Mission Statement

1. The Three Evils.

PEI seeks to address three evils: world hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation. These problems have been extensively documented and following are a few well-known facts. While some progress has been made on the problem of world hunger in the last fifty years, it still remains staggering and disheartening (especially given that we have the technical expertise to solve this problem). There are 840 million malnourished people on our planet and more than 153 million of them are under the age of five.[1]Estimates concerning death from malnutrition range from about 9 million to 60 million per year. Illiteracy continues to be a major problem. There are approximately 1 billion people who cannot read or write, and this number will increase due to the fact that only 1 in 4 children in third world countries receives any schooling.[2]  Damage to the environment is undeniable from toxic, nuclear and chemical spills and the extinction of numerous species to the deforestation of the Amazon. Most experts now agree that if we do not change our behavior, there is a good chance that we will cause (or have already caused) global damage to the environment.

There is much controversy concerning the extent of these problems. As mentioned, there are different estimates of the number of malnourished people who die from hunger. The extent of the illiteracy problem is also fraught with difficulties in assessment, and the question of the effect of human activities on the environment is particularly prone to controversy. It is PEI’s view that these problems are serious, but it takes no position on the exact extent of these problems. Rather, we believe that humanity has the knowledge and technology to solve these problems, so the fact that these problems exist to any degree is a sufficient call to action.

2. The Interdependence of the Three Evils

There is a growing realization that these problems cannot be solved in isolation. Tackling illiteracy, for example, cannot be done without addressing world hunger. Clearly, starving or malnourished children will have a difficult, if not impossible, time concentrating on their studies. This is a lesson that has not been lost on educators in the US. Some academic problems experienced by poverty stricken American children have been traced to a lack of adequate food: school performance increased when children were fed a good breakfast at school.[3] Without a doubt, the question of the environment and world hunger are interdependent issues. If the “factory style” of farm production typical of industrialized nations were increased, this could potentially reduce world hunger. The problem is that it would speed up the degradation of the environment. The huge environmental cost imposed by industrialized agriculture is well documented. These farming techniques rely on fossil fuel, polluting farm machinery, the use of environmentally unfriendly pesticides and fertilizers, and a polluting transportation and distribution network. Attempts to address environmental concerns, like the Kyoto Accord, may actually contribute to world hunger, at least in the short-term. The price of operating Kyoto-compliant farm equipment will increase the price of farm produce, thus reducing the number of people who can afford adequate nutrition. This is not to condemn the Kyoto Accord, for in the long-term, not adopting environmental policies could drastically increase environmental problems, and ultimately, perhaps reduce food production. Without a doubt, an ideal solution would be one that addresses all three problems at once, rather than attempting to solve one at the expense of the others.

3. A Ideal Solution

An ideal solution would also be one that offers permanent relief from these evils. In terms of relieving hunger, it is clear that present industrialized farming practices are inappropriate, as many of them run energy deficits. The US farm system, for example, uses approximately 9 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food.[4] The point here is not so much that this system runs an energy deficit, but that the deficit is mainly supplied by a very limited resource; namely, fossil fuels. An ideal solution would look to renewable energy sources and perhaps more energy-efficient farming systems. This is precisely what the “Modular Aquaponics System” (MAS) offers. The intensive and integrated aquaponic system will provide an extremely energy efficient system utilizing the natural balance between animals, plants and bacteria found in nature. The energy requirements to run a MAS unit are extremely low. (On a continuous basis, approximately 50 watts per person). This minimal energy requirement can easily be supplied by solar cells and other renewable forms of energy.

4. The MAS Answer to the Three Evils

MAS attempts to solve the three evils simultaneously. As noted, the single energy input will be solar power, alleviating the need for any fossil fuels. Each module will use a small water pump that will obtain its energy from solar-charged batteries. The MAS units will work as reasonable approximations of a closed system, i.e., they will require little in the way of external inputs other than the energy supplied to the plants by the sun. So, in effect, the MAS units are self-contained ecosystems that leave a negligible impact on the environment. The high productivity of the units means that much land that is now under cultivation could eventually be returned to its natural state.

When sufficient numbers of these units are in place, hunger will be eliminated, since each unit will produce an assortment of animals, fruits and vegetables to supply the complete nutritional needs of its owners. MAS units can be set up almost anywhere in the world where there is a reasonable amount of sunlight. Unlike traditional farming techniques, food production will no longer be dependent upon the availability of arable land and a source of water for irrigation. Hydroponic agriculture means that no soil is used in food production. Instead, beds of crushed gravel are used and the water required is a small fraction of that needed for traditional irrigation. This means that the composition of the local soil is entirely irrelevant: so long as there is sufficient sunlight, a MAS unit will work fine even in places entirely devoid of soil, e.g., a rocky outcrop on the side of a mountain.

