Will Aquaponic Gardening Help Solve Food Insecurity in the Future?

Emily Nusz-thumbnailBy Emily Nusz

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread has been proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve posted blogs by Andrew Speckin, Sara Lamprise and Kelly Overstreet. Our final blog in this series is the second one by Emily Nusz, who continues to intern with our Environmental Data and Assessment staff.

Water is an essential component of life. Without it, we cannot survive. In my previous blog, I discussed my experience building a well for clean drinking water in Africa. Many developing countries are challenged by the lack of access to clean water. In some cases, people have to walk miles each day just to reach a source, which is why my church’s mission team and I wanted to provide a water well to a village in Nairobi, Kenya.

Water is not the only essential component of life to which some communities across the globe lack access. Finding abundant food sources also may be a problem. I have thought over and over again about how we can solve food insecurity, while also being eco-friendly. During my undergraduate career, I researched and built a system that may have the potential for doing just that. In fact, my former agriculture professor travels to Haiti about once a month to teach this simple gardening technique, which can be used to provide communities with a self-sustaining food supply. This system is unique because it can work anywhere, anytime, through any season.

It’s called aquaponics, a budding technique that allows you to grow your own local, healthy food right in your backyard while using 90 percent less water  than traditional gardening. If you are wondering what aquaponics is, you are not alone. The term “aquaponics” is not part of everyday conversation, but soon it may be. I was not introduced to the idea until about a year ago when I began to build a system of my own for academic research.

How It Works


Aquaponic gardening integrates fish and plant growth in a mutual recirculating cycle by combining hydroponics and aquaculture. It is an environmentally friendly way to produce food without harsh chemical fertilizers through a symbiotic relationship. To give you an idea, the fish are able to produce waste that eventually turns into nitrates, which provides essential nutrients for plant growth in a hydroponic environment without any soil. The plants, which are planted in gravel beds, take in the nutrients provided by the fish and help purify the water for the care of the fish. The purified water then flows back to the fish for reuse. Many cultures are able to use this system to not only grow crops, but have a food source of fish as well.

Many types of plants can be grown in the system, such as lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Tilapia are the most commonly used fish because they provide extra benefits other fish cannot, such as high levels of ammonia, which is important for maintaining effective system levels.

My Experiment

When I began to build an indoor aquaponic system, my goal was to research if plants and fish could sustain life in an environment lacking nutrients provided by sunlight. The system contained three separate tanks.

Tank 1 was set up as the “breeder tank.” This tank circulated the Aquaponic Research Setup - Emily Nusznutrients from the fish into the tank containing the plants. Many aquaponic systems do not include a breeder tank, but for my research it was included.

Tank 2 was set up as the “fish tank.” This tank contained all of the fish (about 50 tilapia). Tank 3 was set up as the “plant tank.” All of the plants were planted in the gravel of this tank to absorb the nutrients provided by the fish. The purified water then flowed from this tank back into tank 2 for reuse.

The water quality of the continuous cycle was observed and recorded over a 10-week period to determine the production of plant growth and water quality in an indoor aquaponic system. Measurements of water quality were collected, including pH, electroconductivity, total dissolved solids, potassium levels, nitrate levels, dissolved oxygen, and temperature.

Although my research did not support sufficient growth of plants in an indoor aquaponic system, it has been found to work indoors using ultraviolet light as a source. Year-round results can also occur by having the system set up in a greenhouse. As long as the system is set up in a controlled environment that mimics nature, fish and plant production will flourish.

The Future

The awareness and potential for aquaponics is beginning to soar. Aquaponics may not be part of everyday conversation yet, but it could make a tremendous change in how we grow our food in the future.

In fact, today EPA tries to incorporate this type of gardening technique to redevelop contaminated Brownfield sites. They work with communities on many of the redevelopment projects to set up urban agriculture practices for food production. There are many benefits to constructing Brownfield sites into agricultural growth areas, especially using the aquaponic system. Urban agriculture has two major benefits for contaminated sites: it binds the contaminants, and it contributes to the growth of local food.

Emily Nusz-thumbnailAbout the Author: Emily Nusz is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and continues to work part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, studying environmental assessment. Emily is SCUBA certified, and one of her life goals is to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reefs off the coast of Australia.


