LSU activists developing hydroponic farming system to battle food insecurity in Baton Rouge

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By Domenic Purdy

BATON ROUGE, LA — Louisiana State University activists are developing a hydroponic farming system to combat food insecurity in Baton Rouge. 

The project is in its early stages and is titled the Amical Cabral Project—named after an African agricultural engineer from Guinea-Bissau. In coordination with LSU’s Ag Center, biological engineering senior Soheil Saneei, founder of the Baton Rouge political organization Cooperation Rouge, is exploring sustainable solutions for feeding the community.

Climate change will make feeding the world’s growing population more difficult by drying out once arable land and increasing extreme weather that damages crops. Hydroponics has been considered an adaptation to this problem since it doesn’t require soil. 

Hydroponic farming is a type of vertical farming that involves suspending plants in a water solution with each essential nutrient necessary for a plant to grow, removing the need for soil. Plants can then be stacked on top of one another in a climate-controlled greenhouse instead of taking up acres of fertile land.

Read more about hydroponics and climate change here.

The project has an $8,500 grant from the LSU Student Government’s sustainability fund. Saneei said further funding will come from fundraising as the project evolves.

“[At Cooperation Rouge] we think about the most efficient and best way to keep the environment safe,” Saneei said. “Hydroponics can grow crops much faster and with a lot less labor and resources than [traditional] farming.” 

A 2015 study by Arizona State University found the yields of hydroponically grown lettuce to be 11 times greater than lettuce grown conventionally. The same study found hydroponic farms to be 13 times less water-demanding than conventional counterparts.  

However, these systems also consume much more energy, a potential barrier in its large-scale adaptation.

The form of hydroponics Saneei has studied at LSU is aquaponics, the simultaneous cultivation of fish and plants. The fish and the plants provide nutrients to each other while providing two sources of food.  

Plants’ roots are suspended in a reservoir of water connected to a separate reservoir cultivating fish. As the water is circulated between the two reservoirs, nutrients like nitrogen for the plants are provided by excrement and other byproducts from the fish, while the plants produce oxygen to circulate into the fish reservoir. 

Aquaponics creates ideal conditions for both organisms, creating a more efficient system. “You’re able to spend less resources raising fish and you can spend less resources growing crops,” Saneei said.

Saneei sees developing vertical farming in marginalized communities as a form of activism. By involving the Baton Rouge community in the project, he said it will show them that they have the skills they need to make positive change. 

Saneei has been working with LSU Ag Center professors and STEM students to design an effective aquaponic system that would allow the Cabral Project to combat these effects and give marginalized communities in Baton Rouge food security in the form of edible fish and plant products.

He said that utilizing engineers in community-based projects like this are crucial if any real change is to occur. 

“This is a way for us to recruit from the STEM community,” he said. “Engineering is super important in solving these issues and creating actual material for people to work within their communities in ways that actually combat climate change. [We want to] show that you can organize and create and bring every aspect together to solve something complex like climate change.”

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