The stand for the region of Liguria at the Milan 2015 Expo features a project as bizarre-sounding as it is intriguing: an attempt to grow crops underwater, inside air-filled biospheres. It's part of an effort that could prove a low-cost, low-energy solution to grow food in parts of the world where this was not previously possible.
Though of fascinating beauty, the land in the region of Liguria in Northern Italy is known to be especially poor for farming. Between the crowded population, rocky terrain, steep hills that often give way to landslides, and the periodic floods, the locals have had to resort to energy-inefficient terrace farming.
This is not an isolated problem: lack of fertile land and adverse climate conditions around the world means we've seen several projects involving growing crops creatively, including underground, inside a skyscraper, in a tiny greenhouse and even in the cloud, to try and deal with the issue.
For their project, however, scuba diving company owner Sergio Gamberini and his son Luca have picked an even more unusual spot: under the sea, inside biospheres 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 ft) below the surface, just off the Ligurian tourist beaches of the town of Noli, near Savona.
As bizarre as this solution may sound, there is method to this madness. A few feet below the surface, plenty of sunlight still filters in, the temperature is kept at a stable 25° C (77 °F) by the sea, and the crops are well out of the reach of parasites.
The evaporating sea water condenses on the inner walls of the biosphere, creating a high-humidity environment (up to 85 percent) that favors crop growth. All in all, according to its proponents, the system is sustainable and requires very little energy.
The Nemo's Garden project started in 2012 and continued through the next two summers. The three (now five) underwater biospheres were anchored to the seafloor and filled with air. Then, shelves were installed along with cameras and sensors that monitor the plants – bunches of basil (used to make Liguria's iconic pesto sauce) growing either in hydroponics or in soil.
About 50 days later, the basil is harvested and laboratories are tasked with analyzing the results. According to the company, there has been no significant difference compared to land-grown basil, except the underwater variety appears to be noticeably stronger in flavor.
The planting for this year started in late June. Live streaming for the underwater garden project is available via Ustream, 24/7. Four cameras will monitor the stretch of sea containing the garden and the inside of the biggest biosphere. Each week will also see a live underwater broadcast to describe the latest progress.
The video below further illustrates the project.