“That’s Nemo,” says John Derksen, chair of the Aquaculture Centre of Excellence (ACE) at Lethbridge College, as he points to a large, silver-scaled tilapia swimming near the top of a plastic tank. “He’s very friendly.”
Sure enough, as I brush the surface of the water, Nemo swims up and nibbles my finger.
“He thinks you’re going to feed him,” laughs Derksen.
We’re standing in a warehouse-like building next to humming equipment, plastic tanks teeming with Nemo and his fishy friends, and large tables of plants bathed in purple UV light. This facility is the heart of the centre’s research on aquaponics, an agricultural technique where fish and plants are cultivated together in a growing system that can efficiently and safely produce plants year-round.
The ACE has been a fixture of the college for 20 years, originally focusing on the study of fish and later adding aquaponics research to its body of research. That work was boosted in 2015 when the college received a $2.1-million Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant to support applied research in Integrated Fish and Plant Systems (IFPS).
Using animal byproducts as fertilizer to grow produce is a practice as old as agriculture itself. In aquaponics, fish, microbes and plants work together in an almost perfectly closed cycle; fish waste is collected and processed to remove harmful substances like ammonia, leaving nitrogen and nutrients that help plants thrive.
“We’re taking waste that would otherwise go into the sewer and making it into an organic fertilizer,” explains Derksen. “By controlling the environmental parameters like pH, temperature and oxygen, we want to find the perfect recipe to break down tilapia [waste] as quickly as we can into organic fertilizer and utilize that in our aquaponics.”
"We're trying to educate people that there are different ways of growing food."
As a result, Derksen says aquaponic-grown produce grows twice as fast as in soil, utilizes 90 per cent less water and is nutritionally comparable, but superior to hydroponic-grown produce. The biggest challenge is maintaining the right balance within the intricate system, which is one of the focuses of the centre’s research led by Dr. Nick Savidov.
“Everything is tied together,” says Derksen. “You have to be good at the fish and you have to be good at the plants. There’s a lot to know but once you have the ecosystem running, it takes care of itself.”
To test the quality of the produce grown through the program, the ACE has partnered with the college’s culinary program (see main article), as well as local restaurants, including Plum, Mocha Cabana and Prime Catering.
“We’d send our apprentice to help harvest the produce with the aquaponics team and they would deliver it to the participating restaurants,” says Angel Harper, co-owner of Mocha Cabana. “I could tell it was much better than what we were getting from other suppliers. When we can’t get something locally, chances are that product has been picked and held up to two weeks before we get it. The aquaponics produce was so fresh and it lasted longer because it was picked the morning we got it.”
In addition to creating better produce, aquaponics also has environmental benefits; there’s little waste produced and minimal water used. And of course, locally-grown produce cuts down on the carbon footprint involved in bringing your food to the table.
“In a world where there are environmental concerns in terms of available water and land use, for us to have an applied research project that could impact how we grow food and look at food production, is very exciting, especially for a small institution,” says Christine Picken, operations manager at the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation.
Ultimately, the goal of the project is to see if aquaponics can work on a commercial scale. So far, Derksen says, the results are encouraging.
“We’re trying to educate people that there are different ways of growing food,” says Derksen. “Since we’ve started, there’s been a big change in the number of people adopting this on a commercial level. I think this is the future.”