Vegetable intercropping in a small-scale aquaponic system

A new paper reports the results of the first study of an aquaponic system for Pangasianodon hypophthalmus production that uses Lactuca sativa L. (lettuce) and Cichorium intybus L. rubifolium group (red chicory) intercropping in the hydroponic section.

The experiment was conducted in a greenhouse at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Wädenswil, Switzerland, using nine small-scale aquaponic systems (each approximately 400 L), with the nutrient film technique (NFT).

The intercropping of vegetables did not influence the water temperature, pH, electric conductivity (EC), oxidation–reduction potential, nor O2 content. Intercropping with red chicory increased the lettuce sugar content (+16.0% and +25.3% for glucose and fructose, respectively) and reduced the lettuce caffeic acid content (−16.8%).

In regards to bitter taste compounds (sesquiterpene lactones), intercropping reduced the concentrations of dihydro-lactucopicrin + lactucopicrin (−42.0%) in lettuce, and dihydro-lactucopicrin + lactucopicrin (−22.0%) and 8-deoxy–lactucin + dihydro-lactucopicrin oxalate (−18.7%) in red chicory, whereas dihydro-lactucin content increased (+40.6%) in red chicory in regards to monoculture.

A significantly higher organic nitrogen content was found in the lettuce (3.9%) than in the red chicory biomass (3.4%), following the intercropping treatment. Anion and cation contents in vegetables were affected by species (Cl, NO3, PO43−, SO42−, and Ca2+), intercropping (K+ and Mg2+), and species × intercropping interactions (NO2 and NH4+).

Experimental treatments (monoculture vs intercropping and distance from NFT inlet) did not exert significant effects on leaf SPAD (index of relative chlorophyll content) values, whereas the red coloration of the plants increased from the inlet to the outlet of the NFT channel. Intercropping of lettuce and red chicory affected the typical taste of these vegetables by increasing the sweetness of lettuce and changing the ratio among bitter taste compounds in red chicory.

These results suggest intercropping as a possible solution for improving vegetable quality in aquaponics. Although the results are interesting, they have been obtained in a relatively short period, thus investigations for longer periods are necessary to confirm these findings. Further studies are also needed to corroborate the positive effect of the presence of red chicory in the system on fish production parameters.

Access the full study at Agronomy

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