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Kate Humble: aquaponics is the answer to our growing food crisis

Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse in U.K.

Kate Humble, Charlie Price and Becky Bainbridge in the UK’s first aquaponic solar greenhouse. Photograph: Humble by Nature


Powered by article titled “Kate Humble: aquaponics is the answer to our growing food crisis” was written by Lucy Siegle, for on Thursday 3rd July 2014 10.23 UTC

A collective “ooh” went up as the condensation cleared from a new 12 x 7 metre structure to reveal the UK’s first aquaponic solar greenhouse, in the perhaps unlikely environs of Kate Humble’s 117-acre ex-council farm in Monmouthshire, Wales.

This is a greenhouse with a surprising wow factor. Inside, you can make out the blue of the fish tanks containing male tilapia (a species chosen as they grow rapidly to harvest size and as one of yesterday’s visitors put it “taste lovely on a barbecue”) and the raised beds full of fledgling vegetable crops. Of course, there is also much that you can’t see – which is rather the point with a closed-loop food production system that needs little interference; the vegetable beds fill and drain, twice an hour, sustained by nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks.

That this breakthrough technology with implications for the nation’s diet is all going on on a little farm in Monmouthshire rather than in an agricultural science institution might seem incongruous, but that has everything to do with the tenacity of the farm’s owner, TV presenter Kate Humble. When the Guardian visited her back in April it was clear she believes wholeheartedly in the regeneration of small-scale farming, and the company, Humble by Nature, she runs from this working farm, hosts courses that range from dry stone walling to keeping pigs designed for people to “leave filthy, exhausted and with their clothing completely ruined”.

Three years ago this farm was about to be broken up and sold on because 117 acres was considered too small to be useful or profitable. Humble was determined that a farm of this size should and could work, and became convinced that the science of aquaponics was key. Determination seems to have been turned into a type of rocket fuel when she got angry – always a powerful motivating force. “I was listening one morning to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and I heard an interview with someone from a food bank scheme in Moreton-in-the-Marsh. He said something to the effect of: ‘It’s all very well being surrounded by pretty green fields, but that doesn’t produce food.’ I thought ‘What the hell is going on?'”

Kate Humble

Kate Humble was driven to set up the aquaponics system by a frustration over food production. Photograph: Humble by Nature

She is not alone in asking herself that question and nor in her disgust that we increasingly view rural populations as unable or unwilling to grow food. Fortunately she discovered across scientists Charlie Price and Becky Bainbridge of social enterprise, Aquaponics UK, who are devoted to growing more food in less space. “We wanted to create a model to produce food in a low input way,” explains Price, who is also an expert in biomass energy, “but to do so in a building that required very little energy. Ultimately it’s nothing new, it’s a combination of existing technologies put together in a structure.”

In many ways it’s about taking the heat out of the energy, water and oil requirements that dog conventional agriculture and even aquaculture and hydroponics. As Humble explains it: “You’ve got your fish in your tanks, tilapia – which do well in aquaculture – shitting away merrily, and that water full of nitrates is pumped through vegetable beds. The leafy greens love the nitrates and grow like fury, the vegetables clean the water and back it goes to the fish.”

In terms of energy, the passive thermal structure, with a thermal mass wall, captures and stores as much solar energy as possible, and then releases it into the greenhouse at night. It requires very little supplementary heating (it also wears a special thermal quilt at night). In essence this mimics the airflow of a termite mound, in a nod to biomimicry.


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