Becoming an Expert: Advancing Sustainability Through Aquaponics


Laurence Anderson is in the concluding stages of his PhD studies at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Life Course and Medical Sciences, supported by the Low Carbon Eco Innovatory and the Liverpool-based social enterprise Farm Urban.

Aquaponics: A Sustainable Revolution

In this era marked by water scarcity, food security concerns, and the relentless impacts of climate change, I have found purpose in aquaponics—a fusion of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless plant cultivation). This innovative approach holds the potential to revolutionise sustainable food production, and I am proud to be part of this transformative field.

The Aquaponics Alliance: Fish and Plants

Aquaponics is not just a farming technique; it represents a harmonious partnership between fish and plants, a win-win scenario for both. Fish provide vital nutrients that plants need to thrive, and in return, the plants act as natural filters, purifying the water for the fish. This ingenious process not only minimises waste from fish farming but also generates additional food. It's a testament to water conservation and eco-friendly practices, reshaping how we approach agriculture and food production. With ongoing innovation and increasing interest, aquaponics stands as a beacon of hope for ensuring a steady food supply while reducing our environmental footprint.

Addressing Global Challenges

Aquaponics takes centre stage in an age of growing populations, dwindling water resources, concerns about food availability, and the undeniable impacts of climate change. This approach allows us to recycle all nutrients and water within aquaculture systems, effectively eradicating waste and enabling food production using a staggering 95% less water than traditional farming. Cultivating crops hydroponically in controlled environments ensures a consistent year-round food supply, impervious to unpredictable weather conditions. By harnessing wastewater from fish farms, aquaponics champions environmental conservation by significantly decreasing our reliance on synthetic, petrochemical-based fertilisers and mitigating the environmental footprint of the aquaculture industry. In a world dedicated to sustainability, aquaponics illuminates the path forward, minimising waste and increasing our ability to feed a burgeoning population while safeguarding the environment.

The Academic Odyssey

My academic journey began with a Bachelor's in Biology at The University of Manchester, specialising in Plant Sciences. After graduation, I embarked on a path that led me to the University of Liverpool, where I gained invaluable experience at their research aquarium, delving deep into the intricacies of aquatic life.

Shortly after, I became involved in a waste-to-energy project with the University, which explored converting aquaculture waste into valuable resources like biogas and fertiliser. During these research endeavours, I first encountered aquaponics while visiting the University's Ness Botanic Gardens. Here, a small display system featuring Koi carp and the cultivation of basil, Swiss chard, and coriander piqued my interest.

Aquaponics: A Confluence of Passions

The concept of aquaponics presented an exciting opportunity to blend my interests in sustainability, fish farming, and plant biology. It allowed me to contribute to addressing challenges within our food system and participate in efforts to mitigate the causes and effects of climate change in agriculture. Fortunately, I received a PhD offer from the University of Liverpool and Farm Urban, granting me the chance to explore this field further and make a tangible impact on sustainable food production.

Unravelling the Complexities

Despite the apparent advantages of aquaponics, several knowledge gaps persist. Plants and fish have distinct environmental requirements, from temperature and water acidity to nutrient levels. This complexity amplifies when considering the pivotal role of bacteria within aquaponic systems, which are crucial for converting fish waste into a form that plants can use. Successfully managing an aquaponic system hinges on striking a balance among these variables to ensure the well-being of each organism while optimising efficiency compared to operating aquaculture and hydroponic systems independently.

Mapping the Nutrient Flow

My research is dedicated to addressing these knowledge gaps and enhancing the efficiency of aquaponic systems while safeguarding the well-being and productivity of fish, crops, and microorganisms. An essential facet of my research involves meticulously mapping the flow of nutrients throughout the system and tracking how these nutrient dynamics evolve. Nutrients enter the system through fish feed, which is either consumed by the fish and used for growth or released as waste. Any unconsumed food undergoes decomposition within the system. Bacteria play a pivotal role by either utilising these nutrients for their development or converting them into forms accessible to plants. The enriched water then circulates through the plant roots, where some nutrients are absorbed and used for growth before being returned to the fish tanks in a continuous cycle.

At every step of this nutrient journey, nutrients are either retained within the system as biomass or lost to the environment through a variety of biological and non-biological processes. The system's complexity is further compounded when considering that each organism's nutritional requirements evolve as they progress through various life stages. Additionally, the composition of the fish feed undergoes changes in tandem with the growth of the fish themselves. These multifaceted interactions form an intricate web of nutrient dynamics within the system. Through this meticulous mapping of nutrient dynamics, we gain deeper insights into the system's inner workings and discover opportunities to enhance its efficiency.

A Model for the Future

Building upon this nutrient mapping, I am constructing a computer simulation model—a powerful tool for identifying optimal intervention points within the system to enhance nutrient utilisation efficiency. This model also aids in determining the ideal size for aquaponic farms to maximise output while lowering barriers to adopting this transformative technology.

The Journey Towards Expertise

Throughout my PhD journey, I have had fantastic opportunities to develop as a researcher and person. I've worked with industry sponsors to design, commission, and operate hydroponic and aquaponic farms throughout the northwest. These endeavours extended to small research projects investigating the feasibility of running an urban farm using renewable energy and whether hydroponics could be used in the maritime industry to produce fresh produce for people at sea. I've also learned much about my research area, specialising in hydroponics and controlled environment agriculture, attending industry consortiums and conferences to discuss my research. Most excitingly, the skills and experience I have gained throughout my PhD studies with the University of Liverpool have allowed me to secure a position managing the vertical farms and greenhouses and conducting research at University Centre Reaseheath. Throughout my journey, I have gained the skillset, experience, and determination to call myself an expert.