Connor Leone: How ECOLIFE Uses the Science of Aquaponics

| August 12, 2021 | 0 Comments

We know our planet has serious problems with climate change, habitat loss, species extinction, the inefficiency of global food systems that casts doubt on our ability to feed a growing world population, and challenges with obtaining enough water to meet the planet’s needs.  Based in Escondido, ECOLIFE Conservation is a non-profit organization with a mission to “protect wildlife, natural resources, and the people who depend on them.”  In January, Bill Toone, founder of ECOLIFE with his wife Sunni, spoke to us about the shrinking over-wintering habitat of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.  In May, Connor Leone, the Sustainable Agriculture Program manager from ECOLIFE, spoke to us about the dire situation we face about the dangers of the monarchs’ diminishing habitat and some ways of combating it.

Leone began by reiterating some of what we had learned from Bill in January.  However, he stressed the ultimate damage produced by burning wood for heat and cooking.  In Uganda, Mexico, and across the world, wood is typically burned on an inefficient cookstove which consists of an open fire built between two large stones on top of which rests the cooking pot or pan.  These stoves allow soot from the fire to float freely inside the dwelling coating not just its walls and ceiling, but also the lungs and respiratory systems of its inhabitants.  Since women and children spend more time cooking indoors, they disproportionately suffer from life-threatening respiratory problems and severe burns.  Smoke inhalation from open fires is the primary cause world-wide of death to children under the age of five.  ECOLIFE runs two programs aimed at reducing this damage:  in Uganda and in Mexico they build and distribute efficient stoves that use sixty percent less fuelwood than the open fire cookstoves and which have chimneys that allow as much as ninety percent of the soot and particulate matter to escape into the outdoors.

In Mexico, approximately 25 percent of families use wood as fuel.  When three billion people use wood this way, deforestation occurs resulting in loss of habitat for wildlife and its eventual extinction.  The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve Michoacán is where butterflies overwinter after traveling from northeast America.  Thousands and thousands of butterflies collect in trees, relying on their own mass and the trees to maintain a temperature at which they can survive.  These butterflies, having traveled thousands of miles, will revive in the spring to lay eggs.  Their progeny will then begin the trek north; however, it will require four generations of butterflies to make the journey their parents made in one.  No one can explain this.  The trees provide a winter haven safe from temperature extremes for these exhausted butterflies.  Trees also reduce pollution for the other living creatures including humans, by using carbon dioxide which they convert to oxygen.  The stoves save both habitat and lives.

Connor went on to discuss what is happening in most of the world as it relates to agriculture.  For thousands of years, a farmer only needed a bit of earth, water, and a seed.  Today we are running out of land and water.  As our population continues to grow world-wide, we will need to produce twice as much food in 2050 as we produce today to feed everyone.  Right now, commercial agriculture uses thirty-four percent of the planet’s land.  Deforestation provides more land for growing food and provides housing, but that amount of land is finite.  Creating more farmlands destroys habitat which leads to the extinction of wildlife; we deplete natural resources, and we pollute our water with both pesticides and fertilizer.  We rid our produce of pests with pesticides while simultaneously also poisoning beneficial insects which help propagate our produce.  These pesticides and chemical fertilizers saturate our soils and run into our water supplies, polluting our water.  Commercial agriculture uses seventy percent of the world’s water.  Clearing land for agriculture is the primary cause of habitat loss.  In addition, agriculture is responsible for twenty-five percent of all greenhouse gases.

Leone’s passion is creating sustainable food systems.  ECOLIFE has been working to create sustainable solutions to increase our food production without further harming our planet.  Leone knows there must be many possible solutions, but one with which he works daily is using water and fish in lieu of soil.  One solution towards a more sustainable agriculture system is hydroponics – growing plants in nutrient-rich water.  To provide hydroponically grown plants with the nutrients they need, the farmer dissolves fertilizers, creating a soluble blend to pour onto his plants and into their water for the plants to absorb. 

More efficient than hydroponic farming is aquaponic farming.  Aquaponics also uses water; some seeds do start in a tiny amount of medium; most begin in water. With aquaponics, Leone says, “Fish do the farming.”   Fish are raised in a tank of water which flows through filters to remove solid matter.  The remaining water is converted to fertilizer by bacteria before being circulated into the tank where the plants are suspended from frames with their roots hanging into the water, thus using far less space.  Plants do not get rootbound; each plant gets exactly the same nutrients.  In addition, light can be controlled artificially at minimal cost. This method can use use ninety percent less water and land than traditional in-ground growing. In California, this is important as eighty percent of California’s water is imported from elsewhere.  Unlike traditional farming, aquaponics loses very little water to evaporation.  The water travels through a closed system.  Soil based pests are non-existent.  Few pests disturb these plants which grow to harvest in twenty-five percent faster than those grown with traditional growing methods.

This system does need supervision.  Pumps keep the water moving.  Bacteria convert the fish waste from ammonia to nitrite and from nitrite to nitrate which provides the plants with nitrogen.  The water must be tested for the proper balance of acid to alkali and the amount of oxygenation that may be needed.  Only equatorial fish need heaters saving another possible cost.  Humans do feed the fish and monitor the systems.

ECOLITE also made the ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Kit for small-scale use in the home, office, or classroom. They have also donated more than 750 kits to classrooms all over the county.  Their goal is to incorporate conservation science into the curriculum as well as to educate the public to the possibility of producing their own fruits and vegetables.  With neighborhood gardens or gardens for apartment complexes, even the poor could grow food.  Leone even pointed out that the fish grown in the tanks can be edible:  tilapia and catfish can supply food for plants and be protein for humans.  Goldfish and koi could be grown and possibly sold for a profit! 

Helix Charter High School, one of the schools using this program, has been replacing native flora that disappeared with the introduction of invasive species.  They call it Habitat Restoration and have been working on Shepherd Canyon where their use of aquaponics allows the California primrose to thrive.

In Escondido the Aquaponics Innovation Center (AIC) works constantly on new ways to adapt and use these systems.  Not only do they provide leafy greens such as chard, kale, bok choy, lettuce, and herbs; but they expect to produce more than a thousand pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers this summer.  Monthly in-person tours should be available soon; excess produce may be given to visitors. 

The website is, and you may get additional information at 760.740.1346.  They are located at 101 N. Broadway. Escondido 92025.  This is also a source of kits for home or school use.

There will be no meeting in August, but you may join the Mission Hills Garden Club by going to the website at

ECOLIFE has been working to create sustainable solutions to increase food production without further harming our planet.

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Category: Education, Food, Gardening, Life Style, Local News, Nonprofit, Sustainability

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