Innovation

Are These Strange Underwater Balloons the Future of Sustainable Farming? 

by Aarian Marshall

August 14, 2015
image via youtube screencapture

The divers draw closer. Their destination, 30 feet under the waves, is a small cluster of pods, alien-like and translucent. Strapped tight in their scuba gear and emitting a thick stream of bubbles, the swimmers enter the clear domes. Then it begins.

They garden.

Welcome to Nemo’s Garden, located on a patch of underwater sand off the coast of Noli, in northwest Italy. The garden—Orto di Nemo in Italian—is the brainchild of one Sergio Gamberini, the president of the diving equipment firm Ocean Reef Group.

image via youtube screencapture

The garden currently plays host to clusters of basil, strawberries, and lettuce. But Gamberini and his team, which successfully completed a $30,000 Kickstarter drive this week, are more ambitious: They think their underwater agriculture project might be key to the future of farming.

First, you should understand the technology behind these unusual underwater apparitions. Each pod in the garden (there are seven) contains eight to ten trays of plants. These growing greens receive sunlight the natural way—from the sun, which can penetrate the relatively shallow seawater. Though the pods are completely surrounded by salt water, Nemo’s Garden scientists have adapted a desalinating hydroponics system: Seawater within the pods evaporates, and fresh water condenses on the undersides of their roofs. Then the fresh water drips back down, onto the plants themselves.

The growing technique has a number of advantages, the gardening divers say. For one, it doesn’t disrupt the surrounding environment. If anything, the translucent balloons have served as a useful shelter for local sea creatures. (Visiting crabs and jellyfish seem especially receptive, the Ocean Reef team says.)  

It’s also incredibly low maintenance. Once the pods have been properly installed, the gardening system maintains itself. Provided the balloon doesn’t blow away in a storm—one hiccup the team has weathered since the project’s launch in 2012—all the gardener has to do is harvest.

Finally, the project’s leaders say their gardens could put a serious dent in the world’s food insecurity problems. Many of the nations that struggle to feed themselves do not have access to fresh water—but they’re surrounded by saltwater. As Gamberini explains, underwater greenhouses could change a lot.

“[Meeting future food demands] is the aim, and it could be a sustainable way of agriculture,” he told The Guardian. “Not just local businesses, but for large parts of the world. Starting from Middle Eastern and tropical countries such as the Maldives, where there is not much [suitable] soil or fresh water ... [to] southern California, which is experiencing droughts.”

image via youtube screencapture

Could the underwater greenhouse technique be successfully commericalized, scaled to confront the enormity of this planet’s food and water problems? Right now, it’s unclear. But the Ocean Reef team says it will use its Kickstarter funds to gather more data: How deep can the pods go before plants stop receiving adequate sunlight? Are some materials better for desalination than others?  Could the pods be used for other functions—ecotourism, maybe?

"I try to do something that's a little different and to show the beauty of the ocean," Gamberini told the Washington Post earlier this summer. "I hope to do something for the young people and to inspire new dreams."

Via The Guardian, Washington Post

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Are These Strange Underwater Balloons the Future of Sustainable Farming?