Emily’s First Blog Entry:


Land Revitalization/Urban Agriculture Fact Sheet:

USDA Aquaponics Information:

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Thanking America’s Sustainable Farmers

By Christina Badaracco

While working on education and outreach in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Ocean, and Watersheds, I have been particularly inspired by our work with agriculture. As an environmentalist and a foodie, I love learning about the connection between healthy food and sustainable agriculture, and I am always eagerly looking to share that information with the public. This is why I’m excited about our efforts to interview and feature for the American public “farmer heroes,” who manage the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution on their farms and grow America’s food supply in a sustainable manner.

Through our “Farmer Hero” campaign, and through my own personal purchasing decisions as an informed consumer, I am supporting farmers who protect local land and water resources while undertaking the critical role of producing America’s food supply.

I was first exposed to the world of sustainable farming in college, and have since been inspired by the videos and writing of Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia and a leader in the local food movement. I had the pleasure of visiting his farm last fall, and seeing the clever contraptions (e.g., the Eggmobile and Gobbledygo) and beautiful scenery I had read about in his books. Views of dirt-covered pigs, running around in the woods; ripe red tomatoes, grown without chemicals; and the engaging storytelling of our host were a treat and well worth the drive out from D.C.

In late May, I was thrilled to return to the area to meet other farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. I visited Robert Schreiber of Bell’s Lane Farm, and saw his on-farm composting operations and sales. I also met Gerald Garber from Cave View Farms, and learned how his livestock fencing and no-till farming reduce pollution runoff.

It is a delight to meet these farmers who have offered to share their stories: their goals for their properties and families, their innovative approaches for managing nutrients, and above all, their willingness to protect their local environment and the many lands downstream ( I am encouraged to see EPA building better relationships with farmers to protect the same land, water, and food on which we all rely.

To Mr. Salatin and the other farmers who read this blog; who are conserving their resources, protecting their local waterways, and raising their animals and crops sustainably; and whom I one day hope to meet, we thank you. You are our heroes.

About the author: Christina Badaracco has worked in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds since 2012. She works on communication and outreach projects regarding nutrient pollution, and is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Country Mouse

By Kelsey Sollner

In my 21 years on the planet, this fall marks my first time living in a big city. Of course, I have visited – made day trips to Manhattan, spent weekends in Philly and been to Dade County. But this is the first time I’ve had a permanent address in a metropolis, and this is my first job in an office building.

I’m from a farming area in New Jersey and go to a college surrounded by more dirt than asphalt and more cows than people. I spent all summer working in an orchard, climbing ladders and tending to fruit trees. I essentially got paid to work out and be outdoors, not to mention the endless produce! Once it came time to go back to school and begin my internship, I began to get nervous about being indoors for long stretches of time. I’d miss the breeze and sunshine, I’d miss the flora and fresh air, and I’d miss the warblers and sparrows singing. And to be honest, I’d even miss the farm’s enormous compost heap and the way it smelled in incredible heat.

Now that I’ve been thrust into city life, it’s taken some getting used to. How does a ragamuffin from central Jersey blend in with the hip crowd of DC? My work uniform was a ratty tank top, shorts and sunglasses, none of these blazer/pencil skirt/heels ensembles. Of all the pests I used to deal with on a regular basis at the farm, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a cockroach up close. And I’ve never felt like a bigger tourist than when I had to consult my subway map four or five times to find out I was on the wrong train.

If I can’t have my fresh air, though, I’ll make the most out of this city stuff. I’ve been making a constant effort to stay connected to my new environment. I found the oasis that is Montrose Park and spent hours in its sun and shade. My roommate and I just went to a Nationals game, on one of the most pleasant Saturdays of the season. I can even bird watch from my balcony, albeit just some pigeons, but still. For someone used to being surrounded by nature, it’s a little comfort. I’m steadily moving from being overwhelmed to becoming much more comfortable here.

They might make a city mouse out of me yet.

About the author: Kelsey Sollner is a senior from Susquehanna University majoring in journalism. She works as an intern in the EPA’s Office of Web Communications.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Iowa Soybean Farm Visit

By Nancy Stoner

In September, I was near Webster City for a tour hosted by the Iowa Soybean Association. We visited a local farmer, Arlo Van Diest, and his wife, Claudia, who own and farm 2,300 acres to produce corn and soybeans. They recently received the 2012 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award.