The problem of illiteracy will be tackled by supplying portable Internet browsers. An interesting pilot study in India demonstrated the power of computers to promote literacy. An IT company cut a hole in the wall that separates their headquarters from the slum street on the other side. The street, which is used as an open toilet, is home to adults and children who struggle under oppressive poverty.  The experiment consisted of an Internet-connected computer that was placed in the cutout such that those on the street could access it.  With no prompting or education, children learned within a few days how to surf the Internet.[5]  These preliminary results are encouraging, and in all likelihood, the efficiency of computers for overcoming illiteracy would only be further enhanced with educational software developed in the style of the local culture. PEI will seek to further such research.

It might be wondered why PEI promotes the construction of small units rather than larger “factory” sized units. The reasons are several. First, the units are modular, which means that families or communities can, if they so choose, link the units together. Thus it should be possible for individuals to single-handedly maintain 10 to 20 interlocked units.[6] This means that not all efficiencies of scale would have to be sacrificed. Second, the small size of modules means that they can be located in small areas like city backyards, rather than located only where there are large tracts of land available. Third, the modular size means that families and individuals need not be dependent on any centralized system of distribution.  Fourth, distributed food production is important for reducing the environmental cost of establishing a transportation and distribution network. Fifth, distributed food production means greater safety when facing devastating environmental catastrophes, e.g., if food production is centralized, then it is possible for a hurricane to wipe out the food supply of an entire region. A distributed network provides a better chance for at least some units to survive the disaster. Sixth, a distributed network provides greater safety in times of political upheaval. Clearly, if food production is centralized, then it is easier for evil political leaders to control the population by the threat of starvation. Finally, it might be feasible to construct large scale “food factories” along these lines, and indeed some are already in production [7], however, these are typically commercial facilities, and as such, would not be directly supported by PEI.

5. The Down Side

The most obvious objection to this project is that it is utopian. Specifically, it begs the question: “If this idea is so good, why has it not been tried before?” The short answer is that this solution has only recently become viable, primarily because of technological advancements and admittedly, we are not over the hump yet. The two major problems that need to be considered are the capital costs and dissemination of knowledge.

5.1 Capital Cost

Historically, the capital cost of setting up a single MAS unit is high. For example, if one paid retail prices and bought everything “off the shelf”, the major components of the system would cost $37,250 (all prices are in USD). (Aquaponic system, $22,950, Laptop computer $1500, Green House $4000, and solar power/battery system $8800).  This cost is obviously prohibitive. And as is perhaps apparent, the figures are not on the extravagant side, e.g., $1500 certainly does not buy a top-of-the-line laptop computer, nor does $4000 buy one of the more expensive greenhouses. One of the goals of PEI is to lower this cost by developing a prototype module for $3,000. At this price, $18 million a day (or approximately 7 billion a year)  in donations and foreign aid would be necessary to buy sufficient greenhouses to put an end to death by starvation (assuming the lower estimates of 24,000 people starving to death every day). Eventually, the hope is to lower the price from the thousands to the hundreds-of-dollars range. We believe this can be achieved through a number of factors, including the following:

*     Quantity buying

*     Better design

*     Falling price of computers and solar cells

5.2 Scarcity of Knowledge

Another major problem facing MAS is that it requires introducing recipients to new knowledge and a new skill set. Aquaculture and hydroponics are relatively new farming techniques that only partly apply to the skills associated with traditional farming and husbandry practices. As indicated above, PEI plans to distribute knowledge via the Internet. This will involve building a “user friendly” knowledge base to permit just about anyone to operate a MAS unit successfully. Questions about how to build or repair a MAS unit will be readily accessible, as well as information on plant and animal husbandry.

6. Prototype For Standard Greenhouse and Aquaponics Module

The purpose of this section is to outline the design and major components of the prototype greenhouse and aquaponic component of a MAS unit. The main criteria for design are:

  • ·        Replicable

  • ·        Easy assembled

  • ·        Easily repaired

  • ·        Inexpensive

To be replicable means that the design can be easily replicated anywhere in the world. Easy assembly and repair in the design will facilitate construction and maintenance by un-specialized labor. The number of units that can be deployed at any given time will be price sensitive, so it will be essential to attempt to keep the cost of the greenhouses as low as possible. Below are some specification recommendations on the construction of a MAS unit. These recommendations are preliminary and subject to modification upon further research.

6.1 Green House

The basic construction of the greenhouse will be PVC pipe frame covered with greenhouse plastic to make a structure 24ft x 20ft and 12ft high.  (To get some idea how this would look see: www.pvcplans.com-ArchGrnHouse.pdf ). Standard PVC pipe and fittings are inexpensive and easy to work with, meaning that a low-cost and easily assembled frame can be constructed using these materials. Durable greenhouse film is place over the frame. The PVC frame should have a life expectancy of 25 years or more. Typically, greenhouse film has to be replaced every five to ten years.

