Welcome to the gardens of Nemo


In Italy, near Genoa, engineers have created an underwater vegetable garden with exceptional virtues

A few strokes are enough to reach this set of anticipatory film: giant spheres in suspension, air bubbles in a huge aquarium: the Mediterranean, on the edge of Noli beach, between Genoa and the French border. In these sea greenhouses, less than 10 meters deep, basil and salad are grown without soil, with the only watering being the condensation.

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This funny garden has become the favorite spot for diving clubs on the Ligurian coast. Even beginners can treat themselves to their baptism in this vegetable garden under the sea. They are not the only ones to be fascinated: seahorses and octopuses now evolve in the mini reef. The underwater life that had deserted the sandy bottoms has returned there. In full confinement, images of the Jardin de Nemo made Giacomo d’Orlando, photographer and author of this report, fantasize about it, to the point of making him want to take his diving certificate: “I was looking for subjects around the world. ecology, he says. I immediately hooked and I was not disappointed. When you go down, you get a strange feeling, it’s like entering another dimension, another world. ”

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In full confinement, images of the Jardin de Nemo made Giacomo d’Orlando, photographer and author of this report, fantasize about it, to the point of making him want to take his diving certificate: “I was looking for subjects around the world. ecology, he says. I immediately hooked and I was not disappointed. When you go down, you get a strange feeling, it’s like entering another dimension, another world. ”

In reality, these gardens are much more than an attraction. In the shelter of these luminescent bells where herbs, vegetables and medicinal plants germinate and grow, a possible agricultural revolution is growing. A vegetal Noah’s ark, perhaps the beginning of a response to climate change, drought, famines.

With the help of technology, soon Noah’s ark will become a plant archipelago

You had to be a bit eccentric and as stubborn as Sergio Gamberini, boss of an Italian-American diving equipment company, to imagine one day growing basil under the sea. “Ten years later, we are on the eve of extremely spectacular developments, announces, from Las Vegas, Luca Gamberini, vice-president of the company Ocean Reef Group. The idea germinated in my father’s head around 2011. He who has spent his life exploring the seabed, reflecting on their potential. It didn’t make sense to me, but when my dad decides something… he does it! ” Research and innovation are written in the DNA of this family of engineers, originally from Genoa.

In the 1950s, the Gamberinis owned a tire repair shop. They first invented a revolutionary type of floating rubber that made it possible to make fins and diving masks unlike anything seen before. More recently, Ocean Reef engineers have developed the Easybreath face mask for Decathlon, to allow those who cannot breathe with a snorkel to practice snorkeling or snorkeling. It is this mask which, at the start of the Covid pandemic, was hijacked by medical teams to protect themselves from the virus. While the world was experiencing a shortage of protections such as equipment for respirators, the Ocean Reef teams developed, in a hurry and in record time, two filters to be fitted on these masks for the general public, manufactured at million copies. The plans have been made available to all, in open source. A magnificent response to the health crisis.

Plants grow faster and are richer in active ingredients

For the gardens of Nemo, the adventure began in the summer of 2012 with a test balloon, literally. A first small plastic bag filled with air, containing a basil plant, is submerged and fixed to the bottom, a few meters from the fishing port of Noli. Why basil? Simply because it is a specialty of Liguria and it goes into the preparation of pesto genovese, the famous green sauce for pasta. The plant, however very fragile, sensitive to temperature and humidity, has survived underwater. The following summer, two biospheres of 800 liters each, large enough to enter, breathe, work, were in turn submerged. First good point, and not the least: once mature, the basil raised under the sea had the same taste as that which grows on the floor of cows! Better: the first analyzes revealed that its leaves contained a higher concentration of essential oils: 72% against 57%. The biospheres seemed to act as a growth accelerator. Germination and growth were faster. “We then decided to invest more money, in an even larger bubble, of 2000 liters, which would make it possible to grow salads. The Universal Exhibition in Milan, in 2015, shed light on our work, some publications created the buzz. We were becoming visible. We then planted tomatoes, eggplants, sage, oregano, coriander, flowers, mushrooms, aloe vera… We have had some setbacks, of course, but that’s how we are moving forward ”, summarizes Luca Gamberini.

Until this year, crops were seasonal. The whole installation was dismantled at the end of the summer. For the first time, the researchers decided to leave the biospheres in place for the winter. They are currently submerged about fifty meters from the beach, between 6 and 10 meters deep in order to protect them from bad weather, swell, held by chains, ropes and weights, supplied with energy by solar panels , packed with sensors and cameras that provide the on-land “control tower” with data on temperature, light, humidity and CO2 in real time. They make up an almost autonomous archipelago, a world apart. To ensure their maintenance, it is necessary to dive for a few hours, once every two weeks approximately, the time to observe the cultures, to clean the bubbles to allow them to capture the light, to adjust, to harvest. In these mini-ecosystems, where plants naturally renew the air, are now growing beans and a particular variety of tobacco, Nicotiana benthamiana, for the pharmaceutical industry, research for vaccines.

“We have indeed observed that plants reared under water develop certain properties, due among other things to pressure. Their active ingredients are more concentrated. Such experiments had never been carried out under these very specific conditions. The field of possibilities is immense, ”enthuses Luca Gamberini. But what would be the advantages of duplicating such installations and, above all, would it be really green?

This summer, the signing of a partnership with Siemens was announced

« We are discovering it day after day, and it goes beyond what we could have imagined, » he insists. Obviously, with growing food needs, and with a lack of fresh water and agricultural land, these vegetable gardens may offer part of the solution. The emerged lands represent 29% of the surface of the globe, the other two thirds are covered by the oceans, of which a small part could thus be exploited. Example with the Maldives, archipelago of confetti, which must import 100% of its food at a very high environmental cost, generated in particular by transport. Today, agriculture captures 70% of the water consumed on earth. In biospheres, where one cultivates according to the technique of hydroponics, that is to say on a substrate, everything is under a hood, in a closed circuit. The only source of watering is evaporation from the sea, which condenses into droplets on the walls of the bubbles. To this desalinated water, mineral salts (and nutrients) must be added before injecting it into the feeding circuit up to the roots. Thus, no wastage. No need for pesticides either, so no chemical pollution.

After ten years of empirical experimentation, university laboratory research, but also resistance and skepticism, the Nemo Gardens are about to take a decisive step. This summer, the signing of a partnership with Siemens was announced. The largest engineering company in Europe will bring the technology needed for development. Thanks to more sophisticated transmissions, its engineers will recover the data that will feed the artificial intelligence of its giant computers. The objective is to create clones, the avatars of existing biospheres, in order to virtually and quickly simulate new exploitation scenarios. It is a question of optimizing the growth of the plants, in particular to envisage several harvests per year. What to attract new investors and deploy, perhaps, the concept on a large scale. « It is still confidential, but I can announce that we are on the verge of signing by the end of the year with a government, for a very large pilot project », confirms Luca Gamberini. Nemo or the Eldorado of a planet that must push its limits.

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