Aquaponic Gardening

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I have been made aware of a section in the latest newsletter of an aquaponics trainer making some rather interesting statements around the risk of introducing "deadly" E. coli HO157:H7 into aquaponics systems through the introduction of worms.

 

Like most promotional material, it contains enough reference to some form of correct base statement to make their argument appear compelling, but I have found the way that the section was written distressing in many ways.  On one front, we are trying our level best to ensure food safety and hygene in our units and to educate people on the safety of aquaponic production methods.  To have someone from within the community write something down the line of "if you dare put worms in your system you run a very real risk of introducing a deadly pathogen into aquaponics" is not conducive to building a fair and realistic impression of aquaponic production methods.  Worms in media beds have been in use for many years outside of the design of the group in question, with no reports of any health issues.

 

The inference made was that (without stating how many worm growers use cattle poo) red wrigglers are likely or potentially all grown in manure from corn fed cattle and this all contains the "man made" (?????!) strain of E. coli that will then most likely survive the transfer from worm to your system where you will contaminate your crops, your family or your customers.  If you are extra unlucky, a fly from a pasture containing corn fed cattle poo will also do the trick (then why bash the worms?) if they can make the trip in under 10 seconds. 

 

The article would have had more use if it simply said something down the line of "pick your worm supplier carefully - if you are cautious about E. coli, steer clear of using worm growers that cannot guarantee that their worms were not fed corn-fed cow poo from feedlots." I do not know what the ratio is of worm producers that potentially use this feed method compared to those that do not, but if it is the case that very few follow this practice, this article borders on reckless.  Then one can write follow-ups warning people on the next one in a gazilion risk such as a bird-flu contaminated duck landing in your fish tank.  As stated before, in theory, the conditions described in the text can potentially occur. Just as, in theory, a monkey can sit down in front of a typewriter, hammer away at it and write something recognisable. Not impossible, but likely? 

 

I wrote a blog a while ago about the responsibility of perceived role models in the industry related to statements made and perceptions created from a "credible" source.  This type of statement was exactly what I was talking about.  Not worth the negativety and not worth the potential bad press and poor PR for what many aquaponic producers see as a staple - media filled beds with worms in them (is there a reason for this?).  As a scientist, I would like to see some concrete evidence related to instances of the scenario described having been observed at worm farms and in aquaponic systems.  If no such data exists, is this statement fair and accurate? Why was it made? I do not want to appear to downright rubbish their concerns, but I will appreciate a percentage risk description to back up this claim.

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Ok, I've been told by my buddy at the county ext office that THIS is the guy to call>

Robert C. Hochmuth, Multi-County Extension Agent, Suwannee Valley Research and Education Center, Live Oak, FL 32060

So if someone knows the exact questions they want answered on this topic, here is his office number >  1-386-362-1725

 

Raychel the proof is in the pudding as you say. I still disagree that an ammonia based system such as ours will support ecoli. I think it will kill it. Yes there is bacterias that live and thrive in our systems but they are far from the ecoli based bacterias. If there is someone in this community that is part of a university research system they can get the bacteria for testing purposes. I do agree that our systems are not at anymore risk than soil based farming, my thought process is they are alot safer due to ammonia which kills most bacteria that are harmful to us. I am theorizing this of course but someone will prove me right in time.

Raychel A Watkins said:

David

No one is going to give anyone in the general public as Kobus said a pathogen  If you put it in your system it then would be contaminated.  You test the system or the produce for the pathogen in a qualified laboratory'  Organisms are grown out on special media to exclude all other organisms except the pathogen.  I promise you if you plated your fish water on regular media the results would scare you to death.  There are tons of bacteria in the water it is all in knowing how to figure out which are harmful.  In fact I thing I will plate some water out next week and take a picture of the plate to show you what I mean.  I really don't believe we are in any more danger of pathogens than any other farmer.  Besides if I tested my water what would that prove.  It would only be the results for my water not anyone else.

I am visiting Chicago State U week after next and will discuss the potential of any such research with their department also.  As much as all of us would like to see this research occur, the simple fact remains that programs would have to be approved and funded.  Obviously the university sector is where this needs to occur and with very stringent parameters. This is absolutely the type of topic the AA can endeavor to research as it is in keeping with one of the primary goals of promoting aquaponics as a safe way to grow food and eliminating myths perpetuated about aquaponic growing.  All levels of aquaponics stand to gain from this type of research, even the backyarder wanting to promote AP to their local gardening club as a incredibly safe and sustainable growing method, just because most everyone involved in AP sees the immense value of proselytizing aquaponics.   On another note, an organization was also just formed by several of the academics in the industry.  We can surely hope for research on this and other relevant topics to be generated at this level.

