Growing strawberries and basil under the sea may sound like something straight out of a Jules Verne novel, but it is in fact the brainchild of Sergio Gamberini, an Italian entrepreneur. Nemo’s Garden is an underwater farm created off the coast of Liguria in 2012, currently producing around forty different species of herbs and vegetables inside air-filled ‘pods’ using hydroponics. With this cultivation technique, plants do not need soil – it is replaced with an inert substrate, irrigated by a solution containing all the nutrients the plants need.
This underwater greenhouse comprises six biospheres but, as each pod can only contain between 80 and 100 small plants, the yield remains somewhat limited. However, Gianni Fontanesi, coordinator of the Nemo’s Garden project explains, “If the parent company Ocean Reef Group could resolve the issues related to the pod size, the logistics and the profitability of the project, it could offer a solution to the shortage of farmland and to the other major problems raised by traditional farming.” Gianni Fontanesi joined the project in 2015. He is one of six people authorised to access the garden.
Nina Schroeder, hydroponics project manager for the World Food Programme (WFP) says, “I think this project is really cool. In our Innovation Accelerator, we are always looking for more interesting, innovative ideas to help solve hunger. Nemo’s Garden is in its early stages, but looks very promising, especially in terms of temperature stability, a challenge we are facing in lots of our contexts, and the automated production of freshwater.”
A simple and ecologically promising concept
Sergio Gamberini came up with the idea of creating an underwater farm in 2012, after talking with a farmer friend while holidaying in Noli, 60 km from Genoa. The concept was simple: A plant covered by a protective film and submerged in the sea could be watered by collecting the condensation formed inside the plastic film. The results of initial experiments were conclusive so, in 2013, he rallied engineers and agronomists to help him reproduce it on a larger scale on the seabed. A keen scuba diver, Sergio Gamberini has always had a close connection with the sea. He has presided as CEO of the Ocean Reef Group, specialised in the production and sale of diving equipment and services since the 1950s. In fact, you can only access the garden with a scuba tank and wetsuit.
This futuristic garden prospers at 50 metres from the shore, at a depth ranging from 6 to 10 metres, in conditions that are actually hostile to humans: Hence, nobody is allowed to enter the pods, where the quantity of oxygen is likely to be too low and the CO2 levels too high for anyone without the right equipment. However, these conditions seem to suit the plants’ needs. Gianni Fontanesi points out that, “The average pressure inside the biospheres is 1.8 bars, which is thought to stimulate the growth of certain plants. We’re currently studying which plants grow best. For basil, for example, we have observed higher levels of essential oils and chlorophyll.”
Another advantage of underwater farming is the absence of parasites. No insects means there’s no need for pesticides, so Nemo’s Garden can be sure its production is 100% organic. Nonetheless, the growth of algae on the walls of the biospheres can limit the amount of sunlight passing through, and the currents and rough sea can endanger the system. Hence, the pods are equipped with cameras and sensors to constantly monitor the temperature, humidity, amount of sunlight, etc. Ocean Reef Group produces all this technology, and the live data is recorded on open-source software and shared on the internet.1