I was impressed with how the Van Diest farm uses a system of conservation practices that combine innovation with proven technologies to keep nutrients out of local waterways. They use strip tillage, which disturbs less soil and results in less erosion than conventional tillage. Seeing the positive results, Arlo purchased a second strip till machine that he loans to neighboring farmers so they can try strip tillage on their own farms. With the assistance of the Iowa Soybean Association, Arlo buried woodchip bioreactors under part of some fields near tile drains to intercept the drainage water and turn the nitrate into harmless nitrogen gas.

I was fortunate enough to visit during the harvest and even rode on a combine as it collected corn. The combine has equipment that displays the yield generated with each row harvested. I quickly recognized that Arlo’s willingness to embrace advanced technology, along with his strong commitment to environmental stewardship, made it possible to both efficiently grow crops and conserve aspects of the local ecosystem.

Just a few miles away, I visited a local stream monitoring site in Lyons Creek Watershed. The Iowa Soybean Association’s commitment to a healthy watershed is demonstrated by their pursuit of funding for monitoring equipment and analysis. A representative, Todd Sutphin, told me how funding from various sources, including EPA, contributed to improved monitoring practices and nutrient management solutions in this watershed.

It was an amazing, impressive experience to see the endless acres of corn waving in the fresh breeze. I learned a lot on this trip about how farmers are using both innovative and traditional conservation practices to benefit financially by keeping the nutrients for the crops and reduce water pollution at the same time. Given that agriculture is a major source of the nutrients entering not only the local waterways of Iowa, but also the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, I was heartened to see this progress.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EPA and America's Rural Communities

By Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

Yesterday I was in Warwick Township and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a rural community that has been a model for resource conservation and sustainable economic growth. This was one of many visits EPA officials have made to connect with rural communities. I have had the chance to sit down with growers in Georgia, visited California’s Central Valley and toured farming operations with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Iowa. Along with my fellow EPA officials, we have connected with hundreds of farmers, business owners, local leaders and rural residents to talk about commonsense efforts to strengthen their economies and protect their health and the environment.

American farmers and ranchers depend on clean air, safe and abundant sources of water and healthy lands. That’s why farming communities have taken incredible steps to steward the environment their jobs and economy thrive on.

In the last 30 years, agricultural producers have worked with government officials and local conservation groups to reduce soil erosion by more than 40 percent. At the same time, agriculture has gone from being the leading contributor to wetland loss to leading the entire nation in wetland restoration efforts. In Lancaster, local efforts have managed to preserve upwards of 80,000 acres of farmland, and Warwick Township was named Conservationist of the Year by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for its work to prevent runoff from polluting the watershed.

These are just a few of the examples I’ve seen. In California’s Central Valley — an area responsible for some $24 billion in agricultural activity — I visited a farmer who re-vamped his irrigation system to reduce water use and save money, while another grower who was transitioning to new irrigation pump motors that reduced air emissions on his farm.

In Iowa, I joined Secretary Vilsack at a cattle operation where a rotational grazing system helps protect soil and water quality, and met a farmer who has used no-till farming and a precision sprayer for years to minimize pesticide use and runoff from his soybean fields.

America’s rural communities have also been part of innovative solutions for our entire economy. The Renewable Fuel Standard EPA finalized last year will encourage farmers to continue to work with industry to innovate and produce clean renewable fuel. It will help secure our nation’s energy future, replacing our dependence on foreign oil with clean, homegrown fuels produced by America’s farmers. At the same time, it will create jobs, and is expected to increase farmers’ income by an estimated $13 billion annually.

These meetings with farmers on their land are also a great opportunity to get outside the Washington, DC echo chamber and address myths and other inaccuracies they might be hearing about the EPA. For example, months ago rumors flew around that, under a law passed by Congress, EPA was considering treating spilled milk like an oil spill. This was never the case; in fact, our efforts were focused on exempting dairy producers from regulations that should not apply to them. Thanks to work with the dairy industry and the agricultural community, we obtained a formal exemption for all milk and milk products, a change that could save farmers up to $140 million.

As we confront the major environmental challenges of our time — combating climate change, reducing soil erosion, and ensuring an ample supply of clean water for our families and food production — farmers have an important opportunity to lead the way. That is why I will continue to visit with communities like Lancaster to see the best practices at work and speak directly with the local residents.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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