Startup creates deep-sea agriculture: healthier and more sustainable

When we think of agriculture, these large areas of land planted with plants come to mind under a generous climate.

Nemo’s garden forces you to question this bucolic image. Instead of dry fields, the seabed. Sun, wind or rain, greenhouses, pressure, not so much natural light, but no pests.

Founded by Italian Sergio Gamberini, Nemo’s Garden grows vegetables in the submerged biosphere of the Italian coast.

The results are promising: its basil leaves, for example, have the same flavor as “terrestrial” plants, but with a higher concentration of essential oils.

Despite the high investment cost, productivity is higher, and so are sustainability rates.

“Plants benefit from constant temperature and humidity, natural protection from pests, and the intensity of a pressurized atmosphere. So they germinate and grow faster and have a higher success rate,” said Alastair Orchard, vice president of digital entrepreneurship at Siemens Digital Software.

“Furthermore, these plants develop higher levels of micronutrients that are responsible for taste and health, which contributes to more quantity and better quality,” he concluded.

He joined the Siemens project in April to create a virtual biosphere control system. But the story of “Nemo’s Garden” began later, in 2012, with a completely crazy inspiration.

What if …?

Gamberini was on holiday with friends on the Italian Riviera, and while taking a bath, for incomprehensible reasons, she remembered basil.

Widely used in Italian cuisine, the plant is “boring” for growing, sensitive to changes in ambient temperature, soil moisture, and sunlight. Do you know where the more stable one is? At the bottom of the sea.

To plant grass under water, of course, it would not be enough to make a few holes and throw the seed. The right solution would be climate-controlled greenhouses – a technology not so far from the Gamberini company, Ocean Reef Group, dedicated to diving equipment.

Image: Advertising / Nemo’s Garden

In the same year, he had already improvised the biosphere, in the city of Nori, and planted his first shoots. It worked: the vegetables grew.

In 2013, it was expanded to two larger rooms with a volume of 800 liters, made of polyethylene. They were anchored about 6 feet deep and full of air, looking like a jellyfish.

An internal structure allows for hydroponic cultivation, that is, without land. They are placed in a nutrient solution that allows the seedlings to grow. Divers regularly monitor its development.

Despite a strong storm in 2018, it damaged some of the structures, and despite work being suspended due to the pandemic in 2020, Nemo’s Garden continues to expand – now with larger structures and other crops such as lettuce and arugula.

Plant in water to save water

On the surface of the sea, these plants do not suffer from drought, frost or excessive rain, which can affect the quality of the product or destroy the entire plantation.

And without the threat of traditional parasites, pesticides are also excluded. There is no pollution of soil, air or water.

Speaking of water, biospheres also need fresh water. But only one dose. Very different from traditional plantations, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), which monopolize 70% of the world’s freshwater consumption. (Values ​​include animals, the main evil of the subject.)

In the biosphere, the difference in temperature inside causes condensation compared to the outside, and this liquid is captured to circulate through the hydroponic system.

“Nemo garden structures are still deep enough to receive sunlight during the day. This eliminates the need for artificial light, boosts the water cycle, hydrates plants, and promotes gas exchange on the garden’s surface. Water,” adds Orchard.

Technological support

Siemens has teamed up with startup to create “digital twins” for greenhouses. This makes it possible to perform accurate computer simulations with light, nutrients, or other parameters.

Previously, Gamberini and his team did everything by trial and error. Sometimes it took a full season of the year or a full planting and harvesting to know that the new proposals did not yield the expected results.

“Simulation accelerates this process because it can evaluate ideas in real time. For example, what will be the result of a change in a material, the curve of a surface or the design of crop cells. Or the grouping of spheres. the project will erode the surrounding beaches, ”says Orchard.

According to Orchard, the Nemo team has already collected large volumes of data for each biosphere, so there are many historical trends to validate the predictions made by the software.

In addition to helping to change the design, Nemo’s Garden’s digital twin serves other functions.

It is possible, for example, to convert real data from sensors in the biosphere into virtual sensor data, which allows more precise monitoring of environmental conditions, predicting the need for maintenance or specifying harvest dates, reducing inspection visits. divers.

What does the future hold?

If the idea of ​​growing plants on the seabed has already been feasible, the question remains: to what extent can this be repeated on a large scale so that we can have real underwater farms?

To answer this question, we must first consider the limitations and limitations of the Nemo’s Garden format.

“This format is best for ‘short’ crops, such as grasses and vegetables, or for crops that can be trained to grow horizontally. Tropical plants used in local drug production in remote jungles also grow in the biosphere,” Orchard listed.

On the other hand, roots such as potatoes, plants that do not adapt to humid or very large environments are not suitable for this solution.

At the moment, the project is looking for agricultural partners with experience in large-scale plantations that can be grown and spread to other parts of the planet. Countries targeted by the initiative include places that lack water for agriculture and irrigation, such as Singapore, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Southern California.

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