Fresh Food Underway
As a special treat, here's a rough draft of an article a submariner working in a Pentagon mess wrote up to submit to Undersea Warfare magazine; he's looking for comments from the readers here. Click on the "Read More" link to read the article, and use the comments for your feedback.
Fresh Food Underway
A look into the benefits of hydroponic plant systems
By CS2(SS) Timothy Poole, USN
The delicious aroma of slow cooking marina sauce with fresh basil; the sizzling sound of piping hot meatballs mixed with oregano, thyme, or parsley; and the thought of a large batch of spaghetti boiling over is enough to make any homesick sailor come running to the mess decks to grab a bench. The Silent Service is world famous for the quality of food they provide to their submariners. Or rather the dollar amount allotted to each boat's supply department.
Meals are crucial to a crew's morale. It is up to the boat's Culinary Specalists to plan and execute nutritious and tasty meals four times a day for as long as six months at a time. The use of fresh food is very limited, usually only lasting the first two weeks underway. In the weeks and months following deployment, the crew finds nutrition in frozen meats and vegetables. Though the chefs work hard to create delicious dishes, the added touch of freshness is obsolete living deep underwater.
For many years, the absence of sunlight has equaled the absence of fresh foods. However, the use of hydroponics can make the growth of fresh foods possible in a submarine. Hydroponics from the Greek language literally meaning "water labor" is the growth of plants without soil. In combination with artificial lighting, hydroponics creates controlled environmental agriculture.
How hydroponics works
Natural plant growth involves trapping sunlight with the use of water and carbon dioxide. The trapped sunlight is then converted into chemical energy, creating food for the plant and releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Plants are traditionally grown in soil to provide a medium to collect water, provide minerals, and support the plant's root structure. By modifying the growth process and reducing or eliminating the size of plant beds, smaller plants can be grown on submarines. For the purpose of this research, the focus will be to grow and sustain an herb garden on a submarine for use in meals.
Hydroponic devices allow plants roots to be watered with a nutrient solution replacing minerals that can be found in soil. This technology further eliminates the need for soil by providing man made support for root structures. The plant can then be enclosed to maintain temperature, and placed under direct artificial light to induce growth. All factors of growth - temperature, light, water, nutrients, and pH balance can be controlled for maximum results.
The benefits of artificial growth
Plant growth in non-agricultural locations
Many groups have seen the benefits of hydroponic plant growth. The hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World is considered an early day example of hydroponics. Built to please his wife, Nebuchadnezzar II brought lush gardens to present day Iraq in 600 B.C. Other examples in history include the floating gardens of the Aztecs in Mexico as well as those in China. Aside from aesthetic purposes, hydroponics is widely used for practical purposes. Farmers use hydroponics to provide vegetation year round regardless of the climate as well as large scale production. Hydroponics can improver farmer profits and provide for an increasing demanding society leaning toward healthier trends. Looking toward the future, NASA has been developing hydroponic plant growth to sustain long missions in space. Further, as we continue to explore life on other planets, hydroponics can help future missions to support humans on other planets.
Ease of use
The initial development of hydroponic devices custom built for attack submarines (SSN or fast attacks) or fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) will take some time to develop given restriction on available space. However, once the system is established, only basic agricultural skills are needed to maintain plant life. If implemented, the Navy will undoubtedly produce a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on how much water and light is needed to maximize growth. Care will have to be given to monitor the pH balance and adjust the climate in order to stimulate or reduce growth as necessary. In addition, without soil there is no threat to a plant's life by way of soil borne disease or weeds.
A hydroponic system is more efficient than natural plant growth in a variety of ways. First, the use of water is reduced due to the fact that water is being given directly to a plant's root. The root does not have to seek water from soil. Think of pouring a watering can over a plant bed as opposed to sitting a plant in a controlled amount of water. Second, hydroponic gardeners have found that their plants grow much faster as opposed to growth through traditional soil. Perhaps this is because the root is directly exposed to water and nutrients without having to seek such ingredients from the soil. Finally, the system is efficient because takes much less physical labor has opposed to traditional planting or gardening. On a small scale, the time and effort to grow herbs is quite minimal.
A hydroponic system is in complete control of the planter. All aspects of plant life can be modified through temperature, direct or indirect light, quantity of water, and the amount of nutrients to which a plant is exposed. Gardeners can experiment in this controlled environment, changing the elements listed above to find which combinations maximize or diminish growth.
Nutrition and well-being
As plants consume carbon dioxide, they produce oxygen. In an environment such as a submarine, a plant would be the only living entity contributing to the oxygen supply as opposed to consuming the supply. In addition, plants provide a profound amount of nutrition necessary to a human diet to sustain life. Herbs in particular can provide the following:
Aloe Vera- sooths skin and digestive disorders
Echinacea- found to possess antibacterial and immune-boosting properties, helps to fight coughs, colds, viral, and upper respiratory infections
Garlic- reduces blood pressure, preventing heart disease, and preventing and reversing a stroke. It also fights infections and cancer.
Oregano- rich in antioxidant content
Rosemary- helps prevent and treat cancer, also a powerful brain booster to aid memory problems.
Saint Johns Wort- holds powerful anti-depression properties
From the nutritional benefits listed above, it is easy to see how introducing fresh herbs to a group of submariners on an extended duty tour could help raise moral. Fresh food stimulates the body to perform and work to the best of its ability. In addition, the herbs mentally prepare sailors for the difficult duties they will have to endure. Taking care of the plants and maintaining the hydroponic systems can also increase sailor morale. Cultivating and maintaining a life form can bring pleasure and a sense of pride to caretaking duties, much as gardeners or farmers simply find pure joy in working with plants.
There is still much to be considered before implementing a hydroponic system on a submarine. The first consideration is availability of space. As many know, every available inch of a submarine is utilized. The best solution would be to first implement a small system on an SSBN on a trial basis. It would have to be determined if the effort to develop a hydroponic system (time, money, and use of space) is worth the output of the system (morale, nutrition, substantial plant growth). In addition, is the input to create such a system worth the effort when submariners are currently getting by on an already fantastic feast provided by their chefs? Another consideration is the use of dried herbs in preparing meals. Is this solution enough to provide benefits to sailors?
A future for growth undersea
It is important to remember that our technology and our military are ever evolving. Hydroponics can allow flexible placement of plant life in a submarine setting to provide nutritional and morale benefits to our sailors. Roasted rosemary potatoes, garlic-herb chicken, herb encrusted tenderloin, and many more recipes are what could be enjoyed by submariners with the help of hydroponic plant systems. Look, I am not suggesting that we line the out-boards with tomato vines or grow fresh mint from a hanging basket back in manuerving(though it will make it smell better after taco night!) From the research that I have conducted all i need is a 3x3x3 space and I will be able to grow enough fresh herbs to make the crew crave their next meal. They could take part in the growth process, and take pride in their role to provide for the entire crew. Finally, they could be rewarded for the duty to their country which takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline. There is a movement in our society toward health and long life. Of the strongest, must be our military, which represent the United States to the world. Hydroponic systems in submarines could be the tool to keep our sailors healthy and strong in all environments they explore and defend. Adding fresh herbs to meals now could develop into the availability of fresh vegetables throughout extended tours in the future. Healthy minds and bodies are the best tools to safely complete a mission and serve the country.