UH Moment: "Aquaponics"

A new research project at the University of Houston may grow healthier produce in places where healthy produce selections are few. And it all starts with...fish.

Food Safety Professor Jay Neal of the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management  has new neighbors—200 tilapia swimming in a 600-gallon tank.  It's part of an Aquaponics system to grow and study produce.

"Aquaponics is the use of fish as a source of nitrogen to feed plants," Neal said. "It's  been around for about 30 years, mainly in Japan where farmland is at a premium."

The Aquaponics system is built entirely in a 15 x 25 laboratory. Water from the fish tank will flow through a PVC pipe over clay media into a floating garden supporting squash plants.  From there, the nutrient-rich water is drained into a second floating garden of lettuce and assorted herbs.  The root systems clean the water, which is then filtered back into the tilapia tank. 

One of the plants grown in the aquaponics lab

"Our fish are about a week old and we're just giving them flake food. They'll be on flakes for about six weeks then we'll start putting them on pellets," he said.   The main goal is for them to swim, eat and produce waste."

The project collaborates with Houston Community College in Katy and will study food safety and alternative farming methods. Neal will use the system to test the prevalence of bacteria on Aquaponics produce compared with farmer's markets and supermarkets' produce. But there is another goal.  

"We'd like to use this as a model to supplement food deserts in urban environments—an urban area without a steady source of nutrition. In Houston, we are in a food desert 10 miles from the campus," Neal said.   

All produce grown in the Aquaponics system will be donated to area food pantries. 

"This is an immediate need and something that can outreach to our community."  

Aquaponics is part of what's happening at the University of Houston.