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Harvest for the world
JCSU initiative looks to grow technology for organic food
 
Published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 2:37 pm
by Herbert L. White

 

Something’s growing in the food desert.

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PHOTO/CURTIS WILSON
Johnson C. Smith University students Christophe Fatton (from left), Shaquana Jackson, Sandy Mathurin, Omar Cossio and Gusman Saintil examine vegetables at JCSU’s aquaponic garden. The garden is part of JCSU’s Sustainability Village initiative.


Juvenile tilapia – called fry – swim about  in plastic tanks inside a greenhouse at Johnson C. Smith University. Their waste – primarily ammonia – is converted into fertilizer for cabbage, lettuce, radishes and basil floating in nearby containers.


The plants absorb those nutrients and the water goes back to the tilapia. When the crops and fish mature, they’ll be harvested for families along the Northwest Corridor, where access to fresh food is limited.


“It’s a cleaner way, it’s a sustainable way” to harvest, says JCSU biology professor Philip Otienoburu PhD, and leader of the initiative. “You’re using 90 percent less water than you would watering crops (in soil.) You do not need the labor to till the land, to remove weeds because we have a weed-free system.”


The closed-circuit breeding area – called an aquaponic garden – is part of JCSU’s Sustainability Village initiative, a prototype for cultivating food that launched in February. The technology is to be replicated in Haiti, where food is scarce two years after an earthquake devastated large portions of the country. Biology majors are helping Otienoburu with the project, which will be presented at the Clinton Global Initiative University April 5-7 in St. Louis, Mo.


CGIU, founded by former president Bill Clinton, brings together students from around the world to detail plans of action to address global issues. Among the schools participating are Cornell University, University of California-Berkeley and Brown University. Winning presentations will earn $5,000 for their programs.


Christophe Fatton, a junior biology major from Port de Paix, Haiti, is especially keen to see the garden flourish because the technology will be imported to feed people in his homeland as well as underserved Charlotte neighborhoods.


“The biggest idea is to go global,” Fatton said. “We are focusing on serving people here and getting that concept to grow globally. As a Haitian, I’m very proud to be part of this initiative because it’s teaching me a lot of things.”


The initiative, funded by a Duke Endowment grant, has a basic premise: Find a way to grow food almost anywhere. In neighborhoods where outdoor gardening can be problematic or miles from the nearest source of fresh, non-processed food, the aquaponic garden is a laboratory in economic harvesting and healthy eating.


“It’s completely organic,” Otienoburu said. “We’re using all the fertilizer from the fish and yet we’re not only able to have vegetables, we’re also able to have fish, which are an excellent source of protein.”


The students have gotten a first-hand look at the science of food production. Shaquana Jackson, a junior from Greensboro, learned that food doesn’t have to come from a traditional farm.


“Once I heard about the project and how it would be transferred to Haiti,” she said, “I would like to be involved in it. After the disaster in Haiti, a project like this would really help. I feel this is something really great and it would be a great opportunity if I get invited to go to Haiti.”


Joseph’s Exchange, a Charlotte nonprofit that will introduce aquaponic technology to Haiti, is working with JCSU on the initiative. The participants believe it can have a global impact.


“If we can educate the public on producing sustainable sources of food, but also organically grown with a very low carbon footprint, then we can begin to address the food security issues of the community around here,” Otienoburu said.


Said Fatton: “As a school, our biggest goal is to involve the student in the community and this is the best way to show we support the community we’re in right now.”

 

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