Saving the world — with fish poo

Posted on October 7, 2016 in News by . Share this article
cqjworiwiaam2alCitizen scientists can help experts understand how society can feed a growing world population by fertilising food with fish poo through a pioneering Kickstarter campaign launched today (19 September 2016).

The WeGrow.Social team at the University of Sheffield has teamed up with Humble By Nature, an organic working farm run by BBC Springwatch presenter Kate Humble and her husband Ludo Graham, to help people set up their own Resilience Food Farms – using waste from fish as a fertiliser for vegetables.

The process is known as aquaponics, combining hydroponics (growing vegetables in water) and aquaculture (growing fish). The fish produce ammonia, which is translated into nitrates by beneficial bacteria. The plants then suck the nitrates out of the water and the clean water goes back to the fish.

Aquaponics is a high density, low-impact agricultural method for creating clean food sustainably, which may be seen as a positive alternative to mass production, factory farming and air miles.

Earlier this year, Professors Duncan Cameron and Colin Osborne from the P3 Centre worked with WeGrow.Social’s Professor Hamish Cunningham and a group of students at the University to open a Resilience Food Farm on campus as part of Achieve More 10bn – a pioneering initiative by the University where second year undergraduates from across all Faculties come together to explore the challenges the world will face as the population reaches 10 billion.

The Resilience Food Farm is growing leafy greens such as chard, lettuce, rocket and sorrel, and experimenting with broad beans, strawberries and leeks, to test the aquaponics system as a method for producing sustainable food for the future.

Professor Osborne, who is also Associate Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said, “The WeGrow.Social Aquaponics project is a great example of how different scientific disciplines can be brought together to create new technologies. The attraction of aquaponics is it is such a simple system to build and maintain, and shows beautifully how recycling nutrients could help grow food sustainably in future.”

The Kickstarter campaign aims to help the WeGrow.Social team raise £23,000 to develop their aquaponics and data recording systems. Contributors can benefit by receiving instructions, components and training that will allow them to grow and manage their own aquaponics system.

By backing WeGrow, contributors can get:

  • The Knowledge. For £10 they get a complete recipe book to DIY their own clean food; for £220 a two-day course at Kate Humble’s teaching farm.
  • The Electronics. Backers join WeGrow’s citizen science community with the WaterElf, and control your aquaponics over the net (from £128 to £195).
  • The Aquaponics. A complete aquaponics system in sizes to fit a kitchen table, a standard greenhouse or a large greenhouse (from £250 to £5,000).

Each system comes with a WaterElf – a piece of electronics that records what the local conditions are and connects users to a community of growers gathering data for citizen science.

The more people join in, the more experts can find out about how aquaponics works best in our climate, how much food it produces and how much it costs.

Professor Cunningham, of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, said: “Sustainable agriculture is about feeding ourselves without destroying the soil or using up fossil fuels — but in many ways we’ve blown it: globalised capitalism has grown too far to ever be sustainable. This means we need to think more about resilience, our capacity to withstand shocks and changes.”

He added: “We need to grow food in more places – for example, in the nooks and crannies of cities and towns.

“The more we can meet our basic needs like food and energy in our local communities, the more resilient those communities become – and the less scarce the resources we use in the process, the more sustainable our lifestyles become.”

To find out more about the Kickstarter campaign, visit: