Seabed crops make a rip­ple

Townsville Bulletin - - CLASSIFIEDS -

IN the home­land of pesto, a group of div­ing en­thu­si­asts has come up with a way of grow­ing basil be­neath the sea that could rev­o­lu­tionise crop pro­duc­tion in arid coastal ar­eas around the world.

The pun­gent green herb has long been syn­ony­mous with the steep, ter­raced cliff­sides of Lig­uria, the north­ern Ital­ian re­gion known for its spec­tac­u­lar coast­line and for pro­duc­ing one of the world’s best- loved pasta sauces.

Those two stand­out fea­tures of the re­gion could now be­come even more in­ti­mately as­so­ci­ated, thanks to the ef­forts of Ser­gio Gam­berini.

A div­ing nut and spe­cial­ist in un­der­wa­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Gam­berini has be­gun grow­ing basil in large plas­tic spheres an­chored to the sea bed 100 me­tres off­shore and eight me­tres be­low the sur­face in an experiment he has dubbed “Nemo’s gar­den”.

“The idea came to me be­cause I wanted to cre­ate more in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the sur­face and the div­ing ac­tiv­ity,” Gam­berini said.

Hav­ing started with a sim­ple plas­tic ball into which he placed a tub with herb seeds planted in com­post, he is now in his fourth sea­son of pro­duc­tion from an un­der­wa­ter gar­den com­prised of three “bio­spheres” which he is al­lowed to keep in the wa­ter for three months a year.

“I chose a typ­i­cal ac­tiv­ity of farm­ers, and I said ‘ why not bring it un­der wa­ter?’” he said.

“I re­alised that there was an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a new site to grow veg­eta­bles.”

Eva­po­ra­tion en­sures hu­mid­ity be­tween 80 and 90 per cent in­side the spheres, the con­den­sa­tion pro­vides the nec­es­sary mois­ture and, even well be­low the waves, there is enough light to en­sure the plants re­gen­er­ate their oxy­gen sup­ply via pho­to­syn­the­sis.

Hav­ing proved the sys­tem works, Gam­berini’s chal­lenge now is cost- ef­fi­ciency.

“I don’t know if it will be the fu­ture be­cause we have to prove that it can be self­sup­port­able,” he said. “If a pound of let­tuce ( grown un­der­wa­ter) costs too much, it won’t have a fu­ture.”

The pri­mary ad­van­tage of un­der­wa­ter grow­ing is the sta­bil­ity of ther­mal con­di­tions.

“The sea main­tains the tem­per­a­ture with­out a great dif­fer­ence be­tween day and night,” said Gianni Fon­tanesi, who runs the pro­ject.

In late June, the wa­ter on the coastal shelf of the north­ern Mediter­ranean is 25 de­grees, while in­side the spheres the tem­per­a­ture reaches 29 de­grees. The plants are thriv­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment where they are pro­tected from in­sects and par­a­sites.

The re­sults have been en­cour­ag­ing, with the spheres pro­duc­ing more densely leafed plants than is usual.

“In the longer term, this could be a so­lu­tion for arid re­gions next to the sea,” said Gam­berini, who ad­mits there is still much work to be done to do it on a larger scale.

Pic­ture: OLIVIER MORIN/ AFP

CON­TROLLED EN­VI­RON­MENT: Pro­ject co- or­di­na­tor of Nemo's Gar­den, Gianni Fon­tanesi, checks his un­der­wa­ter crop in im­mersed bio­spheres off the coast of Italy.

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