(Photo by @shawnanggg on Unsplash)

By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO

Aquaponics, a food production system coupling aquaculture and hydroponics, is an emerging subject of interest in academia. 

Bowie State University recently announced that its department of natural sciences will be introducing new aquaponics and hydroponics programs, citing growing challenges the agricultural industry faces from climate change and labor shortages. 

Widely considered the way of the future in agriculture, aquaponics is a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly method for individuals to grow their own produce utilizing a natural ecosystem — and no soil, natural fertilizers or chemicals are needed. 

“The climate changes have caused some challenges to agriculture, and so for us to be able to feed so many people that are currently inhabiting the world, we need to increase food production by 70 percent,” said Anne Osano, associate professor in BSU’s department of natural sciences.

“So what aquaponics does, is that we are able to produce food in a manner that is environmentally safe.”

The central premise of aquaponics, a system based entirely around the nitrogen cycle, is that fish produce waste which provides nutrients for plants, and the plants in turn cleanse the water for fish.

In essence, here’s how the process of aquaponics functions: 

  • A fish tank is placed beneath a media bed (uses containers with gravel and/or expanded clay to support plant roots). Fish must be fed regularly so they can produce waste. 
  • A pump connecting the two draws the water from the tank which will pass through the media bed, allowing the plants to draw nutrients from the water before it is returned back to the fish, safely and fully filtered. 
  • This closed-loop system is a continuous cycle and requires minimal maintenance once everything is set up.

Bowie State’s SMART Agriculture Program, led by Osano and natural sciences department chair George Ude, applies hydroponics and aquaponics technology into the plant science curriculum.

The SMART program also focuses on studying the production of nutritious foods using unconventional agricultural methods, and is funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

A fully enclosed greenhouse is in use at the university’s Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing. The grant, awarded in 2020, will enable biology students to participate in various projects  and related activities within the plant science curriculum, Osano emphasized. 

“An immediate impact is that they (students) learn how to produce their own food, and so my vision is to see these students go home and replicate this system, especially hydroponics,” she said.

“The long-term impact, really, is that we can encourage our students to think of agricultural jobs.

“Agriculture is an industry that does not have enough workforce and this is because agriculture and even plant scenes have been very negatively viewed and very negatively advertised. So we want to encourage our students to also think of agricultural jobs. Without agriculture we cannot have enough food, and with food we cannot live.”  

The fairly new hydroponics program at Bowie is facilitated in collaboration with Envista Farms, a regional hydroponic farming company founded by Kevin Doyle, Osano noted. 

Entrepreneurship will be another component of the SMART program, as Osano accentuates the importance of self-sufficiency in addition to learning how to grow plants using aquaponics.

By 2050, food production must double to meet the demand of the world’s growing population, says a BSU release. Because of its sustainability, aquaponics has been described as “zero-waste agriculture” and could serve as a feasible approach to combating hunger.

Osano, also the head of the BSU’s Plant Metabolomics and Hydroponics Laboratory, spoke upon the immense demand for minorities in agriculture and related sciences.

“There’s a tremendous need for minorities to be involved in agriculture and related sciences,” she said.

“The fact that Bowie State is taking this initiative to involve minorities in research, in this program, is a great, great benefit – not only to society but even to individuals. So we hope that we can produce workforce-ready students that are beneficial to the development of the nation.”

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