On a 400-acre farm in Anderson County, goldfish roil a huge water tank. The water, thick with nutrient-dense fish droppings, is pumped through rows of PVC pipes where thousands of heads of lettuce poke out from holes drilled in the plastic. Tangled white roots sway in the water, drinking nitrogen as the plants grow. The farmers in white jumpsuits tending these systems are incarcerated residents of the Michael Unit, one of the largest maximum-security prisons in Texas.
Three years ago, when the prison’s aquaponics farm started, residents rarely ate fresh greens. Now they could eventually grow enough vegetables to feed all 3,800 residents. Despite their many constraints and for most of them a lack of formal education, these residents are pioneering one of the best models we have for feeding ourselves efficiently and sustainably in the future.
With the global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the need to grow food efficiently and sustainably is more important than ever. As a writer with a background in environmental science, I have reported and seen up close how traditional agriculture uses our finite land and water resources inefficiently: upwards of 70 percent of freshwater and more than half of arable land are used to grow food. Soil depletion, pesticide use and fertilizer run-off into waterways create far-reaching negative environmental effects. Environmentalists know that improving the way we grow food is not only smart, it’s necessary.