First phase complete for pioneering subaquatic veggie project
After finishing the first research phase of a unique initiative to cultivate fresh produce underwater, project coordinator of Ocean Reef Group, Gianni Fontanesi, the company behind the Italian innovative, speaks with http://www.freshfruitportal.com.
Basil, parsley, beans, radish, onions, mint, peas, zucchini and lettuce are just some of the crops that have successfully been cultivated during the initial stage of the extraordinary underwater project dubbed Nemo’s Garden.
Between five and 10 meters (16.4 to 32.8 feet) under the ocean surface close to the Riviera beachside town of Noli not far from Genoa, an array of sub-surface biospheres have been used to grow a series of crops in sealed and sustainable underwater laboratories.
Scuba diving and underwater systems experts, the Ocean Group, have been exploring ways to harness technology and start to investigate the notion of subaquatic plant production.
“At first it all sounds a little crazy, but we are really pioneering a totally innovative and different method to cultivate crops,” Fontanesi tells http://www.freshfruitportal.com.
”The main goal of this project is to try to cultivate certain crops in an environment where, until now, people have been unable to successfully grow plants.”
Fontanesi describes the Nemo’s Garden team as ’scuba diving farmers’, driven by a deep curiosity to tackle a whole new realm that could one day transform inhospitable regions into underwater agricultural successes.
By utilizing the properties of large bodies of water, such as constant temperatures and natural evaporation, an underwater glasshouse that requires no energy was operating on the Italian seabed from June to the end of September.
The idea was to harness the technology for large-scale production by providing an alternative solution to grow food in a sustainable, responsible way with little impact on the earth’s footprint.
And the results are pretty interesting.
The first experiment of cultivating ’great tasting basil’ – specifically chosen because it’s a typical Italian ingredient in pesto – was a hit. Although volumes were low, the herb sprouted within 48 hours in the underwater biospheres.
These are types of balloons that are sunk to the ocean floor, filled with air, and anchored with constant monitoring while seeds are planted and cultivated.
“We created eight different biospheres because we used different shapes, different sizes and materials. We created the big underwater lab where we installed a sensor panel, intercom, cameras and remote controls so we could keep everything under control night and day, even without being there.
“We grew red and green basil, lettuce, spinach, garlic, radish, parsley, rocket, beans, peas, mint, zucchini, tomatoes, as well as aloe vera and onions. We even tried mushrooms just to see if they’d work, but basically everything else was a success.
”We discovered that fresh water is produced automatically as there is a kind of evaporation inside the biosphere. The air temperature inside the biosphere is higher than the ocean temperature so fresh water is generated all around the inside of the biosphere which acts like a self-generating irrigation system, dripping onto the crops like rain.”
In such an early stage of the project, and with limitations imposed by authorities which currently only permit the biospheres to remain on the ocean floor for four months of the year, production levels were unsurprisingly extremely low.
However, spurred by the early crop successes the team wants to set up underwater greenhouse operations in other parts of Italy to carry out more experiments. They have also enlisted the know-how of agronomists in terms of which crops to tackle next.
“What we need to do now is to keep searching and keep developing the underwater installation to find the perfect combination between the right size, the right depth and the right material. We also have to think about keeping the temperature and humidity under control because these are two key factors. We need to get this right if we want to maximize plant production.
“We want to find a way to run our project 12 months per year. First of all we might need new locations with new permissions in alternative ocean sites.
”At the moment all the project is run by private investment from Ocean Reef Group and it’s a huge effort especially because it takes a lot of funding and we are not a very big company, so maybe we would be interested in collaborating with other investors.”
Subaquatic farming of the future?
Providing an alternative solution to cultivating crops in arid regions close to the ocean is one long-term objective of the project, as is investigating the essential oil properties and nutritional values of plants grown underwater.
“After the harvest during the first experiment, we sent all of the plants for chemical analysis and discovered that the essential oils in the basil crops were higher than growing normal basil. That’s really interesting.
”It can be very difficult to cultivate crops in areas where there is a big gap between night and day temperatures, lack of soil, lack of fresh water and so on.
”There are huge parts of the world with these types of problems such as Saudi Arabia or the Maldives, but these are also very close to large oceans and have great natural sunlight.”
Fontanesi explains how the project is totally green, requiring barely any energy.
“It’s a kind of greenhouse which doesn’t require energy at all. It’s natural to have a stable temperature as there is no real difference between night and day. We don’t need to waste fresh water, we don’t need to power lights and we don’t need energy to run water pumps.
“We want to discover more about maximizing production by finding the right combination to make this system sustainable for the future because right now the quantities from the biosphere is not a lot at all.”
From a commercial perspective, right now these plants would cost a fortune, but that’s ’part of the game’ according to Fontanesi, who reiterates this research stage is just the beginning of the Nemo’s Garden adventure.
”We used different methods to grow the plants from hydroponic, to normal soil, to substrate like coconut fiber. The hydroponic is probably the method we want to develop more.
“Being underwater, the plants are obviously in a unique environment which protects them from harmful pests and diseases. The ocean obviously receives a lot natural light from the sun which penetrates the water surface and gets into the biosphere.
”When you take soil underwater, you have to find an effective way to transport it without contact and as this is not an easy task. You need a dry case, special equipment to control the water pumps. This is just one of the many challenges we’ve been working on.”
Whether projects like Nemo’s Garden prove to be a true food production source for the future remains to be seen, but the pioneers believe they may just be onto something with the creation of an ‘ecological and auto-sustainable system.’
“It’s a very long road ahead, but who knows. What we have already achieved has been really interesting and the research and experiments we have done so far could be just the beginning.”