Hi Everyone,

Happy to see interest creating momentum and I know that this spirit will continue for us as a body. It's about time we become a driver for understanding safe AP. The journey is starting here with E Coli and there is a long and fruitful road ahead.There are so many unknowns waiting to be defined not only with harmful bacteria but all the myriad Viruses sleeping dormant in AP system water, which needs investigation and understanding.

http://www.livescience.com/16382-viruses-raw-sewage.html
Kobus you are spot on! I hope to be as knowledgable as you some day!!!    People will always try to hack down a good thing, but we ain't gonna let em!!!

Hi Gina,

 

What organization was formed? Any names?

 

Thanks

Todd

Gina Cavaliero said:

I am visiting Chicago State U week after next and will discuss the potential of any such research with their department also.  As much as all of us would like to see this research occur, the simple fact remains that programs would have to be approved and funded.  Obviously the university sector is where this needs to occur and with very stringent parameters. This is absolutely the type of topic the AA can endeavor to research as it is in keeping with one of the primary goals of promoting aquaponics as a safe way to grow food and eliminating myths perpetuated about aquaponic growing.  All levels of aquaponics stand to gain from this type of research, even the backyarder wanting to promote AP to their local gardening club as a incredibly safe and sustainable growing method, just because most everyone involved in AP sees the immense value of proselytizing aquaponics.   On another note, an organization was also just formed by several of the academics in the industry.  We can surely hope for research on this and other relevant topics to be generated at this level.

Greetings all,

I presented the article from the newsletter to Bob Hochmuth, and additionally stated...

I'm simply hoping you can share your thoughts, knowledge and insight concerning the article I sent to you yesterday.  Placing worms into growbeds to capitalize on their work to further breakdown fish effluence is a favored practice in aquaponics.  Balancing good bacteria, (the biofilter) and the bad bacteria is essential.

Knowing what your worms have fed on before placing them into the growbed would be great, but there isn't any labeling saying, 'These worms were raised on vegetation compost only'.
 
Should there be a concern at all?  The ammonia that is produced by the fish and fish effluence flow into, and saturate, the growbeds.  What affect does that ammonia have on e-coli, if it is present at all?

We are a group dedicated to food safety and do not want to cast disparity on this amazing food growing technique. 

 

His reply....

I have been working a lot in helping train farmers to get their farm food safety programs developed. The problem arises in the guidelines regarding animal wastes (in this case, worm castings and fish effluent) with regard to crop production.  See the guidelines that Certified Third Party Auditors must follow regarding animal wastes. The guidelines are from PrimusLabs, one of the companies doing food safety certifications.  As you indicated, the aquaponic system itself creates a real complex situation for the auditor.  Within your association, you should see if anyone has passed a third party audit, and if so,...how was this concern addressed.  As stated in the guidelines, I am not sure how a grower would get through the audit unless they sampled and proved the system was free of food safety concerns as noted in the guidelines.  This issue has emerged several times in the past few months and the answer is far from clear as it relates to a food safety plan.

http://www.primuslabs.com/docs/guidelines/v0704ranchauditguidelines...

 

Bob Hochmuth

Multi-county Extension Agent

UF/IFAS

In response, I additionally asked:


If you are aware of anyone doing research at UF or Florida A&M with aquaponic systems, please do let me know.  I would be happy to inquire of them directly. 
Perhaps they may shed further light, or would be willing to conduct some targeted research on this particular topic.

So the recommendation he made was to see if anyone (who is using worms in their grwobeds), has passed a third party food safety certification audit, and if so,...how was this concern addressed. 

That's the best I can do for now.

Hi Todd,  I will have to check with one of the "names", lol,  and see if it has been formally announced.  I think it has, but let me touch base first and I will then let you know!  And yes, there are definitely names, big ones!  

Todd Sowell said:

Hi Gina,

 

What organization was formed? Any names?

 

Thanks

Todd

Gina Cavaliero said:

I am visiting Chicago State U week after next and will discuss the potential of any such research with their department also.  As much as all of us would like to see this research occur, the simple fact remains that programs would have to be approved and funded.  Obviously the university sector is where this needs to occur and with very stringent parameters. This is absolutely the type of topic the AA can endeavor to research as it is in keeping with one of the primary goals of promoting aquaponics as a safe way to grow food and eliminating myths perpetuated about aquaponic growing.  All levels of aquaponics stand to gain from this type of research, even the backyarder wanting to promote AP to their local gardening club as a incredibly safe and sustainable growing method, just because most everyone involved in AP sees the immense value of proselytizing aquaponics.   On another note, an organization was also just formed by several of the academics in the industry.  We can surely hope for research on this and other relevant topics to be generated at this level.
Hi Teresa, thanks for getting Bob's opinion.  That is exactly concurrent with the circumstances surrounding Friendly's food safety certification.  They had the certification for their DWC system, obviously without worms, from the state of Hawaii. However when Costco insisted that a "third party" auditor, the state, was not allowed, they had Primus come in and test for the certification.  Just like Bob stated, The problem arises in the guidelines regarding animal wastes (in this case, worm castings and fish effluent) with regard to crop production, and proximity of said animal waste to the crop production.  This was the reason they were then denied their previously granted certification.  How the state of Hawaii as an independent third party allowed the cert in the first place, I don't know.  I would assume someone with enough sense to make the connection between fish being cold blooded and not warm blooded understood that the same rules that apply to traditional ag and growing methods would not apply in an Aquaponic system.  Unfortunately the auditors for Primus translate the letter of that law, so to speak, as literally as it is spelled out and have no flexibility on it whatsoever.  That only leaves us one alternative, IMO, the rules governing food safety certification need to change to encompass alternative growing methods.  So, what that means is back to the discussion that has occured here and several times on this forum, we need peer reviewed documents in order to present facts in order to enact this change.  It is all a big uphill challenge, but I trust that eventually our industry will make progress in that direction.   It will all take time, but the growth in our industry will be paramount to us seeing that change.  Have to throw in a plug here, we need everyone to join the new Aquaponics Association, so that those numbers can amount to a voice that will be heard!  :)

