Is the Ocean the Next Fertile Crescent?

It is common knowledge that we as a species consume too much, waste too much and destroy resources at an alarming rate. So, it is no wonder that scientists are turning to new and increasingly elaborate ways to grow food. You’re probably thinking that now I am going to talk about growing food in space but actually instead of looking up at the sky we are going to be looking down into the ocean. We are going to examine the chic underwater growing pods off the coast of Noli, Italy that you may not even know existed.

Inside these large glass pods tethered to the sea floor, divers and scientists are growing vegetables, fruits and herbs. This project was created in 2012 and is referred to as “Nemo’s Garden” and right now there are 7 pods (or biospheres) that each can hold about 22 plants (McEachran). The goal of the project is to bring this to the commercial market as an agricultural aid and some hope for it to be a replacement.

So how do these hydroponic biosphere gardens work? Half the pod is filled with sea water and via evaporation the water desalinates and collects on the ceiling of the pod. Like when you leave a half empty water bottle in a warm spot, you see the condensation gather on the inside of the bottle. The fresh water then drips onto the plants, simulating rain. This sounds like a sci-fi type of resource, but there are actual benefits that make these particular biospheres very useful. Crops above ground are susceptible to all the natural disasters, droughts and soil (if not rotated) will lose its fertility over time.

nemos garden

I think these pods, if commercialized and used agriculturally, could be a massive economic aid. Countries like those in the Middle East who have access to the sea and not much viable soil could utilize these pods to grow their own foods and they wouldn’t have to import. But then this begs the question; isn’t it expensive to install in the first place? Would that outweigh the export cost? These are questions we can’t answer just yet, but it reminds me of how we face(d) this same installation conundrum with solar panels. We could also follow the solar panel path to success and subsidize the new pods making them more accessible.

But then again, at the rate we degrade soil, and disasters are planned to increase (including droughts), these pods could be the solution. We all remember the dust bowl and its impact on the economy, so that is something we absolutely must avoid. According to Dr. David Pimentel, in “the last 40 years, nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost by erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10 million hectares per year” (Pimentel). He among many scientists have pointed out that our population and food consumption increases every year (if not day), while our food production is beginning to decline. With this trend of increasing demand and decreasing supply we will create sky high prices and shortages.

Unfortunately, the biospheres cannot become a public good because only qualified divers can access them. It would be dangerous to have people diving several meters down into the sea, untrained. Yet I think this method should seriously be considered for agriculture because if it is not the solution it could be an off ramp from over worked farms. And who knows what it could be an on ramp to? Sooner or later the world will be investing more time, money and energy into new technologies and methods because we can already see our planet is exacerbated. And being on a finite piece of land with finite resources, we have to proceed with caution. We have learned this from Easter Island, that if we don’t want to suffer the same fate as them, institutional changes must be implemented.

When it comes to the food (crop) industry, I don’t think a tax or Pigovian tax would provide any real benefit, I think it is already in too much trouble. Look at coffee for example. The farmers in South America who have been growing coffee for generations are now competing with other parts of the world that started growing and selling coffee cheaper. So, the South American farmer’s response is to grow more because this is all they can do. This in turn creates too much supply of coffee thus decreasing the price even further and exacerbates the issue. These farmers are economically stuck, because in this case farming is all they know and to improve the economy they would have to give up their welfare.

To conclude, I believe the sea-biosphere project will continue and I hope it evolves into a viable alternative to ease farms, and produce more information on how we can implement it on a major scale. It will definitely take years but just like the journey we have embarked on with solar energy and electric cars, we will make the jump eventually and be closer to sustainable food production, and perchance we can even curb our consumption.

By Olivia Cobleigh

Works Cited

Arsenault, Chris. “Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues.”

Ahmed, Nafeez. “Documents reveal Middle East regimes fear food, water, energy shortages.”, October 12, 2017.

David Pimentel, C. Harvey, P. Resosudarmo, K. Sinclair, D. Kurz, M. McNair, S. Crist, L. Shpritz, L. Fitton, R. Saffouri and R. Blair. “Environmental and Economic Costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits.” Science, vol. 267, No. 5201 (Feb. 24, 1995), pp. 1117-1123.

Dockrill, Peter. “These Underwater Biospheres in Italy Could Be The Farms of The Future.”, July 5, 2015.

“Economics of Coffee.” PBS.

McEachran, Rich. “Under the sea: the underwater farms growing basil, strawberries and lettuce.” August 13, 2015.


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