around economies of scale. But the research team partnered with technology company Siemens and consulting firm TekSea in the hopes of promoting the scalability of the project. The long-term goal is to make this technology accessible and affordable in areas where climate change and unsustainable, conventional ag practices will have the greatest impact.

“Climate change is the most important topic of our recent time,” d'Orlando says. “It's a problem without boundaries; and that interests all of us without any exception. It is the issue that unifies people towards a common goal: to protect our home.”