Now I know that some one did chime in on what happened with Friendlies loosing their cert because the auditor counted the fish as livestock even through the law doesn't read fish as livestock so there are grounds for appeal on such a decision.

 

Now counting worms as livestock is a bit silly since worms in soil are counted as a good thing in organic gardening.  Trick is you can't feed the worms fresh manure without a certain holding period before harvest in organic soil gardening.  But if you are using worm teas and worm castings out of worm bins you would need to adhere to the withholding periods between feeding before use of the castings (like Growing Power's 4 months from filling a worm bin before the contents get sifted and used.)

 

I suppose the biggest question with the aquaponics systems have to do with pathogen survival in an aquatic environment as opposed to the soil growing environment.

 

I know ammonia will kill e. coli but probably not at the concentrations we see in an aquaponics system or the fish would be at risk too.  If you seal up a bottle of urine that is spiked with fecal coliforms and let it sit till the urea converts into ammonia, it will kill the coliforms.  If you spike fresh urine with fecal coliforms and test it while still relatively fresh it will test positive while the aged sample will test negative since the ammonia content has risen high enough to kill them.  This is knowledge I gained after reading about liquid gold and doing some testing myself before I ran a "pee ponics" system for a while.  I know not all that scientific but I was able to manage it with the tools I had at the time.  Anyway, based on that knowledge I suppose I might be able to run some tests to see if .25 ppm of ammonia has any effect on e. coli as compared to say 0 ppm, I'm not willing to let the ammonia levels go higher than that in my systems though as it would be hard on the fish.

 Hi Gina

The problem as I see it stems from the GAP( good agriculture practices) guidelines set by USDA AMS . In the GAP guidelines it does not differentiate, the difference between livestock and aquatic animals. GAP is a voluntary program, but a lot of markets require GAP. Aquaponics cannot pass a GAP certification, the GAP is all done by 3rd party auditors just like organic certification. So in other words the 2 programs are in conflict with each other Aquaponics can be organically certified  (7CFR 207.1))because it does not include Aquatic animals in the definition of livestock; but it cannot be GAP (USDA AMS) certified. One thing else I should mention Organic certification is covered by the Code of Federal Regulations which have the same weight as law and was open to public discussion before implementation GAP was not. Every 3rd party food safety audit I have incountered follow the GAP Guidelines.

Gina Cavaliero said:

Hi Teresa, thanks for getting Bob's opinion.  That is exactly concurrent with the circumstances surrounding Friendly's food safety certification.  They had the certification for their DWC system, obviously without worms, from the state of Hawaii. However when Costco insisted that a "third party" auditor, the state, was not allowed, they had Primus come in and test for the certification.  Just like Bob stated, The problem arises in the guidelines regarding animal wastes (in this case, worm castings and fish effluent) with regard to crop production, and proximity of said animal waste to the crop production.  This was the reason they were then denied their previously granted certification.  How the state of Hawaii as an independent third party allowed the cert in the first place, I don't know.  I would assume someone with enough sense to make the connection between fish being cold blooded and not warm blooded understood that the same rules that apply to traditional ag and growing methods would not apply in an Aquaponic system.  Unfortunately the auditors for Primus translate the letter of that law, so to speak, as literally as it is spelled out and have no flexibility on it whatsoever.  That only leaves us one alternative, IMO, the rules governing food safety certification need to change to encompass alternative growing methods.  So, what that means is back to the discussion that has occured here and several times on this forum, we need peer reviewed documents in order to present facts in order to enact this change.  It is all a big uphill challenge, but I trust that eventually our industry will make progress in that direction.   It will all take time, but the growth in our industry will be paramount to us seeing that change.  Have to throw in a plug here, we need everyone to join the new Aquaponics Association, so that those numbers can amount to a voice that will be heard!  :)

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