The longest land tunnel in the world is the Lötschberg Base Tunnel, a 21-mile rail tube that runs beneath the Swiss Alps, connecting Germany and northern Italy. In the process of boring this engineering feat, workers unexpectedly tapped into a geothermal spring, which immediately began gushing at a continuous rate of 25 gallons per second (equivalent to the full-blast volume of five fire hoses). Figuring out what to do with all this water was clearly a top priority, but there were economic and environmental concerns to consider.

Ecologists determined that the water could not be simply diverted to the local river, as its warm temperature (68 degrees F) would change the existing ecosystem and likely wipe out an endangered trout population. The water would need to be cooled before it could be released back into the environment.

Here’s where things got interesting. Dismissing “conventional wisdom,” which suggested lowering the water temperature artificially with an energy-intensive cooling plant, one of the tunnel engineers came up with a crazy idea: Use the energy in the water to heat a greenhouse—a tropenhaus, or tropical house—to grow things like bananas and pineapples. Then bring in some Siberian sturgeon fish (which thrive in warm water) and create an aquaculture operation. After the geothermal spring water moves through the system, it will have cooled to its proper temperature, and can be deposited into local streams, pure as it was when it came from the mountain. Then, build a museum, a restaurant, an event center and a retail shop selling fish, caviar, orchids, and seasonal spices and fruit products, all grown on-site. And over 100,000 people will visit every year.

Sort of sounds like the Alpine version of Field of Dreams. Except it’s not a dream.

I had an opportunity to visit Tropenhaus Frutigen in Frutigen, Switzerland late last spring. I can tell you firsthand that this is the model of human ingenuity at its finest. With just a little creative thinking, a potentially disastrous situation (both economically and environmentally) was made into an opportunity for profit, jobs, education, recreation, food production, renewable energy, and sustainable development. The facility, which employs 80 workers and has the goal of producing 2 tons of tropical fruits annually and maintaining a stock of 60,000 sturgeon, has been a boon to the local economy.

This is more than taking lemons and making lemonade. This is like taking lemons and making a 14-course gourmet dinner for a dozen of your closest friends.

I share this experience because I think it exemplifies the human capacity to innovatively solve environmental problems. When it comes to sustainability—whether it’s seafood, agriculture, energy, or water—I believe we need to focus less on finding new resources, and more on finding better ways to utilize the resources that already exist. Tropenhaus Frutigen demonstrates that it is possible and economically feasible to create integrated systems that work in concert with what nature provides.

— by Barton Seaver, Chef, National Geographic Fellow, and Author of For Cod and Country