At Orto di Nemo (Nemo’s Garden), an undersea agriculture project now in its fourth year off the coast of the gorgeous Ligurian Riviera, we’re treated to a glimpse of what it would look like if SpongeBob had gone to ag school instead of manning the deep-fryer at the Krusty Krab. Or perhaps it’s more the result of a grappa-fueled fever dream sponsored in part by Michael Pollan, Jacques Cousteau and Jules Verne.
Whatever the case, Nemo’s Garden, a place where basil, strawberries, beans and lettuce are all grown 20 to 30 feet under the Mediterranean Sea, explores the possibilities of subaquatic plant cultivation. While we probably won’t be seeing massive agricultural operations sprouting up along seabeds any time soon, the scuba gear-donning gentleman farmers of Italian diving equipment company Ocean Reef Group have made it clear that small-scale, hydroponic-based undersea farming — liberated from pests, weeds, severe weather, fickle growing seasons and the need for excessive amounts of energy — is a possibility as arable land across the globe starts to dry up.
The farming takes place in a series of transparent biospheres tethered to the seabed in the sun-drenched Bay of Noli — just think of them as miniature balloon-y greenhouses bobbing merrily along the ocean floor. The humid air within the biosphere stays at a constant, optimum temperate for the thirsty plants, which are hydrated by condensing seawater that drips from the inner walls of the self-contained bubbles. Given that Nemo’s Garden is just offshore and not entirely too deep, the crops still receive filtered sunlight that beams through the surface.
Not only do the plants thrive in these CO2-rich conditions, they grow fast. Real fast.
While the Ocean Reef Group team, lead by Sergio Gamberini and his son, Luca, tend to their crops in person, a series of sensors and cameras have been installed for more frequent remote observation and monitoring of pH and carbon dioxide levels, humidity, temperature and the like.
"In the future, it'll definitely be something that's economically sustainable," Luca Gamberini tells the Washington Post. "I see possibilities for developing countries where harsh conditions make it difficult for plants to grow." Gamberini also notes that while the plants do enjoy a pest-free environment, the biospheres are not without curious visitors including octopuses, seahorses and crabs. "It's so kind of sci-fi to see these two different forms of life interact."
As mentioned, the Gamberinis have been at it (seasonally) for a few years now but just recently have enjoyed extra exposure thanks to Expo Milano 2015. Reads the Nemo’s Garden website: “This year (2015) we draw the line for feasibility, industrialization, large-scale production to really give an alternative solution to grow food in a responsible, small-footprint-on-earth kind of way.”
Lots more — videos, photos and even a live stream, yes, a live stream — can be found at the Nemo’s Garden website.
The Gamberinis also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise much-needed funds that would enable them "to improve the knowledge not only about engineering and underwater installation of structures dedicated to the growth of vegetables for human consumption, but also about the physical-chemical-biological processes occurring during the plants development under sea."
What's more, the Kickstarter campaign will allow the father-son team to branch out into an entirely new but similar direction: marketing mini biospheres, essentially scaled-down versions of the ones installed in the waters of the northern Mediterranean, that can be placed in home aquariums and used to grow a variety of veggies and herbs, albeit in small quantities.
And as for the all-important question of commercial availability of the produce harvested from Nemo’s Garden, that hasn’t happened quite yet. You won't find any boat-bound farm stands floating off the coast of Savona. However, Sergio’s wife has incorporated the undersea basil into Liguria's most famous — and delicious — culinary contribution: homemade pesto sauce.