Nemo’s Garden

Courtesy of Nemo's Garden

by Marilena Lucci and Vittoria Zorfini 

Italy’s underwater greenhouse making waves

Passion is associated as much with Italian culture as pesto—and Nemo’s Garden project coordinator Gianni Fontanesi is in no short supply of either. “We started off with basil. It grows perfectly inside the biospheres because of the humidity. And it’s also perfect because, you know, Liguria is where pesto sauce was created.”

Nemo’s Garden, the brainchild of father-and-son team Sergio and Luca Gamberini, resides just a few kilometres down the Ligurian coast in Noli and can best bedescribed as an underwater farm. Composed of six air-filled clear plastic pods, anchored to the bottom of the sea using chains and screws, these bubble-like biospheres are capable of growing a vast array of plants using the sustainable space and consistent temperature of the ocean. The goal of the project is to make underwater farming an economically viable, long-term alternative form of agriculture. “When my father first told me about the project, I thought it was crazy and didn’t make sense at all,” says Luca Gamberini, marketing manager for Nemo’s Garden. “I was the first to say we should not do it. But the boss is the boss. And we started putting our energy into it. And as we did, we started to find more and more passion for it.”

The passion behind the project comes from a firm belief that the future of sustainable agriculture lies under the water. “The planet is 71% oceans; it is only natural that the future of sustainability will be in the oceans,” says Gamerini. “Water is able to harness the power of the sun in a way that can’t be done on the ground. As soon as the sun’s light penetrates the surface of the water and reaches the biosphere below, that light (even if it’s only 20% of the light we’d receive above the water) allows us to grow certain types of plants year round,” explains Fontanesi.

What started out as an imaginative idea to help local farmers combat the effects of a cold spell on their basil crops has now turned into an international research project with headquarters in Genova and San Marcos, California. “Every year it became bigger and bigger, with more people involved,” says Fontanesi. “We are receiving inquiries from all over the globe—from associations asking for an underwater observatory to resorts asking us to replicate the biospheres for an underwater attraction.We’re renting the biospheres to private companies so they can conduct their own private research. We’re discovering new applications every year.”

Although recent interest in Nemo’s Garden has come from markets like tourism and hospitality, the science behind the project remains its driving force. “Recently we’ve been contacted by the ESA [Euro- pean Space Agency],” explains Fontanesi. “What they have to deal with [zero gravity] is the complete opposite from what we are dealing with [double pressure environment under water] but those guys were super stoked because we succeeded in growing food where it’s been impossible before. They’re interested in the same application—growing food where it was impossible to grow anything else, like on Mars.They are looking for synergies.”

LEAVING A LEGACY

The Gamberini family is no stranger to underwater exploration. Their company, the Ocean Reef Group, began over 70 years ago as a small diving equipment manufacturer in Italy and is the overar- ching company funding most of Nemo’s Garden. “At the beginning, we didn’t have a complete idea about the project’s possibilities,” says Gamberini. “But we knew from our experience in snorkeling and scuba diving that everything that is placed in the ocean, which is not harmful or disruptive, actually works as a shelter for the smaller organisms that then quickly attract the whole food chain.”

In fact, Gamberini argues the domes can correct a lot of damage from “dumping” into the ocean. “Everything was killed when construction workers dumped sandstone and soil when they were digging tunnels. That is done regularly in Liguria because of reconstituting beaches before tourist season,” he explains. “So, when we came in and placed the biospheres, it created an artificial reef. Now we have seahorses, octopuses and various species of fish.”

On a recent trip to Montreal to speak at the city’s 2018 C2 conference, Gamberini addressed skepticism about putting things in the ocean, saying “most of the time it means creating life and not vice versa.” “There are so many applications that we’re learning about now that can be initiated.We’ve seen that the domes act like an artificial reef which can eventually help with coral restoration and even connect it to fish farms.” says Gamberini. “We discovered that we are producing fresh water from salt water naturally—that could also be a new application,” adds Fontanesi.

Admittedly, the duo understands that they’re a ways away from the large-scale application it would take to make Nemo’s Garden a viable substitute for conventional farming. “I’m not saying that we will support the food demands of the coming years, but it could be an alternative solution as lack of arable land, extreme temperatures and limited access to fresh water become more and more of a challenge,” says Fontanesi. “It’s incredi- ble when you compare what we’ve achieved today with what existed five years ago. Five years ago there was almost nothing like this out there and now we have a habitat that is known all over the world.”