6.2 Aquaculture

Each module will contain a 1000 gallon vat for raising Tilapia. Tilapia are the fish of choice because they are extremely hardy, prolific, and fast growing–and very tasty! A system of shallow vats with a volume of about 1500 gallons will be used to grow duckweed and freshwater prawn. Duckweed is a very prolific floating aquatic plant that serves both to feed the fish and to filter their liquid waste from the water. The freshwater prawn will feed primarily on the solid waste from the Tilapia.

6.3 Hydroponics

A number of fast growing fruits and vegetables will be grown in the hydroponic portion of a MAS unit. The primary growing area is six hydroponic beds:  4′ x 8′ x 1′ boxes, raised 4 feet above the floor. The beds are filled with pea-size gravel that serves as an anchoring source for the plants.

6.4 System Description

 MAS units are “closed systems” meaning that water is continually re-circulated and therefore there is little need for new water and there is no waste water.  (In contrast, open systems rely on a constant source of new water to flow through the system and produce vast amounts of waste water). To get some idea of how the system operates, it will help to trace the route that the re-circulated water takes. All water in the system eventually drains to a sump where it is sprayed via a small electrical water pump into the 1000 gallon Tilapia vat. The spraying action helps maintain the high level of dissolved oxygen important for the health of the Tilapia. Water drains from the Tilapia vat into a 1000 gallon “surge tank”. The surge tank fills until it reaches a certain height in the tank whereupon a siphon is created which rapidly drains out 500 gallons before the siphon stops. The surge tank then slowly refills and the process is repeated. The 500 gallons of water from the surge is dispersed on six hydroponic beds via a system of PVC pipes. The water from the surge tank is loaded with nutrients from the Tilapia waste; this provides a food source for the fruits and vegetables growing in the hydroponic beds. By absorbing fish waste, the plant life in the hydroponic beds partially filters the water. The purification process is completed when water drains from the hydroponic beds into shallow vats of duckweed and prawn. From the plant and prawn tanks, water drains into the sump to start the whole cycle over again.

Fish will be fed a diet consisting mainly of duckweed grown in the system and earthworms used to compost inedible plant material.

6.5 Pumps and Solar Charged Batteries

The system is designed to require very little in the way of electricity, requiring only a 120 watt water pump. Energy will come from a system of solar cell charged batteries. The battery system will be designed to supply 4 to 5 days of power at full consumption, or up to 10 days with reduced power consumption to survive long cloudy periods. PEI will also examine the viability of employing windmills as an adjunct to the solar collectors as a means to survive cloudy periods.  In the event of extremely long periods with no sunlight, the MAS system could limp along on human power. An average human can generate approximately 50- 75 watts for extended periods of time [7] so in an emergency, one or two humans could supply all the energy through the use of hand water pumps. In fact, the system could survive for weeks at a time on perhaps as little as 20 watts, if the fish are fed a fraction of their usual diet. (The more the fish are fed the more their water needs to be cleaned, which in turn requires greater water circulation and energy input into the water pump).

6.4 Anticipated food production

A typical MAS unit should produce somewhere in the order of 500 lbs of Tilapia, 100 lbs of prawn and 5000 to 20,000 lbs of fruits and vegetables.  [9] The animal protein component could perhaps be supplemented with poultry egg production: chickens can be fed a diet similar to the Tilapia. One of the ongoing projects of PEI will be to use nutritional and growth information to discover optimal types and ratios of vegetables and fruits for the hydroponic units. This information will need to be sensitive to the local climate and customs.

  7. Implementation Strategy

In general terms, MAS will be implemented in four stages. The first stage will be the construction of a prototype. Diagrams, pictures and instructions will be published on the Internet. The second stage will involve replication of the success of the prototype. Here the aim will be to see whether the results published from the prototype can be replicated. This will involve organizing volunteers from different countries to construct their own MAS units. The third stage will be to implement a pilot project in a third world country. The fourth stage is the construction and installation of as many MAS units as funding permits.

8. Marketing Strategy

The main means to promote the MAS concept will be to construct demonstration units to show in a concrete way the viability of the idea. PEI will build its own prototype unit and display its construction and operation on the Internet. Schools and universities will be encouraged to create MAS units as student projects in the hope that such projects will contribute to research and fundraising. Donations will be solicited from individuals, corporations and governments.

[1] State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/x8200e/x8200e00.htm

[3] http://www.hungernys.org/programs/nutrition/schoolbreakfast.html

[4] http://telstar.ote.cmu.edu/environ/m3/s3/index.shtml

[6] This estimate is based on the labor report by the Freshwater Institute.

[7] http://www.townsqr.com/snsaqua/page2.htm

[8] http://www.thinkcycle.org/tc-filesystem/download/human_power_generation/pedal_power_generation/Upp.txt?version_id=8747

[9] There is a large range of ratios of plant to animal production ratios. A ratio of 7 to 10 lbs of plant to Tilapia production is reported by the Freshwater Institute .. S & S farm report plant production in the order of 40 to 1. Obviously a number of factors will affect yields and ratios including the type of system employed and the type of plants grown.