By Kathryn Atkins
Dr. Nicholas Phelps directs the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC) at the University of Minnesota, but on the research side of his position his lab group has worked to identify and overcome threats to wild and farm-raised fish. He and teams of researchers from across the St. Paul campus were awarded two MnDRIVE grants to study some of the biggest issues facing producers in the Minnesota aquaponics industry: food safety and economic sustainability.
Food safety in aquaponics
For those unfamiliar with aquaponics, this is a system combining standard aquaculture with hydroponics to create a collusive or symbiotic environment. These are often vertical systems and can be created in warehouses and in urban settings. The practice of producing plants and fish in a symbiotic aquaponic system has rapidly grown in popularity as a way to maintain production all year – this is especially intriguing in a place like Minnesota. The first area of focus for Phelps and his team was to solve the issue of food safety in aquaponics.
After laboratory and field research and consultation with industry leaders, the team identified best management practices to prevent the contamination of aquaponic produce with pathogens that are harmful for human health.
“In addition to strict biosecurity measures when tending to plants in an aquaponic system, we found that it was very important to keep the leaves from entering the water,” explained Phelps. “The cool, dark, and nutrient rich aquatic environment can be an ideal place for some high-risk pathogens to live.”
Economic sustainability in aquaponics
They then moved onto the issue of economic sustainability for producers. Phelps’ interdisciplinary project team addressed several elements involved in answering this question. Infrastructure costs are comparably higher in an aquaponic system, so the team worked to pinpoint what criteria need to be met in order to offset these costs.
First, they identified the particular industrial target markets, consumer perceptions, and opportunities for market growth. The team researched to find out if there was a market and if this market was willing to pay more for these products due to the heightened production costs. “We used experimental and on-farm production systems to quantify the costs and productivity associated with aquaponics production,” said Phelps. They used taste test evaluations and paid participants to estimate the value placed on aquaponics produce as compared to other production methods.
Phelps and his team worked closely with several aquaculture producers, including the Tangletown Gardens and Spark-Y, to gather data for their economic projections. They engaged many other producers in the industry in the annual Minnesota Aquaponics Symposium, and shared research findings and other information that could immediately be used to improve their production or business operations.
Concluding their research, they noted that markets do, in fact, exist for aquaponically produced food and some segments of this population are willing to pay significantly more for it. “To find economic sustainability, producers need to operate at large scales to offset infrastructure costs and invest in a marketing plan to educate consumers,” disclosed Phelps.
“Aquaponics remains an industry in its early stages,” says Phelps. “I believe it presents a major opportunity for the University of Minnesota to play a key role in supporting sustainable development as this industry grows. Our early work through the MnDRIVE initiatives suggest there is substantial potential for aquaponics to be a solution to the grand challenges that exist on the food, water and environmental frontiers.”